The Kansas Stars won the National Baseball Congress World Series, defeating Everett 7-1 in Sunday’s championship game at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. Let’s talk about how strange that is.
Ben Sheets was the winning pitcher. Seventeen years ago, Sheets was the winner in the United States’ Olympic gold-medal winning game over Cuba. He had an entire major-league career in between and probably became the only person ever to be the winning pitcher in Olympic- and NBC-clinching wins.
Ryan Langerhans was the tournament’s most valuable player. Langerhans last recorded double-digit hits in a major-league season for the Mariners in 2010 but almost did this week for the Stars. He probably would have had he not walked 10 times in six games.
Chipper Jones, likely headed for the Hall of Fame in a vote later this year, might have taken his last competitive at-bat. In Wichita. Jones’ last game before this week was a playoff loss for the Braves.
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Their average age is 40, about two decades older than most of their competition in six wins over eight days.
“There’s a little bit of strangeness to it,” said the 37-year-old Langerhans, who went 8 for 17 with eight RBIs. “For us, once you’re retired it’s kind of hard to get that competition. That’s kind of one of those things that you miss in your everyday life.”
Sheets’ retirement was hastened by injuries in 2012, when he was 33, but on Sunday he looked, aside from diminished mobility, like he could return to a major-league rotation tomorrow. His fastball reached 92 mph and his curveball, while inconsistent, was baffling to Everett’s hitters.
Sheets was the only Stars starter to pitch five innings, earning him the victory and a rare, if not unprecedented, distinction.
“Ben looks like he could still get big-league hitters out with the stuff he was throwing up there,” Langerhans said. “He came out and did a great job for us. It is a little bit full-circle. It’s fun for us to play in a tournament where we’re all pulling for each other. We try to win and have fun while we’re doing it.”
Langerhans broke open Sunday’s game with a three-run double in the eighth. A highlight that will be mostly forgotten because of what happened to Jones an inning later.
After he was retired on a grounder to second, Jones circled toward the dugout and tripped, sprawling on the turf before hobbling back to a standing ovation. He tipped his helmet with equal parts appreciation and self-deprecation.
“I thoroughly expected to come back and feel as old as I am, and I wasn’t disappointed in the least, as you saw by my graceful exit,” the 45-year-old Jones said. “There’s nothing that can substitute that thrill of competition. It’s been five years since I’ve come out here and played a baseball game. It just lets you know how truly hard it was.”
Jones found something poetic in taking perhaps his final at-bat in Wichita. If he takes another, it will probably be in Wichita, too, because he didn’t rule out returning.
“I do a lot of deer hunting out here (in Kansas) during the fall and the winter, so I spend a lot of time out here,” Jones said. “I was extremely disappointed that I couldn’t make it last year, but I had a hurt back and felt like I couldn’t really contribute much. I was not going to miss a second opportunity.
“If this is my last competitive (at-bat), I’m glad that it was around friendly people out here in Wichita, around a bunch of friends and a bunch of people that I played with. I had a blast.”
It seemed the rest of the Stars did, too. Their roster started at 32 – 30 former major-leaguers – but ended with 22 suited up on Sunday. Pitchers Brad Penny and Tom Martin stayed for the duration even though they weren’t healthy enough to pitch.
Penny started the All-Star game in 2007 and spent this week in Wichita, just because. Weird. Unique. Strangely satisfying.
“I don’t know how many (fans) were for us or against us, but they showed up, they cheered,” said Wichitan Nate Robertson, who put the team together last year along with Fort Scott native Adam LaRoche. “We gave them something to look at, which we’re happy about, and it was triumphant at the end.”