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“You can’t beat the old vets.”

So said Miller 45s Manager Bobby Rascia Sunday night after one of the most competitive, well played and entertaining Forest Park Invitational softball tournament games in recent memory. A thrilling 6-5 extra inning win over a tough Jynx team in the second championship game gave the 45s an unprecedented seventh No Glove National title.

“We really haven’t been playing too good,” Rascia admitted. “But we put it all together tonight and over the last few days.”

Indeed, after two decades of battling every July in the Forest Park Invitational – the last nine as the dominant team in 16-inch softball – the veterans on the 45s were beginning to feel like the best years may be behind them. Sunday night, though, they discovered there was still some fire in their collective belly, as they battled back from the loser’s bracket to beat Jynx twice.

If leaping infield grabs, diving outfield catches, gap line drives and prodigious long balls are your idea of great 16-inch softball, then both teams put on a show for the ages in the second title game. Forest Park was 16-inch heaven Sunday, filled with astounding defense and key hits. Most every inning, it seemed, ended with a great play.

“The great players make the big plays,” said 45s pitcher Rick Gancarz, himself a two-time Forest Park MVP. “Our defense really won the tournament for us.”

Fittingly, in a day filled with sparkling defensive plays, it was catcher Mark Holstein, a prodigious long-ball hitter who reached base on a skied pop up, who earned MVP honors. Offense or defense, it was all the same to Holstein, who called the title game “one of the funnest games I’ve probably ever played here at Forest Park.”

“We played as a team, we won as a team,” he said.

Perfect weather, large crowds

Off the field, the No Gloves experience Saturday and Sunday was about as perfect as it gets. As evening settled in, pastel-tinged clouds floated against blue skies above the tree line.

Larry Piekarz, executive director of the park district, was happy with the economics of the tournament as well. Attendance was high, and food and beer sales strong. The 800 refillable beer mugs sold out by Friday night, and by Sunday afternoon, most of the tournament T-shirts were sold, as well.

The only real hitch in the plans came Friday night, when steady rain suspended two late games. The drenching left a soggy mess Saturday morning, forcing crews to arrive at the field at 5 a.m. and log a 19-hour day. Larry Buckley, superintendent of the grounds crew, said his staff followed that marathon with a 15-hour day on Sunday.

“I’m ready to go home,” Buckley said before the second title game, managing a listless smile.

Mayor Anthony Calderone made note of the hard work that goes into the No Gloves tournament. In public comments prior to the championship games he thanked “all of the staff that, year after year, produces a quality ball field.”

“The village of Forest Park is very lucky to have a park district and a board of commissioners that year after year, without fail, produces the best 16-inch No Gloves National tournament known to man,” he said.

Two veteran teams

Led by MVP candidate Kevin Cusick, Jynx (5-2), who received no Thursday bye, roared through the winner’s bracket, beating southside rivals Wallace and Crush each by 10-2 finals, then Flash on Saturday.

In the meantime, the 45s beat the Slammers and the Roadrunners. Saturday night, Jynx put the tournament on notice with a 4-2 win over the defending champion 45s.

“We had, like, four chances with men in scoring position with two outs, and just didn’t get the hits,” said the 45s Jeff Berger. “That’s the game.”

Jynx went on to beat Windy City 11-3 in the winner’s bracket final as the 45s prepared to play three games in the loser’s bracket. If they were going to win the tournament, the 45s would have to beat Jynx twice because the team was coming out of the loser’s bracket.

In the first championship game, the 45s smacked Jynx with four runs in the first and seven more in the second. Sanchez blasted a shot that bounced over the fence 10 feet past the 245-foot marker for a ground-rule double to score two more, and Holstein’s singling in Sanchez during the seven run second. The 13-3 win in the first game forced the second title game, and the 45s won the coin toss for home team.

With their offense quiet early on, the 45s kept the game scoreless with their defense. Sanchez’s umpteenth pick of a fast, low throw out of the dirt snuffed out a strong Jynx attempt in the first inning. In the second, Zabratanski stole a hit with a sensational lunging grab to his left.

Jynx players managed some great plays of their own. With two outs in the second, Dan Jalowiecz hammered a shot deep down the left field line, sending Larry Downes wheeling across the plate. But catcher Dan Houlihan pulled down a great relay throw and smothered the sliding Jalowiecz at the plate for the out.

With the bases loaded and one out in the fifth, Cusick smashed a shot that Zabratanski bobbled, then shoveled to third for the out as a run scored, tying the game.

The 45s got two in the bottom of the fifth, one on a sac fly that would have been a home run but for a spectacular running grab by Jynx center fielder Jeremy Lofrano, and the other on a tremendous blast by Holstein.

Jynx got one back when John Scimone wheeled home from second on a single. Al Manzo gave them the lead when he hammered a shot into the left field gap for a two-run triple. Once again, Sanchez saved another run when he handled an infield one-hopper and rifled a throw to Holstein at the plate for the tag.

The 45s were in trouble in the top of the eighth, with men on first and third and just one out. It was then Sanchez made perhaps the play of the weekend. Grabbing a line smash to his right, he spun around and began to chase the runner back to first before flipping the ball to Gancarz, who had sprinted over to cover the base.

In the bottom of the eighth, Holstein led off with a towering pop up into short right. He motored into third after the ball bounced off the knee of the sliding right fielder, who had played deep after Holstein’s mammoth shot in the fifth. When Jynx walked the next two batters intentionally to load the bases and create a force at home, the plan nearly worked. But with two outs, Jalowiecz drove the ball into short left to score the game winner.

The championship was not only the 45s’ seventh in nine years, it matched the record four consecutive titles won by the powerhouse Bud North team of the late 1980s, further cementing the 45s’ status as the team of the decade and one of the best of all time.