As the Liberal BeeJays were preparing for the customary team photo after their 9-6 win over Seattle on Friday night, their players started a chant.
"Bob, Bob, Bob,'' they said, pointing toward the stands at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium after winning the franchise's fifth National Baseball Congress championship. Finally, a man in a purple shirt and a pair of jeans noticed.
Bob Carlile, the team's general manager who has been associated with the BeeJays in some fashion for most of the past 45 years, started to make his way to the field. He would have run if he had been a couple of decades younger.
This one was sweet, probably the sweetest for the BeeJays in their 55-year history. It comes after a difficult past decade in which the team was in turmoil on and off the field. Only after Carlile returned to the GM post in 2007, and oversaw an incredible coup that brought former big league manager Mike Hargrove to Liberal to manage the team he once played for, did the BeeJays start to look like their former selves.
They finished fourth in the World Series in 2008 and third last season. Friday night, they stepped up their progression, skipping right over second place in a game that featured an early 6-0 lead, then a 6-6 tie, then a regrouping in the middle innings.
"There were some times in the mid-2000s that we didn't even come to the tournament, didn't even qualify,'' Carlile said. "We just didn't have a ballclub. The recruiting was horrible, the managing was horrible. It wasn't like the BeeJays.''
Liberal last won the tournament in 2000, then kind of disappeared. One of the most commonly-asked questions in the years following was: "Where is Liberal?" It's one of the NBC's power franchises that first made its mark in 1965, when the BeeJays finished second in the World Series to Wichita's Rapid Transit Dreamliners. Three years later, Liberal won its first championship and the BeeJays were a tournament regular for decades thereafter.
But if it's true that all good things come to an end, Liberal was perilously close to that ledge a few years ago.
Part of Carlile's impetus for returning to the franchise following the death of his wife in 2006 was a fear that the BeeJays might actually fold if money wasn't raised and better people weren't put in charge.
"In 2007 we had nothing but a bunch of junior college freshmen kids and we couldn't win,'' Carlile said.
Hargrove's acceptance of a kind of off-the-wall proposal by Carlile to manage the team in 2008 was the jolt the BeeJays needed. Talk about being over-qualified; yet Hargrove was ecstatic about returning to his roots after a long tenure as a player and manager in the big leagues.
College coaches who had grown reluctant to send their players to Liberal suddenly picked up their phones again. And as I was talking to Carlile a few minutes after Friday's win, his cell phone rang. It was Hargrove on the other end, calling from Cleveland. He is expected to return to managing the BeeJays in 2011, believe it or not, and undoubtedly was sentimental about missing the big celebration Friday night with a team he mostly recruited.
"Mike, I told everybody this was your team,'' Carlile said over the telephone. "We're going to do some celebrating tonight.''
The BeeJays won seven of their eight tournament games by doing a little bit of everything.
Starting pitcher Paul Gonzalez, who didn't appear Friday, was 3-0 with a 1.64 ERA.
Liberal's 3-4 hitters, Blake Bergeron and Joe Vaskas, were a combined 29 of 71 (.408) with 26 of the team's 54 RBIs.
The BeeJays were bandits on the base paths, stealing a tournament-high 24 bases with Kelby Tomlinson swiping 12.
And Liberal avenged a 5-0 loss to the Studs on Wednesday night, finally putting a dagger to the heart of a Seattle team that battled back with six fourth-inning runs to tie a game that was dangerously close to getting out of hand.
Seattle finished second in the World Series for the second time in three years; in 2008 the Studs lost to the Santa Barbara (Calif.) Foresters in the championship game.
And in defeat, one of the tournament's best-kept secrets ever remained under the radar.
Right-handed pitcher Taylor Thompson, a 26-year-old who attended the University of Puget Sound, came on to pitch 2 1/3 innings of scoreless relief Friday, holding Liberal at bay as his teammates attempted a comeback.
Thompson has been in the past five World Series with Seattle and pitched in 22 games, all in relief. His numbers are ridiculous — and I mean that in the best way.
In 53 2/3 innings, Thompson has allowed one earned run. That came in 2008, when he pitched 16 1/3 innings and won two games.
Overall, Thompson is 4-0 in the NBC World Series with a 0.17 ERA. He has allowed only 25 hits, walked 18 and struck out 48.
He deserves mention simply because he hasn't gotten much over the years, despite his performance.
You'd have to see Thompson pitch to believe it and then you might need more proof.
He never hits 80 on the radar gun; most of his pitches Friday were floated up there at around 70-75 mph. Liberal did have three hits against Thompson, who allowed an inherited runner to score in the sixth inning. For him, that's a terrible outing.
"I just love coming out here to Wichita because it's always fun with the crowds they get and the different environment,'' Thompson said. "I can pitch a lot because I don't throw very hard and my arm doesn't get too tired.''
Thompson said he throws a slider almost exclusively. It sweeps over the plate like a Frisbee and has confounded NBC hitters for five years.
Thompson did his job again Friday, but again was over-shadowed by a team that is back to casting a pretty large one. It was Liberal's tournament and it feels right.