MOSES LAKE — As the story goes, when Jimmy Morris showed up in at the Double-A Orlando Rays clubhouse at the age of 35, one of the first questions he was asked was, “Are you the old guy?”
Young guys have a way of doing that, but the Jimmy Morris story is one of the reasons that makes baseball great. Disney released “The Rookie” in 2002 about a guy that returned to baseball after a long layoff, and after stints with the Orlando Rays and the Durham Bulls, he eventually made his Major League pitching debut Sept. 18, 1999, against Royce Clayton of the Texas Rangers.
One of the legendary lines from that film was when Dennis Quaid (Morris) said to one of his young cohorts, “You know what we get to do today? We get to play baseball.”
Big Bend Community College players Kyle Tolf, Derek Almanza and Hayden Knight aren't looking for a big league career, but it sure is good to be back in the game at the age of 25 and to be part of something special. The Vikings return to the NWAC Cross-Region Tournament for the first time since 2002.
“There isn't a guy on this team that doesn't call us dad,” Tolf said with a smile.
The average age on the ballclub is 19, so Tolf, Almanza and Knight are the only players born before Viking assistant Ryan Doumit was drafted in 1998. Young or old, they have something special going at Big Bend heading into the NWAC Cross-Region Tournament. They face No. 4 Chemeketa from the south on Friday.
“I'm living a dream in some aspects. Our coaches asked us last week what our mindset was, and I honestly feel blessed to have this opportunity to just play the game I love,” said Knight, who currently has a 4.03 ERA in 35.2 innings pitched.
“I don't care what ages the guys are. I feel 18-19 when we win ball games. Being in the postseason, this is what you play baseball for. I couldn't have asked for any more.”
But in another lifetime, Tolf, who will graduate this spring with a degree in communications, was a house renovator, a house-flipper. Knight, who is studying education, was a independent commercial fisherman. Almanza, who is majoring in Spanish, is a firefighter. Interestingly enough, Tolf and Knight coached the Stanwood junior varsity together. This time last year, they were wrapping up the JV season. Now they're hoping to extend the JC season to the NWAC baseball championships.
As veteran players, they hit the ground running and put up significant numbers during the regular season. Tolf is an everyday player and proved to be one of the best shortstop's in the NWAC with a .963 fielding percentage. The sophomore from Mount Vernon is hitting .305 with 39 hits, 19 runs scored and 23 RBI, including seven doubles.
Almanza, a freshman out of Mount Vernon, is the designated hitter in Viking skipper Jameson Lange's lineup. He's hitting .316 with 30 RBI, nine doubles and three home runs.
Knight, a right-hander from Bellingham, has three wins and two saves. He was the winning pitcher in Game 1 in the Wenatchee doubleheader when the Vikings clinched the No. 3 seed in the East Region. He's scattered 37 hits and struck out 29 in 35.2 innings pitched.
“I would say the big difference between us and the other players is hours of preparation before game time,” Tolf said. “Some of these guys can throw the ball around and, maybe, loosen up and they're ready to go.
“If I do that, I'm pulling something. So preparation is big, that and just enjoying every minute.”
Living the dream is an overused expression, but to be able to come back and play for Jameson Lange, who starred in the NWAC for Big Bend, and assistant Ryan Doumit, who enjoyed a 10-year career in the Major League before coming back home to coach, is just plane cool.
“To have a guy like (Doumit) pull you aside and just give you a little tip or advice on a game is priceless,” Tolf said.
Almanza nodded. “To hear something positive from him. With everything he's seen, for him to be impressed by what we do is pretty special,” he said.
The skipper sees all, knows all, and it's not just his 19-somethings making a difference. The old guys have delivered during the season to remember and the return to the NWAC Cross-Region Tournament for the first time in 15 years.
“The thing with having veteran players that are five, six years older than the rest of the guys, is their leadership. They're an extension of the coaching staff out on the field,” said Lange (2005-06), who led the Vikings with a .344 average and finished in the top 20 in the league in hitting in 2007.
“Hayden is our big-time arm, whether he's starting or closing. Anytime we need a big-time performance, we go to him. Derek's a big guy at 6-foot, 225. He gives us some added pop with his bat. Kyle is an everyday guy that's proven to be one of the best shortstops in the NWAC.”
It won't last forever, but everyday living the dream is a life well lived.
Rodney Harwood is a sports writer at the Columbia Basin Herald and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.