Monday, June 12, 2006

One Good Turn


Tomorrow will be my final game as manager of the Bombers, my Sunday softball team.

(Final games, actually, since we play a doubleheader each week. Well, at least each week it doesn't rain, which means that tomorrow will be our third and fourth games of the season. Pitiful.)

I decided to step down as manager when one of my players, Jack Atton, went down with a torn meniscus.

(You can get your mind out of the gutter; it's part of the knee.)

Jack is currently attempting physical therapy, but will have surgery if that doesn't work. In any case, he'll likely be out for most of the season.

Now, Jack is a nice guy and one heck of a player, but I'm not stepping down because his absence leaves me with such depression that I can't stand it. I'm stepping down because I suffered a torn meniscus 10 years ago.

That may not make any sense. It will.


When I suffered my injury (which happened during batting practice prior to the first game of the season, for goodness' sakes) I was devastated. I couldn't straighten my leg, but that didn't bother me as much as the fact that I knew I'd probably be out for the season. That sounds like lunacy, but you have to understand that I truly love this game. I can live with a crooked leg. I hadn't missed a season of ball (whether base or soft) since I was seven years old.

(Perhaps it will tell you something about my love of the game if I let you know that, when I tore the meniscus and couldn't straighten my leg, I didn't go to the hospital immediately. I stayed and watched my teammates play two games. Then I went to the doctor.)

I had been a player on the team for two years before my injury. Ron Johnson was the manager. How Ron came to be our manager and how the team came to be, period, is an interesting story.

Prior to the year I joined the team, it had been known as the Bowdoin Bombers. The team was made up of black guys from Dorchester and had been together for quite a few seasons. For some reason or another, the team had fallen apart. Ron and a great (but long in the tooth) pitcher named Jimmy Jackson were now the only holdovers from that team.

In the meantime, in order to fill the roster, an ad had been placed in the Sports Plus section of the Boston Globe. The ad called for softball players to come down to a field in Brighton in order to compete for roster spots. I answered the ad, as did about thirty other guys. We all ran around, shagged flies, hit, and did whatever else you do when trying out for a team.

What we didn't know at the time, but found out later, was that the guy running the tryout, whose name I can't for the life of me recall, was already manager of a pretty good team in that league. What he ended up doing was picking off who he thought were the top three or four guys at the tryout for his own team. The worst guys either decided to not come back or were told not to - I'm unsure which it was. That left the other 14 or 15 of us to more or less be the league's expansion franchise. And Ron Johnson, loving ball as he does, had agreed to be the manager of this crummy new team. We became the B2-Bombers.

Race is never important in softball, but it's important for this story. Ron, as you may have inferred, is black. So was Jimmy Jackson - still is, probably. Every single one of us who had answered the ad were white; some of us extremely so, like me.

Ron and I have shared a few laughs over the years when talking about that time. Ron had been on an exclusively black team. He gets a call from the guy whose name I can't remember, telling him that he's put together a team for him to manage. Ron says OK. Then, when he shows up, his first thought was, "Who are all these white guys?"


We were a pretty bad team. We went 5 and 21 that first year. Ron was a monster, leading us in just about every hitting category and, therefore, leading us by example, but he wasn't surrounded by a great deal of talent. I led the team in walks and doubles, which is my usual M.O. in softball, if not in life - patience and hustle. There were a couple of other good players. Everybody else tried hard and what more can you ask of folks? We lost, but it turned out that we liked each other and we had fun.

The highlight of our season was our first win. It came against the team managed by the guy whose name I can't remember. We won when, during a possible game-ending rally, he was picked off of second base. We were leading by one run and he was on second with two outs, having just doubled. The next batter walked. As the batter went to first, the guy whose name I can't remember started to go to third. When he realized his mistake, it was too late. And so the guys he didn't think were good enough for his team beat him on his own horrible mental error. Sometimes justice is served.


The next year wasn't much better. We won a couple more games, but still finished far from the playoffs. And part of the reason was Ron's managing.

It wasn't because Ron didn't know what he was doing. Ron is a very smart guy and knows ball. He doesn't have any deficiency of intelligence. However, he's too nice. It would have been obvious to a blind man that Ron was head and shoulders above the rest of the team as a hitter. However, Ron the manager would sit Ron the hitter in order to give very inferior players some playing time. I told Ron at one point that he should never bench himself and he just sort of shrugged and said that everybody deserved to play. Well, yes, Ron, that's true, but you can put them in for somebody besides the best hitter on the team - you. Too nice.

The next year, when I tore the cartilage in my knee, I kept coming to the games even though I couldn't play. I figured I was part of the team, so I should show up and do whatever I could - coach a base, keep the book. After a couple of weeks, Ron handed the whole deal over to me. And once I became the manager, you couldn't get Ron out of the line-up with a crowbar. That was my first decision - a no-brainer.

Aside from Ron being in the line-up every game, we had added a few good players. So, in my first year as manager we ended up having a fine season. We had a winning record and went to the playoffs. And I was a real part of it, thanks to Ron.

Well, it's been 10 years since Ron did that great favor for me. He made my year by allowing me to take over the team. Even though I still would have come down for every game that year, I would have felt less and less a real part of the team as the wins piled up and I wasn't playing. Instead, I had a ball and I've enjoyed being manager for most of the rest of my time, too.


Now, Jack has gone down with the same injury as I had 10 years ago. As soon as I heard "torn meniscus", my first thought was that it was Karma speaking. Time to pass the torch. I offered the job to Jack and he accepted.

It will be a good fit for the team. Everybody likes Jack and, more important, everybody respects him. I'll be happy to play for him and I'll do everything I can to make his job easy. Ron did that for me.

So, tomorrow will be my final time as the manager. I'd like to go out with a win.



Rained out AGAIN. This has been the worst softball season ever.

Ah, what the hell. There'll be other Sundays. I'll just hand the reigns over to Jack, though, and I won't be the manager next week. Maybe someday after I stop playing I'll manage again. For now, I'll enjoy the relative indolence of just being a player.

If it ever stops raining.

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