A crowd of 8,019 showed up at Dodger Stadium Friday night - miniscule by MLB standards, but respectable for high school baseball. The event was the CIF Southern California Section Division 1 Championship between the elite Los Angeles powerhouse Harvard-Westlake Wolverines and Huntington Beach's Marina Vikings.
The Wolverines, ranked Number 1 in the country by Baseball America, took an early 1-0 lead and held off the Vikings to win by the same score. Much of this was thanks to Wolverine pitching phenom Jack Flaherty, the strapping six-foot-four junior starter who capped off his perfect 13-0 season record with a dominant six hitter highlighted by eight strike-outs. Flaherty also drove in his team's winning run with an RBI single in the third.
And yet most in attendance would agree that the hero of the night was a Wolverine replacement left fielder who spent less than ten minutes on the field. In fact, Jackson Grayson, a stocky, not-exactly-towering 10th grader, barely put cleats to grass all season. Like many former little league superstars, the Brentwood teenager swallowed a heaping dose of humble pie when he joined the Wolverine varsity squad this year. So stacked was his team that, despite a powerful bat and a thunderous arm, the kid spent almost every inning of every game this year in the same inglorious location - on the bench.
Friday night was to be no exception. "He's only coming in during the last inning and only if they're up by three runs," reported 14-year-old Coleman Johnson, a family friend who had apparently gotten the skinny from Grayson before the game.
But at the top of the 7th (the equivalent of the 9th in high school ball), the mere one run lead was enough of a cushion to convince Wolverine head coach Matt LaCour to give his backup outfielder a moment under the stadium lights. To the cheers of surprised family and friends, Grayson trotted out to left.
It was to become the half-inning of his young career. Pitcher Flaherty, still throwing mighty heat, soon found himself with only one out on the board and the tying run on second base. Which is when Viking shortstop Grant Mayeaux drilled a line-drive single to - wait for it - left field. Suddenly 8,019 people leapt to their feet, bracing in anticipation as the screaming ball headed on a collision course with the benchwarmer.
Despite an instantaneous burst of pressure equivalent to a nuclear bomb, Grayson flew into action. With what from the bleachers appeared to be casual flair, he charged forward, scooped the short hop and - poetry in motion - hurled a bullet to home plate. Catcher Arden Pabst barely had to lift his glove in order to nab the ball and tag the no-doubt-bewildered Viking runner, Tyler Mildenberg, who'd been given the go ahead by his no-doubt-bewildered third base coach. Poor Mildenberg never had a chance. Out.
For the several thousand Wolverine moms and dads in attendance, the moment was one of cathartic joy and vicarious pride. "It's what every parent hopes for," said an emotional mom sitting with her own two young little leaguers, one still in full uniform and cleats from a game across town only hours before. "We sit there in the stands year after year hoping it's going to pay off for our kid. Not with a major league contract or even a college scholarship, but for one moment of glory - a memory to hold onto."
After the third out, the requisite delirious victory dogpile, and an awards ceremony, Grayson flashed a squinty-eyed smile and offered up a Major League soundbyte to a reporter. "With a runner on second base, I knew that I had to come hard and throw it home. Arden made a great tag and blocked the plate very well." Mom and dad Grayson it seems raised not only an excellent ball player, but also a gracious one.
Afterwards, Grayson and his team celebrated at Casa Vega in Studio City, only a few blocks from the Harvard-Westlake campus. The soda was flowing liberally.