For as long as Rams coach Jeff Fisher has been putting on his annual charity softball game, there have been two certainties: good weather and a win for Team Fisher.
Both traditions seemed to be in peril on Sunday night at GCS Stadium in Sauget, Ill. but in the end, everything held to form in what turned into a nearly perfect night in terms of weather and softball-fueled drama.
Despite some early rain showers, the dark and ominous clouds gave way to picturesque blue skies and mild temperatures that paved the way for an entertaining night of softball and the perfect opportunity to raise money for five important causes.
That happened only moments before the celebrity home run derby, which was won by tight end
After a rousing eighth inning rally in which the white team, coached by offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, scored eight runs and stormed back to take the lead, Rams receiver Austin Pettis ensured that order was restored to the softball world with a ninth-inning walk off home run that gave Team Fisher the win that had been so boldly guaranteed by its coach in the run-up to the game.
“I had made the bold prediction beforehand but I got a little nervous there in the bottom of the ninth with a couple of outs being down a run,” Fisher said. “But it was a great effort. It was really fun to watch the guys compete. We bend the rules a little bit – both teams – but there couldn’t have been a better finish.”
That it was Pettis who provided the late-game heroics should come as little surprise to anyone who watched the entire game or, really, anyone who took note of his emerging propensity for big plays late in football games last season such as the road games against San Francisco and Buffalo.
Pettis earned Most Valuable Player honors after homering three times to go with seven RBIs. His defensive efforts might have been even more impressive than his offensive exploits as he made a tremendous diving catch in the middle innings and later made a terrific back handed stab deep in the hole to get a force at second.
Pettis’ defensive prowess at shortstop drew praise from teammate Ozzie Smith, a baseball Hall of Famer who might know a thing or two about good defense at that position.
“I’m just out here trying to help our team out,” Pettis said. “We’ve got a great guy in Ozzie on our team. I’m just trying to make him proud as well.”
After a game which featured little drama in its first St. Louis incarnation last year, Schottenheimer had hoped that he could somehow lead the white team to a victory over Fisher’s group in blue.
Despite long odds that had Schottenheimer openly comparing his team to the Washington Generals versus Fisher’s version of the Harlem Globetrotters, the relentless white team battled tooth and nail and nearly pulled off the win.
“Every year it’s like that,” Schottenheimer said before the game. “I think we are a little bit outnumbered. I’ve heard that the outcome of the game has already been decided but we’ll put up a valiant fight.
“Every once in a while I heard the Generals won a game so maybe this will be the year, you never know. What’s interesting is we had the draft and Coach Fisher forgot to invite me to the draft. I was a couple doors down in my office and somehow I was not invited to the draft. Go figure that. I think more of the tricks are up his sleeve.”
In addition to the one-person draft Fisher held to formulate the rosters, there were some of the usual shenanigans that have become staples to the blue team game plan. There were a couple of successful hidden ball tricks, the usual cheerleader caper in which three cheerleaders get on base and are essentially exempt from ever being out and a “loose” interpretation of the lineup card in which Fisher’s best players seem to get just a few more at bats than the rest of the lineup.
Schottenheimer countered with some similar moves, including using kids in lieu of cheerleaders, stocking the defense with more than the allotted amount of players and also playing some lineup bingo.
Those moves helped the white team claw back into the game late on the strength of some timely home runs from guys like McNeill, quarterback
The performance of Pettis was eventually too much to overcome and for a player who was on the other side last year, getting a win was that much sweeter.
“I learned the hard way last year,” Pettis said. “I was on the white team and we tried to play as good as we could and didn’t get the W. So luckily I was on the blue team this year and we were going to win this one no matter what.”
Despite some close calls including an incident involving a bullpen mound and running back
“Everybody is all right,” Fisher said. “I went over to both dugouts and told them that none of the bases are fastened down so don’t be pushing off the bases because that’s inviting a hamstring injury but I think everybody got through it OK.”
Of course, beyond the hijinks and fun that go with the game, the most important part of the night is the lasting impact its revenue will have on five very important charities.
For the second year in a row, proceeds from the game will be distributed to The BackStoppers, The Jack and J.T. Snow Scientific Research Foundation, Mercy Ministries, Wounded Warrior Project and Catch-A-Dream Foundation.
With more time to plan and organize this year’s game, the crowd was larger, the silent auction had more to offer and the event clearly grew by leaps and bounds.
That’s good news for each of the charities, including the Jack and J.T. Snow Scientific Research Foundation which focuses its efforts on curing Wolfram Syndrome. J.T. Snow participated in the game this year and expressed his gratitude to Fisher and the Rams for doing what they can to help cure a disease that has affected his family.
“It’s great because since Coach Fisher got the job here, he has taken our charity on as one of his own,” Snow said. “He knew my sister way back when they were in Orange County and he was defensive coordinator for the Rams back then and he was a big fan of my dad’s. He grew up in LA and watched my dad play so he was gracious enough to give his time when he got the job. My sister talked to him about our foundation and the work we are doing with my niece and Washington University and Wolfram Syndrome. He told my sister Stephanie that he’d back us in whatever we need. He asked us to come out and we are one of the five charities that they are raising money for. So for us it’s just about getting the word out to the people here. It’s been great. It’s all because of Coach Fisher.”
Likewise, getting a Hall of Famer like Smith on board wasn’t too difficult, either, given his affinity for the charities, particularly the BackStoppers.
“They asked me to come out and be a part of it,” Smith said. “This being the second year, it looks like a great crowd out here and this raises money for a lot of great causes. The BackStoppers was one of Jack Buck’s big charities too so it’s a great cause and I’m really glad to be a part of it.”
Wounded Warriors Tender Lewis and Luke Douglas threw out the ceremonial first pitches and participated in the game and representatives from Mercy Ministries and the Catch-a-Dream Foundation were also on hand.
After the game, each of the players took off his jersey, signed it and raffle numbers were drawn to give them away. The winners received a jersey and all of those proceeds went to American Red Cross tornado and relief efforts.
All told, the second edition of the St. Louis version of the Fisher softball game was a rousing success for all involved. The biggest task heading into year three will be finding a way to make it even better.
“Very much so,” Fisher said. “It couldn’t be possible without all of the help from everybody in the organization and all the volunteers and such. We are just going to continue to make it bigger and better every year.”
About the charitable beneficiaries:
Started in 1959, The BackStoppers, Inc., provides needed support and financial assistance to the spouses and children of all local and county police officers, firefighters, publicly-funded paramedics and EMTs and volunteer fire protection units, who have lost their lives performing their duty.
The Jack and J.T. Snow Scientific Research Foundation began as The Snowman Fund to raise money for Wolfram syndrome research at Washington University’s School of Medicine in late 2010. The Fund has now evolved into the Foundation, sharing the same mission, to raise awareness and funding for research that one day will stop the progression of Wolfram syndrome. Wolfram syndrome is a terminal form of diabetes that results in the degradation of the nerve cells in the eyes, ears and brain, and in 60% of the cases, causes death before the patient’s 30th birthday. The eight year-old daughter of Stephanie Snow Gebel, and granddaughter/niece of Jack and J.T. Snow, was diagnosed with Wolfram syndrome in the fall of 2010.
Mercy Ministries’ free-of-charge, voluntary, faith-based residential program serves young women from all socio-economic backgrounds, ages 13-28, who face a combination of life-controlling issues such as eating disorders, self-harm, drug and alcohol addictions, depression and unplanned pregnancy. Mercy also serves young women who have been physically and sexually abused, including victims of sex trafficking. Using proven methods, a holistic approach and professional counselors in a structured residential environment, Mercy has helped thousands of young women be restored to wholeness. Mercy’s goal is to help these young women find freedom from their issues and empower them to serve in their communities as productive citizens.
The mission of Wounded Warrior Project™ is to honor and empower wounded warriors. WWP’s purpose is to raise awareness and to enlist the public’s aid for the needs of injured service members, to help injured servicemen and women aid and assist each other, and to provide unique, direct programs and service to meet their needs.
Catch-A-Dream Foundation provides once-in-a-lifetime dream hunting and fishing trips to children across the United States and Canada, age 18 and younger, who suffer from life-threatening illnesses. Through these adventures, and exposure to outdoors-minded people who care, the program instills in these children a message of encouragement at a time when they need to know that hope does, indeed, exist.