Five years ago today (Friday, August 21), a 12-year-old boy stood on a pitcher’s mound in Williamsport, Pennsylvania in front of 30,000-plus fans (mostly cheering for the other team) and surrendered what was essentially a meaningless grand slam in a blow-out loss. And in so doing, he managed to capture the attention of the nation.
His team was already losing 14-0 in the third inning. When you’re down that much, what’re four more runs after all? And by the way, this wasn’t just any home run, but rather an absolute bomb.
Here’s the thing: The pitcher didn’t mope or pout or throw a temper-tantrum or hide his face in his glove in embarrassment. In fact, his response was the complete opposite side of the spectrum. Not only did he not cry, but he celebrated; he reveled in the moon shot sailing over his head.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Mekhi Garrard from Webb City, Missouri. Garrard, now a senior in high school, was that young pitcher.
Webb City is a proud community of just over 10,000 people and just so happens to also be the place where this author calls home. The town is known throughout Missouri for its sports prowess, particularly when it comes to high school football. For example, over the course of the ten years that I’ve lived here, Webb City High School has won seven football state championships (including five in a row from 2010-14), completed five undefeated seasons, and amassed a combined record of 139-8 (94.6 winning percentage).
Despite the success on the gridiron, Garrard’s response to the home run he surrendered was one of the most defining sports moments for Webb City in the past decade.
But this moment almost didn’t happen. Before making it to the World Series, Webb City had to first go through the District, State, and Regional Tournaments.
In a recent interview with Head Coach Eric Parker, Assistant Coach Tyler Burgess, and Mekhi Garrard himself, Parker told me how the team almost didn’t make it out of the District Tournament, held in Joplin, Missouri.
“We actually got beat in districts by Joplin, who had a really, really good pitcher. He went toe-to-toe with one of our aces, Devrin [Weathers], and I think they beat us 3-2 or 4-2. We had the bases loaded and Devrin up to bat with two outs in the last inning. He hit a shot to shortstop and the kid snagged it and then flipped to second. And we were thinking, ‘we’re going to win this game’, but we lost and we had to come back and win a game, which wasn’t that hard the next game. But then we had to beat Joplin two times in a row just to get out of Districts to get to State.”
“We didn’t have any competition really at state, we kinda ran through state.”
But then Webb City stumbled again in the first game of the Regionals, held in Indianapolis. Their game was the first one of the Tournament, immediately following the pre-tournament parade and all its accompanying distractions. Consequently, the team was “as nervous as could be” and “didn’t quite play as loose as we would have liked”, which led to a 3-2 extra-inning loss to Nebraska. This meant the team would have to fight and claw their way out of the loser’s bracket with four straight wins in order to reach Williamsport. It’s safe to say the boys settled in as they won those four games by a combined score of 49-9 to punch their ticket to the Little League World Series.
Of the opportunity to go to Williamsport, Garrard said, “It was kind of crazy to make it there because when we were younger, that was our goal. To figure out now that we actually succeeded. Our mindset really was to just have fun and to not be down on ourselves if we lost.”
Coach Parker agreed: “They had already won by getting there. Yes, the goal was to win it all, but we sat them down and said, ‘No matter what you do. No matter what the results are, do not leave here without having as much fun as you possibly can this week’.”
In so doing, the stage was set for Webb City’s first World Series game, as well as what Parker called “Mekhi’s Moment”.
Webb City’s first opponent was unfortunately the Pennsylvania team which hailed from not too far away.
“We went to a coach’s meeting and they draw a lottery to draw the bracket for the week,” said Burgess. “We’re sitting in this big conference room and the coaches from every team are there. They pull our name out of the hat and we get our match-up against the Pennsylvania team. And it had been a long time since they had had a team representing the state of Pennsylvania so close to Williamsport. So we get our matchup and they’re like, ‘You know you guys are probably going to have north of 25,000 people there.’”
By the way, “they” undersold the attendance by five-to-ten thousand. Not to mention that the local team was very confident in their ability to hit:
Parker said, “They won the flip and the coach said, ‘we’ll take visitor’ and I was like ‘uh-oh’.”
Uh-oh is right. Pennsylvania’s bats come out on fire. Eventually, Garrard came in to pitch with the game already out of hand. With Pennsylvania leading 14-0 and the bases load, Cole Wagner came to the plate. He proceeded to unleash on a Garrard pitch.
This was a moment that turned an athlete turned into a fan. A 12-year-old in the heat of competition realized that an incredible feat of human achievement was happening, so he innocently took a moment to drink it in.
Recalling the thoughts in his head as we watched the ball sail into the night, Garrard said, “When I saw it, I knew he hit it really far. So I looked back and it was still in the air. I was like, ‘that’s crazy, that’s so far for how young he is.”
“Holy Cow,” said Parker. “I think we even stepped up on the steps and just watched it. It was over 300 feet for a 12-year-old. That was pretty amazing.”
“I remember watching and being at a loss for words,” recounts Burgess. “You weren’t frustrated, you weren’t angry as a coach. You took it in and it was a raw moment, which is youth sports to a ‘T’. It’s pretty cool, you see Mekhi’s reaction and I’m pretty sure there was a high-five or two given as he rounded the bases. We looked at each other in the dugout and you’re like, ‘hey, it is what it is.’ You tip your cap. Mekhi obviously had a great attitude and mindset about it and that helped. So you couldn’t feel too bad for him in that moment.”
Many of you will also vividly remember this moment, specifically because it immediately went viral and was picked up by numerous sports and news outlets around the country. You might even remember exactly where you were during the game; I know I do. I was in New Braunfels, Texas at my mother-in-law’s house. I remember thinking that it felt like Mekhi immediately went from “pitcher” to “fan of baseball” really quickly. He was staring in awe and admiration, just like the rest of us.
What exactly is it about “Mekhi’s Moment” that made a nation collectively turn its eyes towards Williamsport and the look of wonder painted on the face of a young man as he watched a ball sail over his head?
Garrard himself says, “I think that when you’re down and you get something hit off you like that, just don’t be down. So when I wasn’t down, people liked the positivity that I brought.”
Coach Parker surmises that “it’s about the kids, I think that’s why a lot of people love watching it. Because the kids still play for the love of the game. That’s the reaction if you’re playing Wiffle ball in the back yard with your buddies and someone takes you deep. Then you just smile and laugh and everyone’s having a good time still. That’s how Mekhi reacted to it.”
Burgess thinks “Mekhi’s Moment” became a phenomenon because of the organic nature of what happened.
“I think it was a raw sports moment. Mekhi was giving his best. The Wagner kid was giving it his best. He got the most of that pitch. As a 12-year-old you’re playing at the top of the game. Any 12-year-old that plays baseball wants to be in that moment. With so many people there, it’s on ESPN, it’s televised, your friends and family are watching at home. Mekhi handled it like a champ. He did. With his attitude, you could tell how much he loved being in that moment. ‘I gave it my best. He hit it. So what? He got me. But I want to go out there and I want to do it again.’ I was very proud of how he handled the moment.”
I personally believe the reason this video went viral is that we all want to find ourselves in Mekhi’s reaction.
As much as we want to compete, we want to be “wowed”.
As badly as we want to win, we want to experience humans doing things we never thought possible.
As deeply as we yearn to be the best, there are days when someone better comes along.
One never knows how they’ll respond in a difficult moment. We all want to hope that we would react the same as Mekhi did, but you never know (especially when you’re on the wrong side of an 18-0 drubbing).
Not Mekhi Garrard. He exhibited a pure and unadulterated joy for the game of baseball.
Garrard’s reaction reminds us to be human. We want to see other humans succeed. We want to celebrate together. We want to be unified and joined together.
You’re probably wondering how the Webb City team fared in the rest of their games in the World Series, which is a double-elimination tournament.
Their next game was against Rhode Island. This was a much tighter contest, but giving up five runs in the first inning was ultimately too much to overcome. Webb City was almost able to mount a comeback in the last inning but unfortunately hit into a double-play with the bases loaded and their hottest hitter, Cale McCallister, standing in the on-deck circle. Final score: Rhode Island 6, Webb City 3.
Despite being officially eliminated, Webb City was able to play a consolation game against the Canadian team to round out their time in Williamsport. Webb City won this game 18-6 to come home to Missouri with the taste of victory as their lasting memory of the Little League World Series.
I was curious to learn what each man I interviewed would take away from their World Series experience after these five years.
Burgess says, “I was there to help coach those boys in the game of baseball, but more importantly it was the game of life. It hadn’t been too long since I had been their age. Walking through that with them and building relationships with them. Yes, we remember some of the scores and the moments of the games, but it was the moments on the bus trips or the restaurants or in hotels.”
“It’s neat that eight or nine of those boys, I still have a relationship with today. I talk to them often, keep up with them, and go watch them here at the local high school. With their families, it’s like one big family. I see a lot of their parents still today and we have good, fond memories of that time we spent together. It’s something we’ll cherish for the rest of our lives.”
Coach Parker says of the experience, “You know it’s big when you make it [to Williamsport] and you’re going through it. You know that that’s going to be memories you have for the rest of your life. But it wasn’t just the experience of getting to Williamsport. It was the whole ride, starting with practice or when they were seven or eight years old and coaching them all the way. It was raising them right to carry themselves right. Representing Webb City the right way. They did that with flying colors.”
“Mekhi’s moment helped propel them. But I think the way they carried themselves everywhere helped too. And they [Little League personnel] voted on them [the Webb City team] getting the sportsmanship award, which is a tremendous honor. We found out after we got it that we were the very first US team to ever be awarded it. It makes you feel like, ‘I think we raised these boys right. We’ve guided them. We’ve done our best. They made us proud.’”
Garrard’s takeaway is a reminder of the fleeting nature of life, “Never take the moments for granted because they’re going to go fast. Looking back on it now, that went super fast. High school is going fast right now. I didn’t think it was five years to now.”
I think you’re probably beginning to see the whole picture:
Mekhi Garrard’s reaction to Cole Wagner’s grand slam on that night in 2015 is not just the result of his own good nature, but also that of the community investing in his life and helping craft the young man he was and is becoming. Sure, there is innate goodness in him, that he would react as he did, but the desire of people like Eric Parker and Tyler Burgess to willingly give of their time to pour into future generations like Garrard is a big deal.
I’ll let both men speak to their desire to help grown and develop young people.
“The kids that you’re around or that you help shape, they reflect you in themselves a little bit. They made us proud. To this day, those kids still make me proud. Whether I see them running track, jumping hurdles, long jump, playing on the basketball court, playing football or baseball. I see how they carry themselves around the community. The way they have respect for others. It makes me feel good. I thoroughly enjoyed all the time I spent with it [coaching], but also makes me feel like there’s some positive and a reason we did it. I still do it to this day. I’m still coaching Little League. It’s just softball now [with his daughter].”
“I had many positive role models in my life. They just so happened to be through or around the game of baseball. So it’s easy for me to use baseball the same way and to hopefully mold and shape some of these guys or be a positive influence to them. Not just on the field but off the field. Someday they’re going to be husbands and dads and out in their career field, whatever it might be. I think the lessons they learned on the baseball field surrounded by Eric and [assistant coach] Jason [Woodmansee] and the parents and our community, those lessons are what they’re going to take into those roles someday soon. And if we think that the Little League World Series was five years ago, they’re going to have a little one running around before they know it. That role is going to be different and I think they’re going to be well-equipped to be men that we’re going to be proud of, not just 12-year-old kids. So I think that’s the neat part is watching them continue to grow up and hopefully do good things here in the future as well.”
As we all know, we haven’t been able to closely interact with one another lately, due to COVID-19. Perhaps “Mekhi’s Moment” is just the nudge we need to be able to recall that we are not alone and that life is worth celebrating.
In this season of quarantining and separation, may the five-year anniversary of “Mekhi’s Moment” be a reminder to us all of the power of sports. And more than that, a reminder of the humanity that is within each of us, and the joy that comes when we connect through different moments in life, whatever those may be; including a group of 12-year-old boys out playing a game they love.
As we look forward to a great future when our country comes back together and heals, we look forward to many more of these great moments through sports.
Thanks, Mekhi, for letting us share this moment with you.
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