It doesn't have to happen in the major leagues. We forget that sometimes. Greatness can unfold in Little League games with obnoxiously manicured turf, in pickup ball on drab sandlots that spit out dust devils, in remote villages that use goat fields because they have to or even, as it did Friday when a kid named Derrick Salberg made the best catch ever, in front of 643 people on a field with a 4-foot-tall outfield fence.
There was something utterly gorgeous about what Salberg did. Much of it indeed was the aesthetics of the catch. Baseball, a game of straight-line running, rarely offers situations in which the human form can put itself on display. When a fly ball rocketed toward Salberg in left field, he started to run, 10 desperate steps, until he reached the comically low fence at Lower Columbia College's home park in Longview, Wash. Then it happened: his legs springing and his right arm extending like he was Inspector Gadget, his hand squeezing the ball so improbably, his entire body clearing the fence, all 165 pounds of him crashing down with multiple Gs of force, head over heels, literally and figuratively, and in love with what just happened.
Because it wasn't just the fact that Salberg had made the best catch ever, something he couldn't realize until he saw the video of it and put a visual to how it felt. Nor was it that this catch came in the ninth inning with two outs and the tying run at the plate in a 4-2 game, clutch of clutch, robbing a kid named Keone Kela of his dream fulfilled.
No, it was about a coach, too, the one who has slaved away for 18 years in the relentless and often thankless world of coaching junior-college baseball.
His name is Kelly Smith, and the best catch ever saved his career.
He still mows the field. After all these years and all those championships, you'd think LCC might just spring for someone to keep the grass in decent shape. Nah. This is Kelly Smith's duty: to take care of 33 boys who love to play ball and maintain the grass on which they do it.
"I fertilize like a champion," Smith said. "Nobody fertilizes like I do. They're going to miss my fertilizing skill."
Smith, 55, is done after this season, he said, "because I could not care less. I mean that literally. … I'm just tired, man. This job will send you to your grave."
Which, when stripped of the chardonnays he was enjoying late Friday, means: A moment like what happened Friday is gravy, a bonus on top of a career that veered off the path many expected and morphed instead into something altogether different – and maybe better.
The great juco coach, the local legend, is an institution, and Smith fits the profile. He played three years in the San Francisco Giants' organization, stalled out at Triple-A in 1982 and went into coaching. He spent a few years at Portland State before returning home to Longview, where he'd grown up and played alongside his best friend, Bud Black. While Black ascended to manage the San Diego Padres, Smith stayed home, turned down overtures for an assistant job with an Oregon State program that eventually won two national championships.
Smith whet his appetite for higher-level ball by coaching in the Cape Cod League – Frank Thomas, J.T. Snow, other big leaguers. LCC fulfilled him and his family, trumping the magnetism of aspiration and affording him the opportunity to build a powerhouse. In his first 17 seasons, Smith won five Northwest Athletic Association of Community College championships and finished second seven times. He doesn't focus much on the wins. He prefers to call himself Bud Levy – "I'm Bud Grant and Marv Levy in one."
He wasn't sure about this team. He had some pitching with a 1.94 team ERA, but they needed luck, too, and couldn't afford for awful pitch calls like the one Smith relayed Friday with two outs in the ninth. Curveball, he signaled, and Brandon Boyle, his 5-foot-9 ace, hung it. Kela, the DH for Everett Community College, walloped it. He'd been drafted in the 29th round by the Seattle Mariners last year and went to Everett to improve his stock, and this would've been his first home run of the year. When he struck the ball, Smith broke a helmet and started to curse himself only to see Derrick Salberg reach out like the Statue of Liberty.
"We've been buried so many times this year," Smith said via telephone, "I feel like it's Easter and we just keep getting resurrected."
In the background was the buzz of a couple dozen friends at Smith's house, celebrating the night, the season, the career. Spinning tales and talking nonsense, 50-something guys doing the same thing they've done for decades. Most of them didn't do it like Bud Black. They chose home. They chose Friday nights at Smitty's, with beer and chardonnay, telling stories like about the time in middle school when Smith squared off against another top athlete in a 50-yard dash and beat him by a nose.
His name was Tim Salberg. He's Derrick's father.
Two years ago, Longview was awarded a wood-bat summer league team on one condition: mandatory upgrades to Story Field. The West Coast League organizers wanted a beer garden down the third-base line, and with that, LCC changed the dimensions of the outfield as well. No longer was it a perfect parabola. The leftfield fence would jut out and meet up with the beer garden – oh, and it would be only 4 feet tall.
The reasons behind this aren't fully clear. Perhaps it was the charm of having the anti-Green Monster. This is also a community college, and community colleges tend to be underfunded, and four-foot chain link is cheap enough that you may see it in your neighbor's yard. Either way, it is distinctive enough that players enjoy trying to jump over it, even if a snagged shoelace could mean a broken neck.
It also can mean an out, as Salberg proved Friday night. The logic of this is suspect. The ball did, after all, travel over the fence. But like Derek Jeter crashing into the third-base seats, what matters is not where the ball is caught, but if it's caught.
Salberg knew this. Everyone who plays for LCC knows this.
So in the ninth inning, with his coach's career in the balance, Salberg took off at the ping of the bat. He never looked. It's amazing. Derrick Salberg never took his eye off the ball, not for any of the 4.1 seconds it was in the air. He ran, and his head was tilted up, and he barreled down on this fence that's the height of an imp, and all that stood between him and a play that would land him on blooper reels across America were three magic words.
"Fence. Fence. Jump!"
In the bullpen, LCC's relief pitchers knew to cue the left fielder. Part of their field's charm is the tiny fence, over which they could jump and pretend to make game-saving catches. Few were better at it than Salberg, who played basketball in high school and comes with a decent set of ups.
"I can dunk," Salberg said. "I mean, with a girls' ball."
Salberg thought Kela had crushed a home run until the wind started to hold the ball. Maybe he had a chance. Maybe. He knew the relievers were going to shout the three magic words anyway, so he braced for it.
"I didn't know how close I was to the fence," Salberg said. "I didn't want to lose the ball. If they don't say nothing, I blow out a knee and look like an idiot.
"I didn't care if I hurt myself, broke a bone, nothing. I had to help my team out."
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When Salberg realized the ball stayed in his glove, he bounced off the ground, hopped back over the fence, threw off his hat, tossed the ball in the air to show everyone what he'd done, watched the umpire signal the out with two stern fist pumps and commenced the celebration. The highlights of the catch cut off as the festivities started, though Salberg described them as something like this: massive dogpile, him on bottom.
LCC would get another game for themselves and another for Smith, who pulled Salberg aside after the merriment dissipated and LCC went to shake Everett's hands.
"In my day," Smith said, "I made better plays."
Now comes the inevitability of comparisons and the weight of greatness. Derrick Salberg is 20. He grew up in Kelso, Wash., and chose to go to Longview, which is the next town over, across a bridge, which each of the towns refers to by a different name – in Kelso, it's the Peter Crawford Bridge, in Longview it's the Cowlitz Way Bridge – because they couldn't settle on a mutually acceptable one. He went to play a ballgame Friday, not do something nobody ever had seen.
Up until the game's final second, Salberg was lamenting his day. He'd gone 0-for-4 from the leadoff spot. His girlfriend had missed the game because she was working at the tanning salon. And then, just like that, people were asking him for autographs, shaking his hand, texting him, tweeting at him, wanting to know who he was and how some anonymous freshman at a juco in small-town Washington state had one-upped Willie Mays and Jim Edmonds and Gary Matthews Jr.
He couldn't go out and celebrate because LCC had its semifinal game at 4:30 p.m. Saturday and Smith would kill anyone who showed up hungover, so he watched SportsCenter in hopes he might see himself. On the 10 p.m. PT edition, nothing, so he turned it off and went dark until more texts came in. ESPN finally got the video, and Salberg's play was the easy No. 1.
"Omg I can't believe this is happening," he tweeted. "I can't stop shaking!!!"
At the same time, Smith and his friends were watching, waiting, hoping, and when it came on, the coach put his phone down to whoop it up with everyone else.
"Top 10! No. 1!" he said. "We made it to the major leagues!"
Kelly Smith had waited for a moment like this from Derrick Salberg. He's got talent, legitimate Division I talent, but he's still a twig, stretching those 165 pounds across 6 feet, and he doesn't quite yet understand the level of work it takes to go D-I, and the attitude Smith has come to expect hadn't shown itself in full force until what could've been the last game of his career.
"He sold his soul," Smith said. "That's what I love about this. All year long I've been on this kid, trying to tell him what he needs to do, how he can be a real player. All I wanted him to do was give everything. And he did. He sold it.
"This is something he gets to remember the rest of his life. This is something we're all going to remember for the rest of our lives."
If he's lucky, Salberg will learn to embrace the catch for what it is and do everything he can not to let it define him. Greatness, and its pursuit, can consume a person. Salberg never will make a catch like that again. Ever. No one will. And the comfort in knowing that – in recognizing that this moment is his to share with everyone – may well be enough.
For now, he's got another game – another start in left field, another few whacks at the top of the lineup, another day for Smith, who gets to take the tarp off the field and make sure the grass is suitable for play after the weather turned ugly Friday. He wouldn't ever let his field devolve, too. Eighteen years there have taught him that and so many more things, the foremost of which he'll miss the most.
No matter where the game, no matter who the player, put people on a baseball diamond and something great may happen.
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