IT was a play that will be remembered and talked about for years by the thousands of fans crowded around North Vancouver's Zuehlke Park on the evening of Aug. 12 for an all-B.C. semifinal in the Canadian Little League Championships.
It was the bottom of the sixth and final inning with Mount Seymour's Marshall Hogan at bat, teammates Stefan Biro on second and Cameron Filippone on first. Seymour, the host team, trailed Langley, the B.C. champs, 2-0. The pitch came in from Langley reliever Yi Fan Pan and Hogan ripped a long fly to centre. With the centrefielder giving chase, Biro and Filippone waited near their bases to see if it would drop to the grass. It did, first sailing over the fielder and then bouncing to the wall as the race for home began.
Biro, one of the smallest players on the field, rounded third and headed for home with Filippone, one of the biggest, right on his tail. Seymour head coach Pete Matthews, who acted as the third base coach on the play, said afterward he tried to get Filippone to stop at third but the runner kept on chugging towards the plate. Filippone would later say he thought his coach was waving him in - tough to tell, he said, because he was so close to the runner in front of him.
Biro arrived at the plate almost at the same time as the ball, sliding awkwardly to make the score 2-1 and hurting himself in the process. With Biro lying beside the plate and the catcher now in possession of the ball, Filippone raced down the line, dipping his shoulder into the catcher's glove before stumbling into an awkward slide and falling down injured on home plate, seemingly scoring the game-tying run as the ball rolled free from the catcher's mitt.
With Hogan now standing on third base it appeared as though he was, with only one out, one base away from scoring the winning run and sending Seymour to the final. But the umpires talked it over, talked it over some more, called down the district's umpire in chief Roger Shaw and then talked about it some more. Biro and Filippone limped off the field while Seymour's coaches asked the umpires to make sure they got it right. Then the home plate umpire pumped his clenched fist once, indicating that Filippone was out.
Little League rules state that a player must either slide or avoid the catcher on a play at the plate. Filippone, the umpire ruled, did neither.
Now there were two out and Seymour still trailed by one. Triston Matthews
battled through a tense at bat before smacking a grounder to short for the game's final out.
As Langley celebrated their win - they would go on to whip Quebec 11-0 in the championship final Saturday to earn a trip to the Little League World Series - Seymour fans, friends and players gathered to celebrate their team's accomplishment while also asking the question, what just happened?
"They ruled he didn't avoid," said Matthews. "Cam said he slid. But he might have slid late. Then it becomes an interpretation thing and that's what baseball is about. You have umpires on the field and they make the call. We just did our best to make sure they got the right call."
Filippone, roughed up physically and emotionally after the game, said he thought the catcher was too far up the line, making it impossible for him to slide or avoid.
"I saw my coach telling me to go and I kept running and tried my best to get home safe," said Filippone, who ended the tournament as Seymour's top hitter with a .467 average to go along with four runs batted in and four steals.
While there were tears on the Seymour side there was no ranting or raving about the call.
"The kids tried so hard, they really brought everything they had today," said Matthews. "We're so proud of the kids. Typically a host team is not a strong team. They're there for courtesy purposes. . . . These kids proved to everybody here how good they really are. The game could have gone either way and we could have been facing Quebec tomorrow to go to Williamsport. That was our goal, we were trying to get there and we gave it all we had. We just fell a little short - about a foot short."
Lost in the drama of the sixth inning was an amazing pitcher's duel through the first five, with Yi An Pan - Yi Fan's twin brother - and Seymour's Cole Ensign matching each other out for out with great defences backing them up. In the fourth inning Langley's Nick Atkinson robbed Hogan of a home run, reaching over the fence to snag the ball.
Ensign ended the day with five and a third innings pitched giving up one run, one hit and three walks while striking out six.
As Ensign neared his maximum pitch count in the top of the sixth, Matthews replaced him with Filippone on the mound to face Yi Fan Pan. The move backfired as Pan belted a two-run homer to score the game's winning runs.
"(Cole) was brilliant. He was bang on," said Matthews. "He pitched solid the whole night through. I'm sure he's going to go home and say, 'Why did coach pull me,' but that's just what happens sometimes. . . . I brought someone in with a different look and a fresher arm. Unfortunately one bad pitch - they're good, they hit it."
After the game Ensign didn't question his coach.
"It's his choice - I only had about seven pitches left (before reaching the maximum)," he said. "That's probably the most intense game I've been in. . . . It could have gone either way. But not everything goes your way."
Ensign said his experience at the tournament was "phenomenal" despite the tough loss at the end. "It was a really great season," he said. "It's just such a great memory."
Langley head coach Jason Andrew said the umps got the call at the plate right - "what a crazy play," he said - but added that Seymour certainly gave them a scare.
"They showed great - they had us," he said. "I couldn't be more happy for our guys but I couldn't be more happy for Seymour too. If you're going to lose, you want to lose a game like that. That's (a game) that's going to be talked about for a long time. Two pitchers just absolutely giving it everything they had, they battled, they hit their spots, there were no walks. Fantastic game."
Seymour's coach Matthews agreed. "To have a battle of B.C. that was a true battle is just great for everybody involved," he said as Biro limped by with tears in his eyes. Matthews asked him if he was sad or he was hurt. "A little bit of both," was the reply.
The kids, an all-star team of players age 11-13 from the teams in Mount Seymour Little League, will get over the loss but they will always remember their teammates, said Matthews.
"When you start with a group of kids who don't get to hang together a lot you really focus on trying to make them a team," he said. "We had four coaches who were very aware of that and we worked so hard from the very beginning just to bring those kids together. If you watch them now they all hang together, they cry together, they laugh together. We know we created a team and that's probably the biggest reward for us."