INDIANAPOLIS -- As Ty Griffin walked to the plate in the ninth inning of a tie game in old Bush Stadium Saturday afternoon, the crowd roaring behind him, he kept telling himself what singles hitters usually tell themselves in situations like this: "Make contact. Keep the inning alive. Don't make the third out."
There already were two outs. One of Griffin's teammates was on first. His mother was sitting in the stands near home plate, waving a tiny U.S. flag. Naturally, his heart was jumping. Griffin plays ball for the United States' Pan American Games team. His team was playing Cuba, which had won 33 Pan Am baseball games in a row, dating back to 1967, the year Griffin was born.
What happened next, he will never forget as long as he lives.
As a 1-1 pitch from Cuban ace Pablo Abreu headed toward him, Griffin realized the inside fastball he was expecting actually was going to be a hanging curve, high, outside and big as could be. Griffin swung, dropped his bat when he felt contact, and looked toward the sky. "It kept carrying," he said yesterday morning, remembering.
As more than 12,000 fans stood and looked, Griffin's towering blast dropped out of sight over the left field wall. It was gone, a two-run home run to defeat the Cubans, 6-4.
Griffin ran as he watched it go. The game was over, he knew. But when he rounded second, what came into view really got to him. There were the fans, thousands of them, jumping up and down, screaming. He saw dozens and dozens of American flags. He saw his teammates coming out to mob him at home plate. And then he saw his mother and little brother and other relatives who came in from Tampa, Fla., to watch him play. He caught their eyes. They caught his.
"The feeling went through my body like a jolt," he said after batting practice at a local high school this morning. " 'You did it,' I told myself. 'You did it.' I guess the only way it would have been better would be if it had been for the gold."
What an unlikely hero Griffin had become. He was picked for the U.S. team, now 5-0 with two games to go before the medal round, because he can run and because he can play center and short in addition to his regular spot at second. He was not picked for his hitting, said U.S. Coach Ron Fraser.
When Fraser was making out the lineup card for Saturday's game, Griffin walked up to him and asked if he could bat third.
"No," Fraser told him. "You're our leadoff guy. Get some walks, bunt, get on base. We'll leave the home runs to the other guys."
In the first inning, Griffin did just that, leading off with a single to right and scoring the United States' first run. In the seventh inning, with his team down by two runs, Griffin homered with the bases empty off Cuba's Rogelio Garcia, who has a 93-mph fastball.
Griffin, a junior-to-be at Georgia Tech, has been a switch hitter for two years. He was batting left-handed in the seventh inning; right-handed in the ninth.
"I'm not sure where the power comes from," Griffin said. "I'm a singles and doubles hitter. If anything, what's happening is I'm becoming a smarter hitter now and just adjusting to the pitch."
Griffin, who is 5 feet 11 and weighs 180 pounds, hit eight home runs in his first two seasons at Georgia Tech. He has hit three in a week here.
Growing up in Tampa, Griffin played Little League baseball in Belmont Heights. New York Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden was in the same league, but always a level ahead of him, so Griffin never had to hit against him.
In those games, Griffin did what all kids do -- he dreamed of hitting the big home run to win an important game. "There always were two outs, and I was up," he said. "What do you do? You hit a home run to win the game."
In 1985, Griffin was drafted in the 12th round by the Baltimore Orioles. He didn't like the money they were offering, so he decided to go to college. He will be eligible to be drafted again next year. "I guess my stock should be higher," he said with a smile.
Griffin is the only black player on the U.S. team. He is a popular teammate and doesn't seem distracted by the outside world, yet he is concerned about the issue of blacks in baseball.
"Black kids aren't playing in Little League any more," he said recently.
Today, black kids -- and white kids -- who play baseball have a new role model. It's hard for Griffin to tell how much the rest of the nation knows or cares about what he did, but here, his team is being compared to the U.S. Olympic hockey team of 1980. And he is being compared to goalie Jim Craig, who, draped in the flag, looked for his father in the stands at Lake Placid. Others here have mentioned "The Natural." Griffin laughs and shakes his head about that one. "I didn't knock the cover off the ball," he said.
But what Griffin did was something amazing, even if it didn't win anyone a medal.
"I don't know if people realize what an unbelievable thing that was," Fraser said of Saturday's game.
Afterward, reporters waited for Griffin in the interview room outside the stadium. He didn't come in for the longest time because he simply could not get through the crowds of people who wanted to pat him on the back, get his autograph, shake his hand. Finally he appeared.
"Is the party over yet?" Griffin asked with a big smile.
For him, it had only begun.