Column: An angel in the outfield

Zach Cinotto has imagined this countless times standing in the batter’s box during practice.

Bases loaded. Two outs. A 3-2 count. His team down by one run. Bottom half of the final inning.

He’s not alone in this daydream. Millions of young boys and girls have had this very fantasy.

But for Cinotto, it wasn’t a daydream. Not in the least. The 10-year-old Peru catcher was at the plate in the district championship against Ottawa Tuesday with the game on the line.

Bases loaded. Two outs. A 3-2 count. His team down by one run. Bottom half of the final inning.

And a baseball card his mother made for him resting in his pocket.

This is no ordinary baseball card, though. A highly paid professional athlete isn’t smiling from it. Its market value couldn’t buy you a three-cent stamp. But it’s worth more to Cinotto than a Michael Jordan rookie card.

A picture of a middle-aged baseball player by the name of Jay Braida is on the card. Braida never got close to the big leagues, but he did play in the Princeton Church League.

More importantly, it was a picture of an avid baseball card collector who befriended a young boy with a similar interest in baseball cards.

A picture of a man who promised he would attend one of this young boy’s baseball games this summer.

A picture of a man who couldn’t fulfill that promise because he succumbed to cancer on June 19 at the age of 46.

Michelle Cinotto, a co-worker of Braida’s at the Illinois Valley Credit Union in Peru, gave her son the homemade card before the start of the game. He had been slumping at the plate the past few games and was down on himself. His mother told him he would have an angel in the outfield watching him this game.

It turned out that everybody’s eyes would be on him.

Bases loaded. Two outs. A 3-2 count. His team down by one run. Bottom half of the final inning.

No matter what happened, Cinotto would remember this moment for the rest of his life.

The pitcher threw the ball. Cinotto swung the bat. The bat connected with the ball. The ball arched high in the air heading toward right center.

The crowd waited. The baseball card of Braida ran with Cinotto to first base.

And then the ball dropped in between two outfielders, allowing the tying and winning runs to both score. Cinotto and his card were mobbed by teammates.

And now, no matter what happens in this young man’s life, he can look back and say, “That was a good day.”

Peru’s manager Ron Groleau, a man famous for once hitting a baseball over Tonica High School’s gym when he played for La Salle-Peru High School, still remembers the game-winning hit he had in a district tournament game 33 years ago when he was 12.

“You remember,” Groleau said. “You remember it very clearly. There’s no question in my mind he will remember it as well. That’s a hit he’ll remember for the rest of his life.”

After the game, Cinotto ran off the field and handed the baseball card to his mother with just one simple warning.

“Here mom, do not lose this!”

She wouldn’t dare. It’s far too important to lose.

Bases loaded. Two outs. A 3-2 count. His team down by one run. Bottom half of the final inning.

And, most importantly, an angel in the outfield.

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