We watched the final week of the National Baseball Congress World Series through tears.
Nine-year-old Liberal bat boy Kaiser Carlile, who died last Sunday after a tragic accident, was an inspiration.
The way his team – and make no mistake, the Bee Jays were his team – rallied around the teammate who inadvertently struck Kaiser with his bat last Saturday while swinging in the on-deck circle, was uplifting.
The way Kaiser’s heartbroken family shared their grace and forgiveness was numinous.
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As those who already loved Kaiser told us stories about the precocious kid, who was to have entered the fourth grade, we fell in love with him, too. And we will never forget him.
The Bee Jays fought so hard to win this tournament for Kaiser, stretching their pitching staff to the limit by playing 11 games in less than two weeks before finally being eliminated Friday night by the Haysville Aviators. It was an impressive, determined effort by a group of college-age kids who could not have reacted better to such a terrible circumstance.
Liberal was already one of the most popular NBC franchises after winning five championships and contending in numerous other tournaments. The Bee Jays took their popularity to a new level with how they embraced this tragedy and dedicated the tournament to Kaiser.
They weren’t alone. Every player, coach, umpire, official and spectator was touched in a personal way by Kaiser, including veteran Seattle Studs relief pitcher Taylor Thompson, who got out of a ninth-inning jam Saturday night by retiring all three hitters he faced to preserve a 5-2 championship-game win over the Haysville Aviators.
It was Seattle’s second World Series championship. Thompson has pitched for the Studs in 10 NBC World Series, but never one like this one.
“I think what happened with Kaiser put even more focus on the baseball, without the distractions,” Thompson said. “We were all playing for him.”
Seattle and the Santa Barbara (Calif.) Foresters have won the past five tournaments and filled 10 of the 18 slots in the championship game since 2008.
Santa Barbara had a disappointing tournament, finishing 2-2 and batting just .229 in a tournament that saw as huge uptick in offense. The 30 teams that started the tournament were batting a combined .286, the highest in nine years, going into the championship game. There were 34 home runs, more than the 31 in the 2012, 2013 and 2014 tournaments combined.
We’ll give a brisk southerly wind that prevailed throughout the 16-day tournament some of the credit.
Some other tournament observations:
▪ The Northwest (Wash.) Honkers didn’t make much of an impression, losing two games by a combined score of 20-4. The Honkers batted .118 as a team and amassing an unsightly team ERA of 12.56. But two of the Honkers’ six hits were home runs and they finished with more homers than 23 teams. Congratulations to the Honkers?
▪ Liberal had to get through the grind of the first week of the World Series to quality for championship week. So the Bee Jays’ 11 games were four more than any other team. To their credit, the Bee Jays held up well, batting .330, averaging more than eight runs and finishing with a 2.87 ERA.
▪ There are still too many Kansas teams in the tournament – 11 of 30. The “National” in the National Baseball Congress World Series continues to be misleading. Only 11 states – and Puerto Rico – were represented this year. I know tournament officials are trying to expand into other states, but the summer baseball world is competitive and the NBC has to fight for what it has. Fortunately, it was a good year for the Jayhawk League, which received a huge boost from Haysville in its first season as a member. Still, the tournament has lost some of its allure over the years, which is especially true when it fails to attract teams from Alaska, which was again the case in 2015.
▪ A strong six-person Hall of Fame class was inducted. I was especially happy to see former Wichita Rapid Transit Dreamliners outfielder Gil Carter get into the Hall more than 50 years after he played in the tournament.
▪ There are still issues with the tournament, but I’m encouraged that general manager Kevin Jenks and the board of directors will continue to work to make the World Series better. This was one of the most competitive tournaments in years and in Haysville and its robust fan base, the World Series benefited from something new.
▪ Liberal’s ninth-inning comeback against El Dorado on Thursday night – Nick Brooks’ grand slam turned out to be the 8-5 game winner – was the most exciting and emotional moment of the tournament. The Bee Jays officially finished third in the World Series. You’d have a hard time convincing anyone they were anything but first, though.
▪ Kaiser, this was your tournament. It is your tournament. Forever.