For the love of the game

For the love of the game
By Matthew Courtney

It was a chilly day in March, the day of Little League try-outs and our team was coming off a 2-18 last place finish. We were called the Lions, but unlike our namesake, there was no fear put in the hearts of our opponents. We had a long history of last place finishes.
My oldest son, J.W. joined the team the previous year with his best buddy, Preston. We were the bottom of the barrel at Federal Little League, but I knew we were going to have a good team this year. We were loaded with 12-year-olds. Our coach, in his 2nd year, was well respected by the boys and he knew the game. His first year as coach was a building year, but this year he had a cohesive group. We only had 3 draft picks, all the rest were returning players. One of those picks was locked in; my 9-year-old son Alex was an automatic pick as a sibling, so all we really needed was some good pitching. All of our boys were good ball players; they lacked just one thing - the confidence and habit of winning.
The only good thing associated with a last place finish is that we got the first pick at the draft this year. Rumor had it that a 10-year-old boy had moved to the area from Florida and could pitch. We were tickled by our good luck. We had no idea just how lucky we really were.
Our first game was larger than life, as the Lions played against the 1st place team from the year before - The Mighty Rotary team. A well-coached multi-year champion team, The Mighty Rotary had all the experience and returning talent to make a title run again. They didn't expect us to be much of a challenge, I mean even with a little hot shot Florida pitcher, they knew he was only 10, just how good could he be?
At the end of six innings, the unbelievable had happened. You guessed it - we won the game! We didn't just win, this young man, Christian Binford shut them out. I saw something that day. The sheer weight of this David and Goliath match-up had all our boys anxious, nervous, determined, and tight-lipped on the field, that is, all but one. I watched this new pitcher; he looked like a kid playing a new video game for the first time. Every pitch was well thought through. He was a thinker. He was deliberate; he was passionate and had the accuracy of a sharp shooter. At the end of the game I pulled him aside and gave him a nickname. Actually, I borrowed a nickname. I told him on this team he was "The Unit".
That year the Lions went on to finish a perfect 20-0 season. Christian had much to do with it, but it was a team effort. Christian was not a prima donna, he was very good, but never acted like he was better than any of the other pitchers.
Over the next two years we became close friends. I helped coach him and ended up calling pitches for him. Man, what a joy that was for an old catcher like me. He could hit any spot I would call for on or off the plate at will. Every week, it seemed like he would show up with a "new" pitch he was working on. I say "working on" with a little sarcasm, what he called "working on" would have been near perfection to anyone else. He was just that good.
Christian has faced some challenges, and adversity. His sophomore year he took a nasty fall after a high school basketball practice and badly broke his left arm. It wasn't his pitching arm but the surgery put him out of commission for quite a while. In his junior year he needed Tommy John surgery in his right arm. I thought he would lose something after all this - but his enthusiasm never faltered. He came back stronger than ever and led his private school to a State Championship his senior year.
Over the past nine years, I have watched him progress through Pony League, Colt League, Travel Ball, and High School Ball. I was with him at the signing of his college scholarship, and again when the Kansas City Royals Organization drafted him. I watched him grow into his nickname - "The Unit" - reaching a height of 6'7" and a wingspan of a B-1 bomber. I have seen him pitch no hitters, perfect games and have watched the scouts follow him to his games. One thing has never changed; every time he takes the mound he has that same look - he's the kid with the new video game and every batter is a new level for him to beat. Christian intends to be the best that has ever played. I believe he can do it, but I'm not exactly unbiased. I've been embarrassing him since he was 10 by introducing him as a future major leaguer. Next to his parents, I'm his number one fan! He may now get paid to play, but he is one kid that really does play for the love of the game.