Monday, August 29, 2005

I Play Softball For A Living

Well, not really. Sometimes I like to pretend, though.

Before we get into the meat of this piece (if, indeed, there is any meat) let me make sure that you have an accurate mental picture. I'’m not talking about beer-league soft-toss swing-from-the-heels-and-stumble-around-the-bases, while another guy with a drink in one hand and a sausage hanging from his mouth weaves around in the outfield trying to avoid getting hit on the head. I'’m talking fast-pitch.

It takes a certain amount of athleticism to hit a 70 mph pitch coming at you from only 47 feet away. You have the same time to decide to swing or not as a major league baseball player does against a 90 mph fastball. And, if you'’re an infielder, you'’re a full 1/3 closer to the batter than a hardball player, thus increasing the need for quick reflexes and excellent hand-eye coordination, especially with the ball coming off of an aluminum bat. Since the bases are 60 feet, instead of 90, all baserunning and throwing mistakes are punished with lightning swiftness.

I'’m a catcher, and a 48-year-old one. I play without a chest protector or shin guards, as do almost all of the catchers in the two leagues I play in. Some of it is macho, but most of it is expediency. Our 7-inning games are usually on a 90-minute time limit, so we'’re not going to waste 5 minutes of that time pulling equipment on and off. I'’m not totally insane; I do use a facemask and a cup. However, there's not a day that goes by, between May and September, when I'’m not sore somewhere. I play Tuesday and Thursday nights, and a doubleheader on Sunday.

I manage the Sunday team, and have done so for 9 of the 11 years the team has existed. I'’m the manager not because I'’m a great tactician, but mostly because I'’m the one guy who shows up for every inning of every game. I'’ve missed two games in those 11 years. One year, I tore cartilage in my knee during warm-ups before the first game of the season and had arthroscopic surgery a few weeks later. I was on crutches a good part of the season and played only 7 games by the end of the season. I still came down and coached, every game. A team is a team.

There are guys on my team older than me. Stu and Ron have been on the team as long as I have, and they'’re both over 50. Jimmy Jackson, who finally had to stop playing last year after having had both of his knees replaced, is in his mid-60s. On the weeknight team, there'’s an amazing fellow named Bobby who is 78. He doesn'’t play every game, but he'’s there for every game, suited up and ready. He'’s a capable pitcher for an inning or two when needed. You learn a lot of crafty stuff when you play the game for close to 70 years.

I'’ve played ball with my friend Fred for more years than with anyone else. We first played on the same team in 1987, so we'’ve been teammates for 18 years. The first team we were on together was a company team. I was 29 and he was 22. That company has since gone out of business, but we're still playing. Now Fred is 40. Fred thinks he'’ll play forever. Who knows? Maybe he will. He certainly loves it enough.

I know that I spend way too much time thinking about softball. I keep precise stats for the team I manage; “get-a-life” type stuff, if I'’m forced to be realistic about it. I'’ve been playing ball of some sort or another for over 40 years, but I still use visualization techniques, seeing myself at bat when going to sleep before a game day. I wake up earlier on game days because I can'’t wait to play. I go to sleep later after a game because I enjoy reliving the good moments (and trying to learn something useful, even at this late date, from the bad ones.)

Some concessions to age are made. I used to play some outfield, but I can'’t turn on a fly ball very well with the small bit of cartilage I have remaining in my knees. My arm has been fairly much shot for some time now. Any throw over 60 feet and my shoulder feels as though someone just drove an ice pick into it. When I need a break from the grind on my knees catching, I play a few innings at first. What were once stand-up doubles are now execute-a-good-slide-and-you-still-might-be-out-on-a-good-throw doubles, and an infield single is as rare as a home run -– haven'’t had one of those in six seasons. Of course, we play on fields that don'’t have fences, so most home runs have to be a combination of power and speed.

For the first time in my life I wore glasses in a few games this year, although I really couldn'’t get used to how they cut my peripheral vision, so I deep-sixed them. If my vision gets any worse, I'’ll have to wear them next year and either get used to them or get used to striking out.

The one compelling reason I have for continuing to play, aside from loving the game, is that I have never been on a championship team. Forty-or-so seasons of both hardball and softball -– little league, CYO, high school, organized leagues, very unorganized leagues -– I'’ve never known what it'’s like to win the final game of the season. I'’d like to find out.

Anyway, it'’s almost September now. One team didn'’t make the playoffs and the other was knocked out in the first round. I won'’t be playing again until next April or May, and by that time I'’ll be 49. I'’ll be another half-step slower; my bat will be another fraction of a second behind a really good fastball. My knees will loudly protest every run down the first base line to back up an infield play. And the next collision at home could always be my last.

Twenty years ago my dad told me that I should give up baseball and softball. He said I should play golf. His reasoning was that golf was a game you could play your whole life, while I wouldn'’t be able to play ball much more than another 5 or 6 years. He was a football guy. He had to stop playing his game when he was in his early 20'’s, so I understand where he was coming from. But, I know Bobby, Stu and Ron. And Jimmy Jackson. I'’m playing until they drag my lifeless carcass from the field. Bury my wounded knees at the heart of the diamond.


jason the game atton said...

i liked that one pretty intresting that you never won a league championship even when you where one of two teams and the other team was 8 year old girls allways next season

oh and i am holding out

Suldog said...

Hey! The Little Sisters Of The Poor were a damn tough team!

And I bet you're holding out because I didn't mention *YOU* in the story. Sorry. With all the buffalo chicken calzones you eat, there wasn't enough room for you in the story...

(Jason is my 6'7" [that's both height and width] star P/3B)

Xander said...

Thanks for the shout out! Right back atcha, Jim. Keep at it - sounds like you would benefit from having a linked up podcast too, what with that marketable baritone of yours! I hadn't seen that my modest blog had been linked to from boston-online - many thanks for the heads up!

PeteWhoIsOlder&InMorePainThanSully said...

Sully, that is terrific and I'm jealous. I want one too!
It will be a goal and an honor to win that championship with you next year.
As for you getting a double, your field at Cleveland Circle must run seriously down hill!!

Suldog said...

Thanks, Pete. I would have included you as one of my inspirations, but you never told me how old you were and I just naturally assumed you were around 25 or 26...