Along with his father’s baseball intelligence, Justin Jirschele has inherited the deep perfectionism that runs through his family. They are particular people. In his winters, Mike Jirschele, World Series champion, still works in the basement of the Clintonville furniture store where he has worked for more than three decades, repairing broken night stands and touching up nicks in bed frames with wax and paint. He has become expert at using his tiny brushes to mimic the grain of wood. Until Justin and Liz married and moved to Madison this winter, he delivered the furniture his father made perfect. The keen eye for detail was passed along with it.
A darker genetic strain also courses through the Jirscheles. Justin’s grandparents Don and Mary had eight children: four boys, including Mike, and four girls. When their eldest son, Doug, was 11, they noticed that he had begun walking on the balls of his feet. Tests revealed that muscular dystrophy had first surfaced in an attack on Doug’s Achilles’ tendon. The Jirscheles were told that their daughters might be carriers of the disease but most likely free of symptoms. All the boys were destined for wheelchairs, and if any of them reached 40, they should consider themselves lucky. Mike somehow escaped the disease, mystifying the doctors, but his younger brother, Pete, did not. Mary was pregnant at the time with her eighth child. She and Don hoped for a girl, but he was a boy, Jim, and he was also afflicted. Mike’s three brothers, Justin’s three uncles, each made it to 40, but not by much. There are still signs of them everywhere in Don’s home, in the wheelchair ramps and pulley systems and the small, framed reminder over the changing table in the bathroom: “Love never fails.”
Justin can remember the entire family — his grandparents, his uncles, his mother and his siblings — piling into vans in the summertime, wheelchairs folded into the back, driving across the country to see his father manage the game he loved. “I wouldn’t trade those trips for the world,” Justin said, and he could barely get out the words before his eyes filled with tears.
Watching baseball with Justin, going over his games with him in the quiet of his office, is an ongoing lesson in mindfulness. He talks about baseball with wonder. He’s captivated by its infinitude, at the range of possibility that exists in the space between its expected and actual outcomes. It’s a game of sometimes painfully fine lines. “What-ifs,” he said one frustrating night, shaking his head. The way a pitching coach might break down a pitcher’s delivery into its beats, Jirschele pulls apart the entire game, first finding its movements and then examining each of its notes. The discordant ones stand out for him the most. That’s partly because good ears are doomed to disappointment. It’s more because he believes that being careless with your blessings is a sin.
The Intimidators lost their first two games against the BlueClaws, and they lost mostly because they combined for six errors in the field. On the afternoon before their third game, Jirschele held a little conference with his position players. He told them that he was proud of the way they had kept their heads in the game even after their mistakes. (“They’re not dinking the dog,” was how he said it to me.) He reminded them that baseball isn’t a game that allows even the best to be perfect very often; it’s a game of try. So long as he continued to see effort, so long as they kept working on their fundamentals, so long as they played baseball as if they were lucky to play it, they had nothing to worry about. Nobody had anything to worry about.
That night they lost again in excruciating fashion. They had a 4-3 lead in the top of the ninth. Lakewood was down to its final out, nobody on. Two strikes. The Intimidators crowded the top step of their dugout, ready for their first celebration of the year. The batter took a check swing for what looked like Strike 3, but the umpire ruled that he hadn’t gone around. He hit the next pitch deep to right for a home run to tie the game, and Kannapolis lost in extras. It was Fireworks Night, and the sky filled after with an almost mocking light. They lost their next game, too. In Justin Jirschele’s first series as a manager, he had also endured his first sweep.
He called his father. Experience proves most helpful when times are hard. There isn’t much Mike hasn’t seen, which means there isn’t much he hasn’t suffered, which means there isn’t much he hasn’t survived. Nobody wants to be swept; everybody is swept. He steadied Justin, telling him that baseball has a way of balancing its ledgers.
In their first meeting with the Rome Braves, they played close to a perfect ballgame and carried a 5-1 lead into the ninth. Mike Morrison, a 23-year-old righty, came in to close out the game for Kannapolis. Jirschele had his foot on the top dugout step. Morrison dug in and stared down the first batter. He struck him out.
The next batter chopped one back to Morrison, who threw the ball to first — two away.
The last batter went down swinging.
For the first time, a victorious Jirschele met his team on the field for celebratory handshakes. Morrison had retrieved the ball from his catcher’s glove, and when he reached Jirschele, he led with it, and then followed it with a hug.
“I had some family issues,” Morrison said, “and he checks on me every single day. We love playing for him. He works his butt off. I told him it was the first of many. He’ll probably have 3,000 of these one day.”
Jirschele didn’t really coach one team this season. As the summer wore on, the Intimidators were constantly overhauled. His most consistent pitcher, a towering 22-year-old named Dane Dunning, was promoted after just four brilliant starts; Jirschele lost another seven players in a mass promotion after the All-Star break, when his team was in first place. By August, only nine members of his original 25-man roster still played for him. Morrison was among the departed.
Jirschele changed as well, although in less obvious ways. The placement of infielders has always been his favorite of the game’s many opportunities for subtle artistry. Last season, when he was still a hitting coach and perhaps prematurely given that task by his manager, Jirschele erred on the side of caution when positioning his infielders even late in close games. He dreaded the idea of seeing a lazy ball drop over their heads, scoring runners from second and third, so he played them out. In his first game this season, however, he drew his players in-between, and by the third game, he was bringing them all the way in. There are signs of his growing fearlessness on the basepaths too. He’s trying to steal more bases and more often calling for the hit-and-run. He has also asked his players to bunt a little less and swing away more. It’s still too early to know, but Jirschele might prove that rare example of a man whom time makes more free.
The Intimidators eventually recovered from their slow start, going on a tear to earn their first postseason appearance since 2009. “It’s gone so fast,” Justin said of his first season, sitting in his office in late August. He was in the heart of baseball’s hardest month, and he was still arriving at the ballpark a half-day early. “I still have the same feeling every day when I wake up,” he said. “I absolutely love this.”