Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Baseball Fever


A couple years ago, I finally got the opportunity to realize a dream.

Out of the blue, I joined a softball league.

That might not seem too lofty a dream ... but it was something I'd wanted to do for a long time. And it had been even longer since I'd played organized ball.


Oh ... I'd tossed some balls here and there, fooled around with a few pick-up games at picnics and the like, played a little with the kids. But it's really been 20 years of goofing around without any genuine structure.

And then ... opportunity. I wanted to go out and play. I needed to go out and play. Desperately. It was important to see if I could still play. So I forced it and made it happen.

In so doing, I had a few choices: Did I hit up an all men's league? Or go co-ed?


Now ... 20 years of flinging a ball on occasion or picking up a bat once in a blue moon does not a well-oiled machine make. Far from it.

After a few years of playing little league and improving to the point of comfortability with the sport way back in the day, I felt I was "seasoned" to somewhat of a confident point. (At least I remember being confident enough to tell my coach I could handle first base one time. But I hadn't a clue how to play first base as was evident when the first ball flung at me from the shortstop during an actual game found a spot just below my right eye. "What the hell are you doing?!?" I remember my coach yelling at me. "I thought you said knew how to play first base!" That mishap formed a discolored welt that stuck around for several weeks. From that point forward I made it a personal goal never to let a ball drop or get past me when it came my way.)

However, regardless of any comfortability you have with the game, you put a couple decades between you and the last time you played with any regularity and let me tell you: there's going to be rust. And lots of it.

That being said (and knowing full well I would exhibit that rust in all its glory), I whittled my opportunities down to exactly one ... and it wasn't going to be with the men's softball league. Not unless I had a death wish. Enthusiastic as I was, I needed to ease (somewhat) back into the game without injuring myself (much). I was, enthusiastic ... not stupid.

So co-ed it was. I signed up as a free agent on the county website. The first game was a mere two weeks distant with no guarantee I would be contacted to join any team looking for an extra player. But, as luck would have it, I was called within 48 hours. The guy who called me, Nate, was a former college player and current manager in the league. He had holes in his team he needed filled and several of his players weren't going to be available until a couple games down the line. We talked for 45 minutes feeling each other out, learned each others' histories and talked ball, ball, ball. Based alone on that chat, he asked me to not only join the team but be his "No. 2 man" along side him. The call ended with me telling him I would see him at practice in a couple days.

Meeting Nate was a bit of a surprise. The dude was big. He was almost as tall as I was (6'0") and was easily on the weightier and more formidable end of the 250 pound mark. He wasn't fat, but he was bulky.

Despite that, the dude could move ... and move well. Exceptionally well. Surprisingly well. His abilities were impressive for such a big guy. He could run, field and hit with an ease that belied his stature. As a matter of fact we impressed each other. He tested me out right away asking me to field balls in a most polite manner. But ... the way he was hit balls at me (not to me ... at me) was anything but polite. He wanted to see what I was made of, if all the phone talk was nothing more than big talk, if I could indeed "walk the walk." The first grounder that came at me? Despite being ready for it, it about knocked me on my ass. I didn't let it show but mentally I told myself I'd better keep my wits about me and be ready for anything. Turned out that was good internal advice because, for the next 15 minutes, Nate put me through an exercise in fundamental baseball fielding that had me not only wired but winded. He put me through the ropes.

And I didn't expect anything less.

"You ready to bat?" he finally asked me at one point after getting tired of batting at me. I took up a helmet and a stick. Despite the league being underhand pitch, it didn't stop Nate from trying his best to tie me up. He whizzed balls at me, many of them unnervingly inside. Of course he wanted to see what I was made of at the plate as well as on the field. I didn't let him down. The funny thing was Nate wasn't a good pitcher. Half the stuff he tossed was out of the strike zone; I not only eyeballed a lot of them but hopped out of the way of quite a few, too. And I took advantage of it. I made him pitch to me.


He wasn't necessarily pleased with my pickiness.

"What the hell was wrong with that pitch?!?" I heard him grumble several times. Just as my skills were being tested, I could tell his demeanor was as well. I capitalized on it: "You mean the one that just grazed my belt buckle?" He smiled. There was a camaraderie building between us. My taunts to him got bolder, containing words which included me possibly needing a ladder in order to hit certain balls, wondering if he used glasses or if he wasn't better suited in an all-girl league. Which, you know, got him riled even more. A couple dozen pitches and he came over to me, grumpiness at his pitching and my particularness gone. "You made the team," he told me matter of factly.

"I made the team even before going through all that hullabaloo," I informed him confidently. He smirked.

We began practice. "Where do you want to play?" he asked. "First base," I replied. I was then informed "Lucky for you, the guy I pegged for first can't begin for a couple weeks. He might lose his job." (As luck would have it, that guy didn't completely lose the job; mostly, I pitched through the season so I played first as my back up position.)

The first few practices were very telling ... and not just for me. Everyone had rust to slough off. And I was surprised to learn there were some really talented girls on the team, too. Nate's wife took up third base and she could flick the ball to first with authority. Another player had a fireball of an arm. And she could bat like it was nobody's business as well.

Practice, though, got us down to the business of relearning the fundamentals and finding where our weaknesses were. And we had some pretty damned big weaknesses. But they worked themselves out in the weeks leading up to that first game.

One practice saw us using a church field which contained so many holes and divots it was a real danger to play in. We were continually getting our feet caught, tripping and falling during plays. I hyper-extended my calf while cushioning a shot to me at one point and ended up straining the hell out of my leg. I hobbled about for a week and had to baby it to get it back into shape. (Luckily, we were forced to practice only once at that location.) During one batting practice, a low line drive came screaming at me and I didn't get down on it quickly enough - it caromed squarely off the front of my right shin. Over the course of 15 minutes, the resulting injury went from a red mark to something akin to hiding a grapefruit beneath my skin. Adding insult to injury, I bled like a sieve, blood eventually soaking my sock. I weathered through it. But, as luck would have it, not 10 days later another line drive shot at me and connected in the exact same spot, opening up the wound once again, reminding me how much it hurt the initial instance. By the time the first game came around, the entire team had either strained hamstrings, tender backs, any number of injuries to our legs and hands and shoulders and various other ails needing to be taped up or gingerly worked around.

Our first two games showed our efforts on the practice field ... which was just as good as it was bad. What we lacked in batting we made up for in fielding. We lost our first game by a few runs and conversely won our second by a large margin. Practice was committed at least twice a week between games. We were beginning to gel into a cohesive unit.


And then Nate proposed a game changer that gave us a pretty huge advantage.

Being we were in a slow-pitch league, it didn't make any difference how fast we could pitch. There was a rule in place that there had to be a minimum 1 yard arc on the ball from pitcher to catcher, give or take. Anything less and there was the potential for umpire reprimand: You got a warning call. Three such warnings during an inning and you were penalized, anything from a batter being awarded first base to the mandatory changing of your pitcher. So no team was able to get around flinging pitches which would whip by a batter, taking advantage of those players whose batting skills leaned on the side of remedial.

And this is where Nate's idea came into play. "I was watching the men's league the other day and I saw one guy mixing up his pitches with his hand atop the ball on release," he told me. "What that does is make the rotation of the ball come at them so it forces it into the ground or it minimizes the distance of outfield fly balls. It doesn't get any distance. More often it's an infield pop fly. The pitch takes a while to master, but I thought we could give it a shot."

And we did. It was tough to get the hang of, but man ... did it ever confuzzle the opposing teams. So much so it got them complaining. They argued that type of pitch wasn't allowed.


"So long as that 1 yard arc is maintained, they can pitch backward if they want," the umpire would tell those who griped. 

What that pitch did to our opponents' run productions was quite the advantage for us - the opposition's scoring plummeted as we mastered the pitch. Their batting was effectively stymied. The big boys who were used to pounding balls into the outfield with authority instead cursed ever louder as their batting efforts came up short. It was a glorious thing to watch. Much as they complained about it - and taunted me incessantly about pitching like a girl - they were confounded by that type of delivery. It didn't always win games for us, but it gave us a clear advantage in the grand scheme of things.

It was everything I thought being in a league would be. The work, the effort, the jovial atmosphere, the frustration, the joy, the defeat. I loved every minute of it. There was never a time when I didn't get enthused about heading to practice. Game time got my adrenaline pumping.

During one particular practice in the middle of the season, I caught a glint in Nate's eye as he came up to bat. There weren't many of us there that day. Only the real diehards (myself included) showed up at every single practice. "Ready, Noble? This one's comin' at you with your name on it," he warned me. Sure enough, a shot sped toward me with such force it knocked me on my ass when I tried fielding it. He meant to do that. Everyone there laughed at me, Nate most heartily of all. "Tell you what," I said as I got up and dusted myself off: "How 'bout a little contest while you and I are at bat. The fielder catches or stops a ball coming at them? It's a point in their favor. Ball drops or gets past them? Point in the batter's favor. Most points after a couple rounds gets bragging rights ..."

"You're on," Nate agreed.

Batting practice during these times turned into war. All out war. Him against me. Remember: Nate was a big guy, bigger than I was. But he could place a well-hit ball with precision. And he knew I could do same. It wasn't any picnic when we went at each other during these little challenges. We threw everything and the kitchen sink at each other.

Nate's preference was at shortstop when he fielded, mine was first base. Between getting our gloves turned inside out from screamers threatening to take our heads off, getting deposited on our asses, having our legs beat all to hell when we missed balls coming at us, we ended each batting session with blisters, welts and hurt pride aplenty. And, if lucky, we got to spew those ever-so-important bragging rights. Fun stuff.

And we loved every minute of it. Because that bonding is part of what playing ball is all about. At least it is for me.

We ended up in third place that year. Not too shabby. I pitched rather well a lot of the time. I got the pants beaten off me during one particular outing I thought would never end. I batted well enough to do some damage. I made plenty of mistakes along the way. We weathered defeats with slumped shoulders and bruised egos just the same as we celebrated wins, loudly and with gusto. And I had a grand old time during every single minute of it.

Currently, I'm awaiting the call as a free agent for some team needing another player. I'm the odd man out in the town I live in right now, unfamiliar with any of the players or teams and with nary a practice beneath my belt in almost two years. But I hope to be out on the field again ... and soon. Reliving my youth once more, regardless of the fact my running ability has slowed over the years.


I'm ready as I am each season, whether watching or playing, ready for the aches and the pains and the glory of baseball ...

.......... Ruprecht ( won't STOP playing ball ... ever ... ) 2,500