By JOHN COTEY
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 18, 2001
TAMPA -- It was just the way James O'Donoghue remembered the feeling: that sweet slash through the baseball, the ping of aluminum, that quick sprint down to first base, the sound of cheers and of his hands slapping together in celebration, the grass beneath his feet as he trotted out to rightfield, the feeling of the ball as he closed his glove around it.
All these things seemed so natural, and so familiar.
Of course, O'Donoghue couldn't exactly remember the last time he experienced these chills, but he knew there was nothing like them.
But Robert Valiente was able to pitch Thursday, and pitch well, and O'Donoghue was alive again.
It was only fitting that these two, this combination of the junior O'Donoghue and the senior Valiente, would shine so brightly on this of all days.
Valiente and O'Donoghue. O'Donoghue and Valiente. Together again.
They have been linked all season, one's fate tied to the other's. With his healed right arm, Valiente would make a dramatic return to the mound and O'Donoghue, with his eager bat, would drive in the winning run in a 5-3 victory to give Tampa Catholic its ninth state title.
"All I can say is, it's about time," O'Donoghue said. "I've been waiting for this for a long time."
Let's count the days since Valiente injured his right arm pitching in a March baseball game. Unable to pitch since, save for a brief relief outing against a team from New York, Valiente played centerfield, his natural position and the one that gave Tampa Catholic its best defensive lineup.
That made O'Donoghue's natural position the bench.
So he waited. When he got a chance to DH for another player, he homered. Two days later, he did it again.
Then he returned to his spot beside the bat rack.
And waited some more.
"I hit those homers and thought, what more can I do," O'Donoghue said. "It was frustrating. I wanted to play. But I had to be patient.
"I remember asking Robert, "Is your arm really that hurt, bro? I want to play."'
O'Donoghue knew what it was like to be hurt. A sore wrist sidetracked his freshmen year, and then last year he earned the starting job at third base until, three games into the season, he broke his thumb.
But now, finally, he was healthy and he was ready.
"I felt bad for him," Valiente said. "He kept bugging me, "Man, when you going to get on the mound?'
"But it kind of worked out, huh?"
It worked out because TC coach Chuck Yingling deemed his ace fit, and because Yingling made magic in this state tournament by managing masterfully.
"When I heard he was pitching, and I knew I was playing ... it was just the greatest feeling. What a time to finally get to play."
What a time to hit a bomb to center in the fourth inning of the game, and a bullet single in the sixth to score the go-ahead run.
Ask him now if he remembers his last start.
Which brings us back to Valiente, who by his own admission didn't have his best stuff. He had no curveball, threw just eight changeups and relied on a fastball not all that fast while relying on location, location, location.
Yingling only wanted five innings. He sat out Charles Cleveland, one of the team's top hitters, so he would be ready for relief. Tony Moscato was on stand-by.
Five lousy innings is all the coach was asking for.
Valiente went six. Then six and one-third. Then six and two-thirds.
And O'Donoghue silently cheered his partner in fate.
"I was praying for him to go seven innings," he said. "I just wanted to be on the field when the game ended."
When it did, he sprinted for the pile-up. Valiente was somewhere at the bottom; O'Donoghue was somewhere on top.
Linked together forever, now, by a sea of green and a state title.
"I just jumped right on top," O'Donoghue said. "It felt like I was on top of the world."