By the end of the International Pioneer Days fastpitch softball tournament Sunday, all kinds of crazy stuff was happening. The local favorite was trying to tie, then trying to win by four runs, then trying to win by three. The second-place team was trying to catch a flight home, then trying to rally. And the champs were winning without supposedly trying.
Eventually, the New Zealand national team held on for a 9-7 victory over Pay N' Pak of Seattle, as the Kiwis stayed unbeaten in their first tournament of the season.The fun started earlier Sunday at the Cottonwood Complex, with the completion of round-robin play. To advance to the semifinals, Salt Lake's Miller Toyota had to be one of the top two teams in its six-team group. When Pay N' Pak defeated the Clearwater (Fla.) Bombers 2-1, both teams stood 4-1 for the tournament, as would Miller following a win over Salt Lake's Carpetowne.
When the Pay N' Pak-Clearwater game ended, Miller held a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the seventh inning on an adjacent diamond. In the event of a three-way tie in round-robin play, the semifinalists are determined by run differential during the tourney - and the Toyotans knew they had to beat Carpetowne by four runs to finish ahead of Clearwater's plus-16 differential.
So Miller played for extra innings. After Carpetowne's Curt Dumas doubled, he scored on a passed ball for a 1-1 tie.
"To me, that was a strategy move - not a rollover," tournament director Ken Hackmeister said.
The controversy came when Carpetowne Manager Ralph Ludlow replaced pitcher Rich Connolly, who was working on a three-hitter but had a sore back throughout the tournament, for the eighth inning. Ludlow called on second baseman Craig Astrada, his No. 3 pitcher, instead of Dennis Dahle.
Miller scored the four runs it needed in the top of the eighth on singles by Randy Ward and Ross Caputo, two walks and an error, all of which looked fishy to Clearwater and even to Miller's players. "We thought it looked like he was walking us on purpose," said Miller Manager Butch Latey.
"He should have never done what he did," Hackmeister said of Ludlow, who was not available for comment.
The funny part is, Ludlow had watched Miller's comeback victory over Pay N' Pak Saturday night from the press box and talked about how he'd saved Connolly for Sunday and wanted to be the team to keep Miller out of the semifinals. If he'd wanted to let Miller win by any amount in regulation play, he could have.
"I don't know what he was thinking," said Latey.
Obviously, Ludlow was not working together with Miller, as Clearwater players strongly suggested. In any case, Latey and the Miller players decided not to show any sign of collusion. In the bottom of the eighth, Latey ordered leadoff batter Bubba Wallace walked and allowed him to score on passed balls for the 5-2 final. But there was more. To do that, Latey had to replace pitcher Brendan Keehan, who refused to carry out the free-run scheme that gave the semifinal berth to Clearwater via the next tiebreaker, total runs.
Keehan explained his stance to Latey when he called him late Sunday night, but asked Latey to change the pitching rotation because he couldn't in good conscience face Carpetowne in a league game Tuesday as scheduled.
By all accounts, the other teams in the field respected the Miller decision not to be handed the necessary margin by Carpetowne - all the big-name teams promised to return next July.
The other local entrant, Page Brake, missed any chance for the semifinals by losing 5-4 to Boise Sunday.
In the semifinals, New Zealand downed Clearwater 4-1 and Pay N' Pak topped the Decatur (Ill.) Pride 5-4 in eight innings. The New Zealanders had not played together since January when, ironically, Miller Toyota visisted for a series of games. Since then, five team members have played for various teams in this country and the others have practiced, with everybody getting together just for this tournament.
The Kiwis will spend the next two weeks in Iowa before defending their world championship in Canada; obviously, winning this first tournament was not their chief concern. "It's a bonus," said Manager Mike Walsh.
Walsh himself hardly showed a carefree attitude in the championship game, when he was ejected for bumping - well, shoving - an umpire. Walsh was protesting a call at home plate, as Pay N' Pak's Bill Boyer was called safe to complete a two-run, inside-the-park homer in the third inning.
New Zealand came back with three runs in the fourth inning and added five more in the fifth for an 8-3 lead with the help of Don Tricker's three-run homer. About this time, Pay N' Pak was planning to leave for the airport, but Hackmeister convinced the airline to place the team on a later flight, at no extra charge.
Just like that, the Pak came back with three runs in the bottom of the fifth, but never came closer than two runs against reliever Mike White. And so, "the best tournament that's ever been here." That was Latey's description - even after a goofy final day.