Softball sign-up sheets are up in offices and churches for the coming season. If you’ve ever played softball and felt like you’ve lost a step getting down the first base line, here’s a story of an important twilight game with play-off (and other) implications.
…The Over 35, geez. We used to joke about that, and make fun of those guys at tournaments. We’d bitch about it when they were on a better field or playing at a better time than us as if the good fields and the good playing times should be reserved for the real softball players. “Over 35,” we’d say. “Is that their age or their waist size?” Of course, my own waist size is now closer to 40 than I am, and my double-knits have crossed over that fine line between snug and tight, but the Over 35? A cold, bony finger starts picking at something deep inside me.
I play first base now; the outfield literally and figuratively behind me. The green grass of youth replaced by the dirt and rocks where I now stand, the turf uneven from the footprints of all who have come before me.
In the outfield the other team is always just a distant threat, almost impersonal. You don’t see their faces, you just watch the ball and run it down and throw it back in while they either circle the bases or turn and jog back to their bench. At first base they come close. I see their faces, the fire in their eyes, the flare of their nostrils. I can hear them, smell them as they stand at my back, kicking dirt, waiting for the next play. When the throw and my stretch beat them to the bag they don’t act discouraged. They snort as if it’s only a matter of time. “Next time,” they seem to say. “Next time, old man…”
The Over 35
It’s late July and late in the evening. The sun is going down, the park lights are on, and there’s a summer golden twilight glow reflecting off the grass, the backstop, and on the aluminum bats and softballs that have spilled out of the equipment bag. We’re warming up on the side while the game ahead of us finishes out the last couple of innings.
I’m playing catch with Joe, our third baseman. This is all so familiar, yet all so different. How many times have I warmed up in my life? The rhythm is comforting; I feel my back muscles and thighs stretching and rolling in a purposeful manner that makes me feel good as I snap the ball over to Joe, then wait for its return. The ball comes in, a golden apple in the late evening. I can hear the bzzz of its scuffed skin as it nears my face; feel the smack as it snugs into the pocket of my glove. How many times have I smelled and tasted that explosion of grass, dust and leather?
I snap the ball back to Joe automatically. I’m doing something I love, and I should be at peace with the world and with myself. I am not. After our game last week, Bruce, our captain, had suggested that our team sign up for the Over 35 league next season.
Of course we had all hooted at the idea and thrown popcorn at him in the bar later for bringing it up, but the idea of it had kept coming back to me all week long, as annoying as a persistent life insurance salesman, or someone trying to sell grave plots.
The team’s been together now for something like 15 years, ever since that first company team. There’s been a lot of coming and going in that time, of course, but the core of us – me, Joe, Bruce, Carl and Big Ed – have been around for most of it. New jobs, new companies, new marriages, new kids, new divorces (divorce is something else I try to keep from thinking about), but softball has always remained. Every numbing winter, every ugly domestic scene, every soul-sapping moment at my job is always forgotten when it comes time for softball. A night or two out of the house each week and I can somehow stand everything else.
I remember how we were when we started. What a group we were back then: young, lean and hard. I used to play the outfield and I still can remember the feel of running after that impossible fly ball. The wind in my face, in my hair – how long it was back then – almost as if the force of my run was pushing my mouth into that smile as I tracked that sucker and knew I was going to catch it. I’d reach out and gather the ball in and in one motion pivot hard and almost without looking throw it back the opposite way to where I knew Carl would be waiting for the cut-off.
We were a machine; each of us chiseled and tooled as if we were made to play softball. We wore our double-knit ball pants tight, the pinstripes tracing around the contours of muscle, our stirrups pulled up to just the right height. There was no ground we couldn’t cover, no throw we couldn’t make, no clutch hit we couldn’t deliver. We roamed those dirt infields and unfenced outfields like birds of prey behind Big Ed. And Big Ed would stand behind his Mad Hungarian moustache and stare down the batters like he was hoping that just once the slow-pitch rules would change and he could smoke that ball in there high and hard, right underneath the batter’s chin. The batters somehow sensed this, and that was enough of an edge for Big Ed. He’d make that ball dance on the corners of the plate – inside, outside, high, low, just a little short, or just a little deep – enticing the batter to swing at the pitch that wasn’t quite as good as it looked.
We’d been city champs four times, runners up three times and always in contention it seemed like. Well, up until two years ago anyway. We’d been in kind of a slump – or at least a slump for us. It seemed like we just couldn’t get that big win. Our off seasons would be spent talking about recruiting a little more speed the next year.
But now Bruce is talking about the Over 35. He’s got to be overreacting. Next year we’ll get that kid that works with Joe to come and play centerfield. Big Ed is still a magician. Sure, some of us might be slowing down, but we’ve got savvy, and that’s something you just can’t buy.
The Over 35, geez. We used to joke about that, and make fun of those guys at tournaments. We’d bitch about it when they were on a better field or playing at a better time than us as if the good fields and the good playing times should be reserved for the real softball players. “Over 35,” we’d say. “Is that their age or their waist size?” Of course, my own waist size is now closer to 40 than I am, and my double-knits have crossed over that fine line between snug and tight, but the Over 35? A cold, bony finger starts picking at something deep inside me.
First base is the last refuge of the aging power hitter. I play first base now; the outfield literally and figuratively behind me. The green grass of youth replaced by the dirt and rocks where I now stand, the turf uneven from the footprints of all who have come before me.
In the outfield the team is always just a distant threat, almost impersonal. You don’t see their faces, you just watch the ball and run it down and throw it back in while they either circle the bases or turn and jog back to their bench. At first base they come close. I see their faces, the fire in their eyes, the flare of their nostrils. I can hear them, smell them as they stand at my back, kicking dirt, waiting for the next play. When the throw and my stretch beat them to the bag they don’t act discouraged. They snort as if it’s only a matter of time. “Next time,” they seem to say. “Next time, old man.”
Joe and I stop warming up. We’re as ready as we’ll ever be – as ready as we’ve ever been. Tonight’s game is a big one. Part of it is because of Bruce and what’s been going through my head, but the real reason is that if we win this game we’ll finish second and be guaranteed a slot in the play-offs one more time. If we lose, we’re out of it. We’re playing the team from Hansen’s Electric; a young, smart-mouthed, speed-burning team that takes the extra base like it’s a religious commandment. And they don’t mind rubbing your nose in it when they do.
They’re across the way now, laughing and playing grab-ass, putting grasshoppers down each other’s shirts. What a disgrace. I look over at my own kid. He’s six, and he’s down in the dirt behind the bleachers, playing with his tractor and making sputtering noises. He’s got dirt from his ankles to the seat of his shorts. His last fudgesicle is mostly plastered to the front of his shirt. I wonder how a kid can stand to be so dirty. I wonder how a mother can ignore something like this. I look over to where my wife is sitting with the other wives – or the wives who bothered to come out, anyway. I don’t know why my wife comes out. She looks bored, doesn’t pay attention to the game and just gabs with the others. I could go 4-for-4 or 0-for-4 and she wouldn’t know the difference or even care.
Looking at my son makes me remember when I was a kid. I was about his age when I first put on a baseball glove. Little League. It seems like a lifetime ago now. “Come on, you throw like a girl,” my dad would yell at me. “Use your whole body.” Or, “Get in front of the ball, dammit, it’s not going to hurt you.”
I remember him making me stand there against the garage, without a glove, while he threw baseballs at me, hitting me in the chest, in the arms, in the knees. Sure he wasn’t throwing that hard, but it did hurt, and if I cried or tried to duck he’d throw harder. “No kid of mine’s going to be afraid of no ball,” he’d say. I’d grit my teeth and try harder and harder and it paid off. I could play the game. I played hard and I loved it. God help me, but I loved it. I was never afraid of no ball.
There came a game when I was in high school. The pitcher on the other team had a curve, or so the rumor went. Maybe he could throw it for strikes, maybe he couldn’t, but he had a curve. When I came to bat, he threw one at me. It looked like it came from third base, aimed right for my heart and I jumped back only to see the ball break down and away from me for a strike. The other team laughed. The pitcher smirked. I dug in again. This time the pitch came right for my face, but I wasn’t moving – they weren’t going to get that satisfaction. This time, however, the ball wasn’t moving either. It caught me right under my left eye. Broke my cheekbone. Screwed up something with my eye, too. It wasn’t quite the same after that, and I couldn’t follow the fastball anymore. Whatever scouts or colleges that might have been interested in me wrote me off right there.
So now I play softball, and I play hard and I can play the game. This year.
Our game begins, and we’re in our groove. Big Ed is dealing and Carl is scooping up grounders at short like a brown bat feasting at a streetlight. We’re a machine. Joe and Carl take turns pegging throws over to me for easy outs. Occasionally a fly ball hangs up there, luminous in the lights against the now dark sky, but they’re hitting them right to us.
Unfortunately, we’re returning the favor. Cruise missile line drives bury themselves into the webbings of the other team’s gloves, but we don’t explode. An occasional run crosses the plate for each side in a low-scoring game. In the fifth inning I drive in Bruce with a liner the opposite way into right field. Their pitcher is good; he won’t give me anything to pull, but I’ve been around – savvy – enough to go with that outside pitch and drive it. In the first inning I’d flied out to right, and in the third the punk second baseman ate up my one-hopper, but this time it’s a sweet line drive double down the line that almost takes the first baseman’s head off. I die on second, but we’re leading 5-4.
But now it’s the top of the seventh inning and they’re batting. They load the bases with a couple of cheap singles and a walk worked around a couple of pop-ups. Two outs. Big Ed glares at the batter and floats one up to the plate, only to see it coming back at him about ten times faster. He almost gets his glove up in time but the ball glances off the outside of it in a dying carom toward short. Carl, moving when the bat hit the ball, reverses direction, slips, but barehands the ball while on one knee and heaves it in my direction. Sort of. As it sails over my head the runner on second scores and the umpire calls time on the overthrow. We’re down by one run.
The next batter’s a lefty and Big Ed must be a little shaken up yet. He gives the kid a fat one over the inside of the plate and the next thing I know, the ball is screaming my way. It hops once, coming up like a cobra. I take it in the chest and suddenly feel like I’m in slow motion as I scramble for the ball in front of me. I’m down on my knees and I manage to get the ball in my right hand. The runner – geez, he’s too fast – is one of the four horsemen bearing down on me. I reach across my body and lunge for the bag, my arm stretched out – the ball touches the base an instant before the runner.
The umpire hollers, the runner curses. I lay there a moment catching my breath. My chest hurts where the ball hit it. My father’s face – he died last year – flashes quickly in my mind. I think I’ve pulled something in my ribs while lunging for the bag. Bruce comes over from second base and helps me up. “Nice play for an old man,” he says.
“Up yours,” I say, dusting myself off.
Bottom of the seventh now. We’re down by a run and it’s our last chance. Bruce calls out who’s up, who’s on-deck, who’s in the hole. “Sounds like some runs,” someone says. I’ll bat fourth if we get that far.
Joe flies out. I look at Bruce. Are we both thinking that this could be it – one more near miss? Carl’s up, though, and he lines a double and goes in standing up. With his foot on the bag he adjusts his batting gloves and stares at the pitcher with a look that should maim. The kid looks away and turns to the plate where Bruce is standing, easily swinging his bat. The wives are cheering – even my wife. I wait on deck, twisting the bat handle between my hands.
Bruce connects on the second pitch, a ground ball single between the first and second basemen. Carl doesn’t look twice. As the ball is clearing the infield he’s already heading for third, looping towards left field a little so he can make the hard turn at the base. Big Ed is coaching at third and he’s windmilling his golden arm. Carl’s our man and he digs for home. The rightfielder charges hard and scoops Bruce’s grounder and uses his momentum to bring the ball up and throw almost in the same motion, actually leaving the ground and falling on his belly in the follow-through. The throw is hard and true and beats Carl by two steps. The catcher holds on to the ball in the collision and Bruce goes into second base.
And I’m up.
It’s quiet as I walk to the plate. Two outs. The tying run on second. “And the old man is up,” I think defiantly as I near the batter’s box. My chest still hurts. My legs feel stiff. My heart is pounding. I stop outside the box and take a deep breath as I survey the outfielders. I wonder if my wife is watching, and I think of my son. “Watch your old man,” I think. “Watch, and remember.” It’s up to me. I can play this game.
I step into the box and my body locks into my so-familiar stance automatically. I feel calm. I marvel at how comfortably my right elbow takes its place, cocked behind me. The bat is at just the right angle. My weight couldn’t be any better balanced if you used a computer. I am coiled, lethal. This is what I’ve lived for.
The outfielders are all playing me to hit to right field after my previous at-bats. Can I hear the second baseman whispering to the first baseman that the old fart can’t get around on the ball anymore? I grin, but I don’t feel amused. Punks. You don’t have to be fast to swing the bat. You don’t have to be young to take the one stride and start your shoulders on that well-timed turn.
The pitcher makes a mistake. Maybe the pressure is getting to the kid, but his pitch is coming in fat, juicy and right on the middle of the plate. This very instant I’m 22, my stomach is flat, my arms are twisted steel cable and my bat feels as light as willow switch as it traces an almost invisible arc right out towards the incoming ball until I catch is just right, right there –
I grunt, as much from satisfaction as exertion, and I admire the flight of the ball as it rises, a homesick angel, toward left centerfield while I grind toward first base. Bruce is already running, of course. “Don’t bother,” I think. “That baby’s out of here.” With no fence on this field, the ball will roll so far that they’ll have to mail it back. I know it. The pitcher knows it and slams his glove to the ground. By the sounds I’m hearing, the people in the stands know it too. The only person who doesn’t know it is the left centerfielder.
Out of position from the crack of the bat because of the shift they were playing, he nevertheless recovers like a pro and is on his horse immediately, his eyes tracking the still rising flight of the ball. As I approach first base I can see him, arms and knees pumping. But there’s no way he’ll catch up with that ball, and besides it would be a tough catch with the ball coming over his left shoulder. And yet, and yet…
The ball is still hanging in the sky like a new moon, as if it too is mesmerized by the race going on below. Then, remembering what it set out to do, it seems to take off again, diving for a nice, grassy area to land. And then the fielder is also in the air, flying formation with the ball until finally, almost gently, he gathers it in, tucking it to his body to protect it from damage as he hits the ground, rolls, and comes up with the ball brandished proudly in one hand as if he has just plucked a star from the sky.
For a moment it is as if all the air has been sucked from the earth by the daring of the play and there can be no sound in the vacuum – but then it comes and there is no holding back the noise of awe and celebration from their bench and from the spectators. It sounds to me like someone playing a record backwards. My momentum has stubbornly carried me toward second base, and now I stand with both feet on the bag, facing out toward left center where hope has dropped below the horizon. My hands go to my hips, my eyes to my spikes.
Bruce comes up behind me, puts his arm around my shoulders. “Hey, next year,” he says softly.
“Yeah,” I say, turning back toward our bench with a last scuff at the bag. “Next year.”
Behind our bench stand my wife and my boy. Denise and Robbie. Her eyes look wet, and Robbie suddenly looks very solemn and mature, even with fudgesicle all over his shirt. “You…you did well,” Denise says softly, reaching out to gently tuck my hair around my left ear where my hat has mussed it. “Thanks,” I say, almost choking.
I don’t know why I feel like crying.