We sportswriters often use the word adversity. We often write about teams overcoming it, saying that they made big in-game comebacks or overcame big deficits in the standings.
But really we are short-changing what the word means. In their basic form, sports never present true adversity. They are, after all, just games.
Real adversity is what Cayden Smekens and Bryce Pinkard have had to endure.
The two New Castle, Ind., standout baseball players already have had to encounter situations that could make any adult cower. Smekens lost his father, Danny, a New Castle legend, to cancer a year and a half ago. And earlier this year, Pinkard's family lost nearly everything when a fire destroyed their house.
That is the epitome of battling adversity.
Smekens and Pinkard could have crumbled, they could have asked why and they could have given up on things. That both have excelled on and off the field while helping New Castle reach the Little League Baseball World Series for the first time reveals how strong these so-called kids are. What they have done really represents a triumph of the human spirit.
"It would be real easy for them to get down, but they are great kids," New Castle manager Tim Porter said. "We always talk about Danny (Smekens) and sometimes we forget that Cayden is 12 and realize that while he's got big shoulders that is a weight you don't want a 40-year-old to carry, but he keeps excelling. Bryce doesn't talk much about it. He just says that's a part of life and you move on."
I am 36, and truthfully have no idea how I would function in either of those situations. I don't know if I would display the strength these 12 year olds have. Adults are supposed to be role models, but in Smekens and Pinkard, New Castle has two young ones right now.
Smekens' father was the backbone of New Castle Little League, coaching this group from the time they were 8 until the day he died. He was an intense competitor but more than anything, he was a local humanitarian, always thinking of others and doing whatever he could to help.
So the best compliment someone could give Cayden is telling him he is every bit his father's son. Cayden not only is an elite hitter, pitcher and first baseman, but also a team leader who makes those around him better players and people.
"Cayden has a great heart and is a great kid," said coach Bret Mann, Danny's best friend. "He has very high expectations of himself and as far as being generous to others and thinking of others above himself, he has a lot of his dad in him. And he's a very good baseball player like his dad, too."
Smekens, who started on the mound against Oregon on Friday night, has played sensational all summer, and especially during the Great Lakes Regional tournament when he hit .588. Smekens also threw a two-hitter against top-seeded Wisconsin in a 2-1 semifinal win before delivering two hits and reaching base three times in a dramatic 6-5 championship win over Kentucky.
His best moment, though, might have come in the state championship against perennial Indiana power Jeffersonville. That night he came up with the bases-loaded in the 10th inning of a tied game and, after working a 3-1 count, pointed his bat toward his father in the sky.
Then he slammed a 280-foot grand slam home run and showed that adversity presents him no match.
"That was the most surreal moment I've ever experienced," Mann said. "That was one of the greatest things I've ever seen."
Another great moment came in the Great Lakes championship. This time it was Pinkard who revealed how tough he is. Kentucky had taken a 5-1 lead when Porter replaced the starting pitcher with Pinkard to start the third inning. Owning the moment in front of a national television audience, Pinkard surrendered only one hit in four innings and blanked Kentucky the rest of the way.
New Castle rallied to win on Mason Gilles's walk-off single, but had it not been for Pinkard they never would have had a chance to come back. Considering he also ignited the sixth-inning rally with a lead-off single, Pinkard easily was the game's most valuable player.
That Pinkard, who closed the door on Oregon on Friday night, was so comfortable in such a situation is not surprising. After eveything he has endured, playing in a big baseball game is not pressure. It is a release. It is fun.
"I don't know how he does it," New Castle Little League President Phil Jolley said. "He's just a great kid, a great individual."
It was last winter when Pinkard woke up in the middle of the night and felt heat on his face. He then discovered an electrical fire had broken out. Instead of escaping, he rushed toward his mother's and sibling's rooms and got his family out first.
Had he not done so, the Pinkards might not be here today. He is only 12, but Pinkard already is a hero.
That is another word often used too much, but it certainly applies when talking about Smekens and Pinkard.
Neither one asks for sympathy or talks much. Neither has to say a word because their actions speak loudest.
Smekens and Pinkard know all about real adversity and overcoming it.
They truly are comeback kids.
Masse may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on twitter at @docmasse.