The choice is almost always limited to believing in miracles or not. To believe in the invisible hand at work or not. There is no gray area. But what about the third option, want to believe? There is a door for that, if you are open to it.
Zach Porter, 20, died on May 21 after becoming snagged waist deep in the Alaskan mud and drowning as the tide came in. Friends and firefighters were unable to pull it out due to the vacuum-like nature of the mud. It is unthinkable and unimaginable. Of the thousands of worries a parent, family member, or friend may have about a loved one on the road, the chances are probably not the most obvious. That’s why the death of a young hiker made national and international news. Because of its disorder and injustice.
The Lake Forest High School baseball team took the news very hard. Zach had pitched for Boy Scouts before going to the University of Washington two years ago. He is very popular among his teammates, and many of the kids on this year’s team know him well.
“I always looked up to Zach,” said Shep Graf, the senior third baseman for Lake Forest. “He is almost like a big brother figure to me because he knows when to play games with me and when to guide me.
Graf’s idea to wear Zach’s jersey for a state tournament game three days after the tragedy came from coach Ray Del Fava, who recognized the deep bond the two boys shared. So Graf swapped jerseys with his number 3 teammate Zach for the season, and the world looked a little less dark.
After seven regulation rounds against Wauconda, the Scouts found themselves tied at 3-3 (interesting, if you like numerical coincidences). Everyone knows how the playoffs work: Win and advance; lose and watch a season go by. It didn’t help that Wauconda scored a top-eighth run to take a 4-3 lead or that the Scouts had a No. 1 hitter. Their 7, 8 and 9 came up in the bottom half of the innings.
Lake Forest’s Bobby Alzamora started things off first with a downed third that rolled to a backstop. Let’s just say that a third strike being dropped wasn’t an everyday occurrence. The next batter, Miles Specketer, hit a good hit, and baseball havoc ensued. Wauconda pitcher tried to throw out second-placed Alzamora, but the ball went into center field. The fielder then attempted to throw out Alzamora at third, but the ball flew over the head of the third baseman, giving runners Lake Forest second and third.
After attacking the No. hitter. 9, Wauconda chose to deliberately walk Gianni Royer, the Boy Scouts’ best hitter. Bink Hartline, who lived in the two houses of the Porter family in Lake Bluff, then carried out the task assigned to him by Del Fava who rolled the dice: He put a perfect suicide squeeze bunt on the second roll. Alzamora scored to equalize. Bonus: The base is still loaded.
And along came Graf, the No. 1 hitter. 3 with the No. 3 who was conversing with someone he believed was present.
“I just asked him for help, said, ‘Come on, Zach, let’s do this thing,’” says Graf.
At 3-1, he threw a foul from a low pitch that was most likely a four-ball because A) he really wanted to get hit B) this at-bat had to go down to a final dramatic drop and C) if a high school kid’s job wasn’t to make the coach is crazy, what is that?
And then, with many of Zach’s friends and former teammates in attendance, Graf marched past the diving first baseman, driving in victory.
The “Hollywood script,” Del Fava called it.
Graf pointed at the sky and celebrated with his teammates.
“That’s me talking to Zach again, saying, ‘That’s you. Thank you,” he said.
Former Lake Forest pitcher Zach Porter.
The series of events of the eighth act raises questions of trust. Do you think someone out there is looking for Boy Scouts? Do you want to make room for the possibility that someone exists? Or are you just keeping track of what happens to the good baseball teams doing what the good teams do?
“I don’t know if his soul is out there or not but if it is anywhere in the world it will be with the boys playing the game, to support them,” said Todd Porter, Zach’s father.
There’s no definitive answer here, unless you’re a Shep Graf.
“One hundred percent I believe because I hit that shot, I’m 0-for-3 with two shots,” he said. “I believe Zach was in there the whole game because he likes to mess people up. So it makes sense that he made me have a game like that before taking that shot. Primarily working the count and then off the court foul and then getting hit. That’s how Zach has it.”
Immediately after the game, the team is in uniform to light a candle for Zach.
For Saturday’s Boy Scouts regional championship game against Antioch, Graf is back in Zach’s jersey, with his No. 1 jersey. The other 3 were hung in the break room for good measure. The Porters sent over one of Zach’s Lake Forest baseball caps, and it got a place of honor near the bench, too.
Scouts trailed 5-3 and eventually won 10-7. Graf accelerated in two laps with one lap. They earned a charter for winning the regional championship, allowing Del Fava to post #plaqueforzach on Twitter.
Lake Forest plays Cary-Grove on Wednesday in the first round of the Grayslake Sectional. You know what jersey Graf will wear.
Del Fava gave dad Zach the game ball from Saturday’s win.
“I know they love him, and he loves them,” said Todd Porter. “I know that his tragic loss inspired them to put their all on the pitch. And they did. He would be very proud of them.”
We can all believe that.