James Baldwin responded to one of the toughest losses of his coaching career by doing what came naturally, hugging each of his players.
Baldwin, in his eighth season leading the Catalina Foothills High School baseball team, watched his cadre of fresh-faced ballplayers rage through the state this spring.
The Falcons, behind an egalitarian mixture of timely hitting and clutch pitching, raced through the Division 4A playoffs—setting up a matchup with region rival Nogales in Monday’s championship round.
His squad gutted it out on a cool Tucson evening in the cavernous enclave of Hi Corbett Field—trading punches with the mighty Apaches through the night.
They didn’t wince when the top-seeded Apaches took a 3-1 lead in the game’s third inning, staying poised in the face of adversity.
They punched their way off the ropes in the game’s fifth inning, when leadoff man Chris Kowalcek belted a belt-high fastball into left field for an RBI single.
Kowalcek’s hit got the Falcons within a run, though that’s as close as the second-seed would get—falling 3-2 in front of a raucous crowd of Apache and Falcon fanatics.
For Baldwin, the natural way to try to heal a fresh wound was to embrace his players, letting them know how proud he and his coaching staff were of their efforts.
“It's painful, it's very painful,” he said. “You know, it doesn't come around when you get a team that has a team concept and they're playing. They're best friends and the coaching staff and the parents, it doesn't happen often. It just doesn’t.”
Baldwin was proud of the way his team stuck together on a night when little went their way at the plate, scratching across five hits off Nogales starter Mark Lopez.
For Baldwin, his team’s ability to rebound from a disappointing 12-14 season a year ago and go 25-8 in a brutal 4A Kino region is something he’ll remember.
He wanted his players to know how much he appreciated their effort on the sport’s biggest stage, and how much their time together meant to both he and his staff.
“High school baseball is such a struggle, trying to get everybody on the same page, and this team had it,” he said. “You know, one run, so what? I'm so proud of these young men.”
It’s that team-first attitude that stands out for Kowalcek, who had two hits and two RBIs for the Falcons on Monday.
The senior leadoff hitter fought back tears as he praised his teammates for battling the Apaches, and for playing their role in a season to remember.
“We kind of just came out and competed,” Kowalcek said. “We had all the energy that we needed. We just couldn't put the hits together, couldn't string them together. But hopefully in the future, as long as our program keeps up this energy and keeps the pride going, then hopefully in the future they’ll be able to win state for us.”
Fellow senior Cole Altherr, who threw four innings of three-run ball for the Falcons on Monday, made sure to thank Baldwin and his staff for their role in getting the team to the finals.
For Altherr, the staff’s dedication to their players and to building strong bonds within the program is the key to unlocking their upmost potential.
“This coaching staff is like family to us, so they're everything to us,” Altherr said. “We're always with them, every day. Even the off season we're hanging out with them, always practicing with them. It's really emotional just to see us part ways.”
Band of brothers
Baldwin and his players hit a similar narrative on the way they’ll remember Monday’s one-run classic.
“I mean, it's emotional—I love every single one of these people and they'd do anything for me and I'd do anything for them,” Kowalcek said. “And even thinking back to that postgame huddle has got me all choked up. These are my brothers and I'd die for them.”
Baldwin believes the game of baseball is about more than the final line score, the wins and the losses.
To him, it’s about whether the game is molding a cast of teenagers into model adults, enjoying all the highs and lows that come in the interim.
He believes that character is forged in the fire of adversity and believes this year’s team will be better off because of their experience under the lights of Tucson’s oldest ballpark on a mid-May Monday evening.
“You know, these high school kids, what you want them to take out of it, I know it's one game but it's the bigger thing of life,” Baldwin said. “I hope 10, 15, 20 years from now, at class reunions they talk about this moment. That during the state playoffs, at Hi Corbett Field, the big stage in front of everybody, I hope they talk about those memories.”