The choice almost always is limited to believing in miracles or not. To believing in an invisible hand at work or not. No gray area. But what about a third option, wanting to believe? There’s a door for that, if you’re open to it.
Zach Porter, 20, died May 21 after getting stuck waist deep in an Alaskan mudflat and drowning when the tide came in. Friends and firefighters were unable to pull him out because of the vacuum-like properties of the silt. It was unthinkable and unimaginable. Of the thousand worries a parent, a family member or a friend might have about a loved one on a trip, that possibility probably wouldn’t register. It’s why the death of a young hiker made national and international news. Because of the capriciousness of it and the unfairness of it.
The Lake Forest High School baseball team took the news especially hard. Zach had been a pitcher for the Scouts before going to Washington University two years ago. He had been extremely popular with teammates, and many of the kids on this year’s team knew him well.
“I always looked up to Zach,’’ said Shep Graf, a senior third baseman for Lake Forest. “He was almost like a big-brother figure to me because he knew when to mess around with me and when to almost mentor me.’’
The idea for Graf to wear Zach’s jersey for a state tournament game three days after the tragedy came from coach Ray Del Fava, who knew the deep bond the two boys shared. So Graf switched jerseys with a teammate who had worn Zach’s No. 3 during the season, and the world seemed a little less dark.
After seven regulation innings against Wauconda, the Scouts found themselves tied 3-3 (interesting, if you’re into numerical coincidences). Everybody knows how the playoffs work: Win and advance; lose and watch a season go away. It didn’t help that Wauconda scored a run in the top of the eighth to take a 4-3 lead or that the Scouts had their Nos. 7, 8 and 9 hitters coming up in the bottom half of the inning.
Lake Forest’s Bobby Alzamora started things off by getting to first on a dropped third strike that rolled to the backstop. Let’s just say a dropped third strike isn’t an everyday occurrence. The next batter, Miles Specketer, laid down a nice bunt, and baseball havoc broke out. Wauconda’s pitcher tried to throw Alzamora out at second, but the ball went into center field. The center fielder then tried to throw out Alzamora at third, but the ball sailed over the third baseman’s head, giving Lake Forest runners on second and third.
After striking out the No. 9 hitter, Wauconda chose to intentionally walk Gianni Royer, the Scouts’ best hitter. Bink Hartline, who lives two houses from the Porter family in Lake Bluff, then carried out the assignment that the dice-rolling Del Fava had given him: He put down a perfect suicide squeeze bunt on the second pitch. Alzamora scored to tie the game. A bonus: The bases were still loaded.
And up came Graf, the No. 3 hitter in the No. 3 jersey who was having a conversation with someone he sure was in attendance.
“I was just asking him for help, saying, ‘Come on, Zach, let’s do this thing,’ ” Graf said.
On 3-1, he fouled off a low pitch that likely was ball four because A) he really wanted to get a hit B) this at-bat needed to go down to the last dramatic drop and C) if a high school kid’s job isn’t to drive his coaches crazy, what is?
And then, with many of Zach’s friends and former teammates in attendance, Graf lined a single past a diving first baseman, driving in the winning run.
“The Hollywood script,’’ Del Fava called it.
Graf pointed to the sky and celebrated with teammates.
“That was me talking to Zach again, saying, ‘That was you. Thank you,’ ’’ he said.
The eighth-inning chain of events raises questions of belief. Do you think someone up there was looking out for the Scouts? Would you like to make room for the possibility that someone was? Or do you just chalk up what happened to a good baseball team doing what good teams do?
“I don’t know if his spirit’s out there or not, but if it is out anywhere in the world, it would be with those boys playing those games, to root them on,’’ said Todd Porter, Zach’s dad.
There’s no definitive answer here, unless you’re Shep Graf.
“One hundred percent I believe because going into that at-bat, I was 0-for-3 with two strikeouts,’’ he said. “I believe Zach was there the whole game because he liked to mess with people. So it made sense that he made me have that kind of game before having that hit. Especially working the count and then fouling off a pitch and then getting a hit. That’s just how Zach would have had it.’’
Immediately after the game, the team bused in uniform to a candlelight vigil for Zach.
For the Scouts’ regional championship game Saturday against Antioch, Graf again wore Zach’s jersey, with another No. 3 jersey hanging in the dugout for good measure. The Porter family sent along one of Zach’s Lake Forest baseball caps, and that got a place of honor near the bench, as well.
The Scouts fell behind 5-3 and ended up winning 10-7. Graf drove in two runs with a single. They earned a plaque for winning the regional championship, allowing Del Fava to put #plaqueforzach on Twitter.
Lake Forest plays Cary-Grove on Wednesday in the first round of the Grayslake Sectional. You know what jersey Graf will be wearing.
Del Fava gave Zach’s dad the game ball from Saturday’s victory.
“I know they loved him, and he loved them,’’ Todd Porter said. “I know that his tragic loss inspired them to put it all on the field. And they did that. He’d be so proud of them.’’
We all can believe in that.