The great Willie Mays once said of softball, “What the fuck?”
Okay, Willie never said that. But he would have if he had ever played the game, which he didn’t. Because he’s Willie Fucking Mays and he wouldn’t have been caught dead playing the game I affectionately refer to as “marshmallow baseball”. Nope, when Willie strayed from the game he loved, he chose stick ball- the city game- where every foul ball is promptly followed with death threats from angry tenants.
This isn’t to say that all softball is created equal, because what the Oklahoma Sooners girls did in winning the NCAA title didn’t look anything like softball. Those girls burned the marshmallow, applied some epoxy to it, dressed it in duct tape and kicked some ever loving ass. No lollipop tosses or candelabra posing . . just straight up gangster shit.
As for my band of misfits and the softball tournament we took part in last Sunday, there wasn’t much gangster to us, and there sure as hell was no evidence of Willie Mays.
It was for a good cause (Schreiber Pediatric), which is what I told myself when the alarm went off that morning. And it’s what me and my teammates kept telling ourselves throughout a 17-4 drubbing in which our opponents treated us like pinatas. We actually had a 2-0 lead at one point . . and then they came to bat. This kind of abuse is what keeps human rights agencies in business.
And as if 17-4 wasn’t bad enough? It got worse.
“Okay, let’s regroup guys. We have another game . . . we can do this!” Our captain announced.
“What? You mean we do this again?” I asked.
“It’s double elimination, dude.”
“But we didn’t do this the last time we played.” I argued.
“That’s because Billy gave up.” Replied Rodney, our co-captain.
“Billy was a good captain. He knew when it was time to die.” I said.
This elicited a few laughs, but it did nothing to thwart the possibility of a sequel to our first round horror movie. So we scouted our opposition and as it turned out? They sucked even worse than us. So bad, in fact, that after giving up three touchdowns and getting blanked in their first game, the captain of the team came into our dugout and, well . . he basically surrendered.
“Guys . . we suck.” He began.
He was no Vince Lombardi, but I dig that kind of brutal honesty. Especially when it’s coming from the other team.
Welp, funny thing happened on the way to our cruise into the third round. After taking a commanding lead early on, we spotted them a few runs. We even gave them a run they didn’t earn, which is how confident we had become; how dismissive we were of our first round drubbing. So when we entered the final inning holding to a precarious three run cushion, I wondered aloud whether we might be able to, yanno . . . ask for that run back.
Our pitcher locked down the seventh though. Just kidding, he lobbed a few meatballs that proved indigestible to our opponents anemic bats and that was that. It was such an ugly game that both sides really should have forfeited, but fuck them . . we won!
It was somewhere around 11:30 when I learned that our next game wouldn’t happen until 12:45. Which would give me time to go home, take a shower, eat lunch. And not come back until next June.
Instead, we scouted again. Which was a really shitty idea since both teams were really good. Having a preference as to who we might play would have been like choosing between being water boarded with kerosene or having my balls shaved by fire ants.
The clash of the titans ended in a rout, and the worst part about it is that we were fairly certain we would have gotten pummeled . . . by the losing team. We must have looked like a bunch of emaciated Christians as we took the field to warm up; about to be fed to a club of hungry lions who were going to make us wish we had twisted our collective ankles, or gone blind. And I learned that you can’t invoke the mercy rule before you start playing the game, which is just plain stupid if you ask me.
Ironically, our pregame highlight had nothing to do with alcoholic beverages; a fact I didn’t think was possible in softball. But leave it to Gus, our in-house pastor of all things righteous and soulful. He had recorded a prayer for us to listen to before each game, and it had carried us into the third round . . . against a superior opponent, that was going to deep fry us in runs and eat us for lunch. But really, Gus meant well.
My goals for the match-up were modest ones. I wanted to get a hit, I wanted us to score a run and I didn’t want to hurt myself. That was it. When I dared myself to dream bigger, all I could come up with was this unrealistic scenario where a small aircraft crash landed on our field. If it had to take a few of us with it in order to prevent another ass kicking, so be it. It would have been for the kids, after all.
The problem with this double elimination bullshit is that sooner or later, we had to play a legit team. And our third round opponents, they meant business. They belonged to a softball league that plays every weekend and it showed. No wasted movements, fundamentally spot on, there was no slow to their mo. As a team, we had mastered the art of wasted movement. Our fundamentals had been honed over the course of one lousy practice thanks to a couple of rain outs. The only go to our mo was our captain, who played college ball. Unfortunately for us, we weren’t allowed to give him every at bat.
Team Juggernaut (I forget their name, so why not?) won the coin toss and opted to be the home team. As if it fucking mattered. And the smirks on their faces told us it didn’t really matter, at all.
“Yanno what? Maybe we get our asses kicked here, but fuck them.” I said to my friend Roy.
“I know right? It’s almost like they’re rubbing it in our faces, and we haven’t even played yet.” He agreed.
Don’t get me wrong, they had every right to be confident. But arrogance in softball? That’s like professing to be the world’s best driver because you know how to parallel park. Uh . . no.
We broke up the no hitter in our very first at bat, after which we were dismissed quietly. In the home half of the first, they only managed a single run, which was cause for celebration in our dugout (a quiet celebration, of course). And then the second inning came along, and that my friends, is when disco happened.
I came to bat with a runner on first and one out. Digging into the batter’s box, I summoned my best Dropkick Murphys scowl for the pitcher, because I didn’t fear retaliation. In fact, I welcomed it. You know what they call a brush back pitch in softball? Hilarious.
My morning turned afternoon had already proven infinitely more successful than my first organized softball experience two years earlier, when I failed to pull a single pitch yet somehow managed to pull two muscles. So I figured it was time to make some gravy. I took a hanging curve (because everything in slow pitch softball is a hanging curve) and I slammed it down the third base line. Fair ball. One batter later, we had tied the game at 1-1. Standing on second base, I clapped like a madman as I mouthed my reaction to Roy.
We kept waiting for their big inning, but it never materialized. We traded the lead early on, we held it late. Our team was coming together in unimaginable ways and we had gotten busy stealing a lot of that confidence the other guys had brought into this tilt. They threw a punch, we countered. They went for the knockout, we deflected. No more wasted movements, we were living the fundamentals and adding some sriracha to them as we moved along. We stopped expecting the worst and we started expecting the very best.
Adversity came in the snippets of intrigue that only a hard fought contest can produce. I reined in one of my younger mates, Corey, when he started talking back to the umpire.
“Don’t fuck with umpire ball sack, he’l throw your ass out and we need you.” I implored him.
It was true, umpire ball sack had it in for us. He had issued a warning to Corey, ordered our captain to change out of his cleats and inspected our bat as if he was making the decisive call in a World Series game. But with each inning and each new intrigue, we were acquiring equity. We were a rag tag bunch of smack talkers who refused to be an appetizer. We were forging our Miracle moments, as if the late Herb Brooks was commanding us to just go out there and do the impossible.
(Okay, it’s softball. And besides, the little guy has spirit.)
We had gotten in our opponents heads by the time the fifth inning rolled around. Down by a run and with their confidence waning, they stopped swinging for the fences and got desperate. Drawing walks just to get on base, they were able to tie the game at four. They were sweating the outcome. It was pretty sweet to witness such a thing. And that’s how it stayed until the seventh and final frame.
I would love to tell you this underdog story had a fairy tale ending, but that’s not how things played out. The bottom of the seventh went all Longfellow on us. They loaded the bases before the next batter smashed a ground ball through our drawn in infield and into right field . . to yours truly. I scooped up the dying ground ball and I knew my throw was going to be an effort in futility seeing as how the runner was more than three quarters of the way home already, but I threw that sonofabitch anyway. It was one last reminder that we had given them a game, right to the bitter end.
The teams lined up to shake hands and fist bump and I began a chant that caught fire. When our opponents barked “Good game”, I offered back “Damn right.”, and so it went.
Next year . . had arrived.