Our 2018 Story of the Year: The emotional return of Brian Bassler to the mound.
WATERVILLE PARK, WATERBURY: As Torrington senior Brian Bassler made his way to the mound on a beautiful Monday afternoon to face the defending Class S champions from Holy Cross, he appeared to not have a care in the world.
He was back where he told everybody he would be after he had struck out a bigger foe than any Crusader batter he would face when he beat Burkitt’s Leukemia this past winter.
On his way to the mound, both teams and their fans saluted this brave senior with a standing ovation, understanding that for this moment, this day, what Bassler had overcome was so much more important than any baseball game.
Things could have ended right then because the story and the comeback were complete, but a baseball game was played that mattered because neither team had gotten much real time on a diamond due to the fickle New England weather.
The Crusaders, behind a 12-strike out effort from junior Austin Brown, got by the Raiders by a 3-0 final, but the game result was far secondary to the Bassler effort.
Bassler went 3.1 innings, giving up three runs (two earned) on three hits and got some great defensive plays from his team including two highlight reel catches from centerfielder Aaron Bainer, who went as far as he could for a pair of catches to end the first inning and start the second.
How did he feel when he climbed that mound for the first time since last spring?
“It felt normal again,” Bassler said. “Back to my old life and back to doing what I enjoy. Having fun and just competing out there.”
Heck, when Bassler struck out the first batter he faced, we all could have gone home, game over but this young man has long ago proven that he is a battler and battle he did.
Before the game started, head coach Pat Richardson had talked to his team about how special what was about to happen was.
“We talked to the team about the unbelievably special thing that’s happening here today, Richardson said. “Everybody is ready to go out and play with a lot of energy to support him.”
Throughout this nine-month ordeal, Bassler has stayed remarkably consistent, never wavering.
“He’s the same way he was before he was sick, while he was sick and after he was sick,” Richardson said. “You can’t really tell the difference, he’s a very special kid.”
Taking on the Crusaders wasn’t an easy first game back but what else would you expect from a young man who doesn’t know the meaning of backing down.
With a variety of pitches that don’t often blow by batters but do keep them off balance, Bassler worked out of trouble over the first two innings against a team that is still stacked and ready to defend their Class S title from a season ago.
After retiring the first two Crusaders in the bottom of the first with a strikeout and a hard ground ball to third that was picked cleanly by Kyle Banche, Bassler walked Tim Zupkus.
Cleanup hitter Connor Goggin then launched a long fly ball to deep center (there is no fence at Waterville Park) that was hunted down by Bainer just before he nearly disappeared in the brush for the third out.
“He hit that into another town,” Bassler laughed as he came back to the bench.
Richardson has asked his team to play tough defense behind their pitcher and Bainer was again up to the task in the bottom of the second when Brian Parzyck sent the first pitch he saw to nearly the same spot and for the second straight time, Bainer was up to the task.
Holy Cross struck twice in the bottom of the third inning on a groundout and a single but Bassler racked up his second strikeout when he froze Parzyck on a nasty change up for the third out.
Three innings in the books against one of the top teams in the state and the Raiders were down just 2-0.
Bassler would go back out for the fourth but was removed after the Crusaders scored their third run on a wild pitch.
He would come off the mound to another standing ovation from a crowd that understood what they had just seen in a young man who refused to get down on himself, refused to give up and fade into the back-round.
Brian Bassler wanted to get back to the mound and so he did.
The long tough days of chemo and feeling lousy seemed like a distant memory as this truly amazing young man, from a remarkably strong family and community, was back.
As he ended his day of work, he got a hearty bear hug from his father Joe, who had said he was more nervous than his son before and during the game.
They had both been on a long journey that ended when he crossed the third base line and headed to the mound.
It was a tremendous sight to see.
Welcome back Brian Bassler, welcome back.