The other day my son Harry asked me if I was a baseball star. Wanting to confuse the boy I immediately said, "Totally," but then I thought better of it and said, "Nah, I'm just a dad who gets to play softball on the weekends." And since we had lost a few games in a row I added, "and it's all about having fun... winning and losing doesn't matter." I felt like Ward Cleaver.
As many of you may know, I have a complicated relationship with team sports in general and baseball in particular. I was not, as they say, "athletically inclined" as a youth. I'm not going to go into too much detail (I save those conversations for my therapist) but let me give you one concrete example of my suckiness:
It was my senior year of college, and I had to take a gym class for some reason to complete my degree. Since my school was in the great state of Indiana I figured I'd choose basketball as my class. What could possibly go wrong? Plus the class was once a week at 8 am and run by a 25-year-old assistant coach so I was confident it would be cancelled often.
The class consisted of basic basketball drills (the three-man weave!) and shooting baskets from different spots on the floor. Honestly I think we might have even played HORSE... they did not put a lot of thought into it. The final of the class was simple: play a game of one-on-one. That's it. Easiest class ever.
Fast-forward to the night before I'm supposed to play and, without my prior knowledge or consent, my friends cornered the assistant coach in the local bar and convinced him that I should play my one-on-one game against Mary Kay Rivard. Now Mary Kay was a friend of ours, but more importantly she was a badass athlete. I think she played field hockey or something like that at school and was definitely hardcore. I resigned myself to the fact that I had to play Mary Kay when I looked up to the balcony of the gym and saw that 10-15 of my friends had gotten up early to come cheer her on.
The next 20 minutes of my life were pretty brutal. Mary Kay and I played to an 11-11 tie (as I remember you had to win by 2). I was sweating like a pig and could barely breath. Mary Kay on the other hand was fresh as a daisy. Those last two points were hard fought but in the end Mary Kay prevailed and I was vanquished. Ahhh, those were good times with friends.
Needless to say I don't think I played a lot of team or ball-related sports since then. I focused more on individual athletic pursuits like skiing (I moved to Steamboat Springs after graduation), running (I'm currently training for the NYC Marathon), and drinking (beer good!).
So when we moved to Montclair from Manhattan and my new neighbor asked if I wanted to join his softball team, I immediately got that tight feeling in the pit of my stomach. It brought me back to my days playing Little League in Iowa. I'm a grown-ass man and something as stupid as a softball league invitation was making me sick to my stomach. WTF?
In the end, Coco convinced me that it would be a great way to meet people so I joined up. The guys on the team didn't really know what to do with me at first so I was stuck in right field and batted about eighth or ninth most days. Which was fine with me. I hadn't played organized baseball or softball since I was 12 and wasn't too confident in my abilities.
Once I got past the first few games I basically lost whatever weird feelings I had and started to actually have fun. A couple of games when we were short on players I was even promoted to the infield. I made a few errors but I made a few good plays as well. And I'm actually am starting to hit the ball lately. I even bought a pair of cleats! I know, shocking. I'm not sure I've owned cleats since the 70s.
A couple of weeks ago we were playing against the best team in the league. They hadn't lost in three years and were full of firemen, garbage collectors, cops and other manly dudes. They jumped out to an early lead in the first couple of innings but somehow our team managed to hang in there. There is a mercy rule in our league and we came close a couple of times to being counted out but always found a way to claw back into the game. Then our defense came up huge and shut them down for the last three innings, and at the same time we started getting hit after hit. (I should point out that the field that Sunday was adjacent to a public pool and a couple of the long balls ended up bombing the swimmers. It got so bad that the pool manager came out and yelled at us).
Anyway, we ended up winning in dramatic fashion in the bottom of the seventh (we're old so we don't play nine innings). I think the final score was something like 21-20. Everyone was kind of stunned that we had won. I went two for four with a couple of singles and only two errors at second. Not too shabby.
The next week we lost to one of the worst teams in the league, so maybe that day was a fluke, but I think that I can now honestly tell Harry that yes, for one brief moment on a Sunday afternoon in July in Montclair, NJ, I was a baseball star.
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