Melancholy fits the game of baseball like a batting glove. For every moment of heroic achievement, there is one of misery and despair; for each Bobby Thomson "shot heard 'round the world" to win the 1951 National League Pennant for the New York Giants, there's a Bill Buckner error to cost the Boston Red Sox the 1986 World Series.
That doesn't make baseball a bad sport, it makes it a great one. Overcoming adversity is the nature of baseball, and if adversity didn't sometimes win, it wouldn't be much of a game. Had Casey actually hit a three-run homer for Mudville, would "Casey at the Bat," 125 years old this week, be as beloved a poem?
Well, the outlook wasn't brilliant for the Towson University nine this season either. In case you hadn't heard, rarely have the players on a local college baseball team had more reason to quit — if not to just walk out the door, then at least to resign internally — so miserable were their prospects.
Towson University players were essentially dead men walking. The team had been axed by the university, along with the men's soccer program, in a budget-cutting move by President Maravene Loeschke. You may know the rest. There was a big uproar, as alumni and other friends of the program questioned the move, and then some politicians got involved, too.
Eventually, Gov. Martin O'Malley joined the fray and came up with $300,000 to keep the baseball team alive next year. But not without a great deal of drama and debate over subsidizing college athletics, the demands of Title IX and the decision-making skills of Towson Athletic Director Mike Waddell, who subsequently resigned to take a job at the University of Arkansas.
Amid all the uproar, the players themselves were almost an afterthought. Towson had never won a Colonial Athletic Association championship. Last year, they finished sixth of 11 teams with a losing overall record. Preseason polls pegged the team to finish eighth in 2013.
But then a funny thing happened. The team played a bit better than expected in the regular season, beating the better teams in the conference. They earned a fourth seed in the CAA Tournament and then started winning and winning and winning. When the dust settled at Veterans Memorial Park in Harrisonburg, Va., last weekend, Towson had won it all.
On Friday, these young men will do something that surely seemed unimaginable a few months ago. They'll play in the NCAA Regional, facing Florida Atlantic at 1 p.m. at Boshamer Stadium at the University of North Carolina. This will be only the third NCAA tournament appearance by a Towson baseball team since 1988.
How can one explain such a thing? Towson batters got hot, and their pitchers rose to the challenge. The team's third baseman, a former captain of the Perry Hall High School Gators and now a graduate student, batted .476 in the CAA with three homers. The right fielder and catcher, a couple of Cardinal Gibbons High School teammates, sizzled, too, batting .600 and .538, respectively.
But that doesn't begin to explain why the players didn't just pull the plug on this season. If they had played to their potential, they'd probably be sitting home right now. So they played above it. The played beyond what anyone has a right to expect.
No matter what happens next, whether they beat Florida Atlantic or qualify for the NCAA Super Regionals, is merely icing on the cake. What they have already accomplished is a stirring, if unlikely, story of determination, dedication and loyalty even when deserted by their own school's leadership. It's not about baseball, it's about character.
The late A. Bartlett Giamatti, a former commissioner of baseball, once observed that baseball was a game "designed to break your heart." Ernest Thayer, a one-time newspaper baseball writer and poet, recognized this in "Casey." Towson's players know heartbreak, too, but they also know that the story never has to end there, at least not until the final out.