Roots and Branches: Best and worst of times in cherry and softball seasons

Sometimes the best of times come when you least expect it, amidst the worst of times.

After a full year of planting, watering, feeding and pruning the cherry trees, then eliminating the pesky bugs and diseases that affect cherry production, the Yasui boys set a bumper crop of Bing, Rainier and Skeena cherries. The fruit was shaping up to be the glistening, crisp orbs of juicy goodness that the consumer can’t wait to gorge themselves on over the fourth of July.

This season looked extremely promising. Cherries were in high demand and at an exceptionally high price, given the recent loss of crops in California and Washington just prior to our harvest season.

Experienced farmers seldom count their chickens before they’re hatched, but conversations at the local coffee house were optimistic on all fronts. You could feel the excitement growing within the farm families as well, as they began to thin the cherries, a labor-intensive process that helps maximize the cherry’s girth.

Harvest was just around the corner, and all the hourly work of the preceding year was going to be topped off with piece work which garners families an additional $4,000 to $6,000 dollars in just a few weeks.

Then Mother Nature cast an ominously dark thunder cloud on our sunny forecast, followed by three all-out rain storms, one day after another. Just when you thought you had dodged the bullet, another rain would come.

We walked the orchard rows after each rain, counting splits in the different cherry blocks, 10 percent, 15 percent, 40 percent, 60 percent. One after another of the different cherry varieties in different blocks began to split. Huge, gaping cracks appeared, and as the temperatures soared the cherries became soft, and began to spoil.

It isn’t over until the fat lady sings, and we would try picking to see what the pack-out percentages would be, but the fat lady was humming pretty loudly before we filled the first cherry bucket.

While the farmer feels the loss the most intimately, there are concentric circles of individuals and businesses that are impacted when harvest is called a no-pick. There are the families that pick, sort and pack the fruit, the fruit companies themselves, the grocery stores and fruit stands, the truck drivers and consumer. All along the food chain losses are incurred.

To make matters worse, the weather pattern that brought first the rain then the hot weather affects the valley pears, as well. A disease called fire blight starts spreading in the limbs of the pear trees, with some varieties more susceptible than others. The diseased limbs must be cut off and burned to slow the spread throughout the orchard.

Readers may recall about 10 years ago when complete blocks of pears were cut down, costing some farmers their businesses.

So what is the silver lining in this disastrous season? We were able to keep our own farm families working and food on their table. Farmers came together to support one another, and the fruit companies worked hard to find different markets for the perishable fruit. Some farmers’ fruit survived the rain and heat and are still in harvest.

With a shorter season, Flip and I were able to go to Bend and watch our granddaughter Aunika, the Bon Bon, play in the 9-10 Little League softball all-star games at District 5. Memories came flooding back, of softball games when Aunika’s mother, Kim, was playing. We balanced our butts on blazing-hot bleachers for over a decade with the Hinmans, Moores, Beams and Guertins, only to see them again as grandparents watching another generation play ball.

Flip and I coached T-ball, softball and all-star teams periodically, making the trek to Hermiston, Pendleton, Madras and Redmond. There were no traveling teams at that time. Little League was the only game in town. Now most of the competitive players play year-round.

We met some new softball families — Brun, Kona, Ritoch and Matthews — but the others had spent many a season on or around the baseball diamond, Routsons, Leibleins, Zorzas and Nickelsens, with their daughters ready to carry on the tradition.

We were pleased to see that this generation of coaches, managers and tournament organizers still focused on good sportsmanship and player and team growth, rather than the almighty win. They take the Little League Pledge seriously.

Watching Aunika’s Odell team was a little painful throughout the short season. They were annihilated in all but two of the games. We cheered on the occasional catch, great pitch and substantial hit in our short softball season. The girls played for the fun of it. And a few were starting to demonstrate some basic skills, and a little understanding of the game.

The all-star team that formed at the end of the season had a lot to learn in a few short weeks. But managers and coaches Jason Kona, Chris Zorza and Chris Nickelsen brought the girls together into a team that was fun to watch. They actually began looking like a team.

But diamond old-timers knew that the level of competition would be much higher at district. We couldn’t have been more wrong.

All the girls did well in Bend. Rylee Kona’s pitching and catching were equal to the best players; Celilo Brun’s bat was hot; Taylor Beam seldom missed a catch or throw and Aunika Yasui became one heck of a short first baseman, as well as a power hitter.

The little girls Zorza, Moore, Routson, Matthews and Lieblein scampered around the bases, stealing so often Deputy Guertin threatened them with detention. Jessa Nickelsen and Grace Guertin did some fancy pitching and fielding, and Molly Ritoch kept the team smiling at all times. They all had their time in the sun. They were undefeated District 5 champions.

Playing at state was a different story. High expectations were dashed when one after another of the teams fielded great pitchers, hitters and fielders. Yet it was the best of times as the Cinderella team lost four straight games to some great teams.

When they finally hit the ball off bullpens as deep as the Grand Canyon, or caught a line drive they previously would have dodged, they cheered each other on. They never let up or got down.

As they left the field after their last game, the announcer and tournament organizer was cheering them on along with the teams that had beaten them over the last two days. These experienced traveling teams recognized the power of the heart of a champion and they stood and applauded.

Just like cherry season, it can be the best of times in the worst of times when you all come together and support one another. Priceless when you get to the heart of a champion.

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