Tuesday, April 21, 2009
6:50am, Sunday – Today I’m going to play softball. I’ve played some form of ball (baseball, softball) every year since 1964. For all of those years, I looked forward to playing. This year I fear it.
2007 was supposed to be my last year. I knew I was at the end of the line. I was 50 years old, my skills were declining, and I had made a conscious decision to give it everything I had, one last time, and then go out with my head held high. And so I did. I had a pretty good year. And I fully intended that my last game that year would be my last game ever.
I told everybody that I was retiring. I wrote about it, keeping a diary of that season and publishing it here. You can find a link on the sidebar that will take you to every installment of that diary. Some of it is good writing even if you wouldn’t know a baseball bat from a shillelagh. Some of it is self-indulgent crap (much as this may be, although it's hard for me to tell from such a short distance.)
After my final game, I gave my glove to a good friend and teammate. I tossed my raggedy old uniform pants in the trash. I was done. I was OK with the decision. I knew I was doing the right thing. I mean, look at this picture of me from after that final game.
As someone, perhaps my uncle, said, "You look old enough to have invented the sport!" Someone else described me as looking as though I had been rode hard and put up wet.
So, what happened? Why am I going out this morning to play?
In 2008, I was going to be a base coach for my Sunday team. I still liked the camaraderie of being on a field and interacting with the guys who had been my friends for many years. I figured I could still keep the book, coach third base, maybe impart a bit of the wisdom I’d garnered by playing the game for close to 45 years. I told the coach of that team, as well as the coach of my weekday evening team, that I would do them a favor and play if - and only if - they were absolutely desperate and needed a ninth player to avoid forfeiting a game.
That was a serious mistake.
I knew damn well, in my heart of hearts, that a full season wouldn’t go by without there being at least one game where not enough guys would show up. I knew there’d be at least one occasion wherein I’d be asked to put on a uniform and play again. I was an ego-driven dope. I consciously put myself into the only position wherein I would feel justified in breaking my promise to not play again. I would be some sort of softball superhero, coming to the rescue at age 51.
So, I got a call to play from my weekday manager. He truly needed someone one night, so I played. I caught two innings for him before a replacement showed up. I had one at-bat. I drew a walk. I made no errors. Not bad. I could still hold my head high.
Then I was needed on a Sunday. It was a rainy sort of day. Lots of guys assumed that the games would be cancelled. I caught one game, played first base in the other. In the first game, I got a key hit in the final inning, and scored the winning run. It was a seriously nice feeling to have my coach and teammates crowd around me after scoring that run, offering congratulations and patting me on the back, saying things about how swell I was and how I shouldn’t have retired and this was the proof, etc.
I played most of the rest of the Sunday season following that moment of glory, but I didn't play exceedingly well. I found myself unable to field my position to any degree of satisfaction. My reflexes were slow, something I knew when I had "retired". As a hitter, I was mediocre. I was still smart enough to keep a decent on-base percentage, via walks and hitting to the weaknesses in the opposing defense, but I couldn’t run worth a shit and it would have taken some sort of minor miracle for me to get any hits other than singles.
I’m not just being hard on myself. We made the playoffs. I didn’t play a single inning in the two games we lost, the only two games we played. If I truly had anything left to offer the coach would have given me at least one chance to swing a bat. I had no complaints about not playing. How could I? I was seriously washed up.
And here I am, going out to play in a scrimmage, trying to prove, to that same coach, that I’m good enough to do some playing for him this year. I’m 52, and two seasons past when I left the game voluntarily with a good taste in my mouth.
The problem is that last year left me feeling bad. Two years ago, I left of my own accord. I had a decent year and rode off into the sunset feeling good about myself. I could have lived on that feeling, knowing that I was not only a decent ballplayer but also a smart one, having got out with a good year when I knew I was declining rapidly. Instead, I finished last year with the knowledge that I had been a self-centered dope to offer my services as a player, even if I clothed that offer in self-sacrifice.
So, now, I have to try and leave with the good taste again. I have to play in order to redeem that last year. I want to go out with self-respect. I want to hit decently, play smart ball, be a good teammate, and leave with the knowledge that I’m the one who’s doing the deciding about leaving. I don’t want to leave with the knowledge that I’m a detriment to my team. If I play like a clown in these pre-season scrimmages, I won't press the matter. I'll give it up with as much grace as possible.
The shame of it is that I know damned well I shouldn’t play. My skills are shot. I haven’t miraculously regained the great reflexes of my youth. I’m not going to hit the ball any harder. I still can’t run. The probability is that I’m going to embarrass myself in some way.
But I have to do this. My Sunday team is scrimmaging against my former weekday team, both teams getting tuned up for the season starting in two weeks. I’ve dropped 10 pounds, I’ve got new glasses, I’ll go put on a uniform now, drive to the field, have a good time seeing the guys again, and then hope that God grants me a one-season reprieve from aging and a bit of luck.
For certain, I’m not a pro, but I have the same obsession. I have to try. I couldn’t live with myself, if I didn’t, even more than if I stink up the field completely.
7:30am – And here I go...