Thinking Man's Softball by Michael Vaughn - A Season of Digression
By Softball West
Being highly cognizant of the spam problem (and those so-called friends who forward every so-called funny joke they get), I save the mass e-mailings for truly important occasions - such as an upcoming book release party in my hometown of San Jose. One of the more pleasant results is that I get a chance to reacquaint myself with old friends - many of them softball friends.
One of these was Ray Banks, a teammate from my days at the huge Twin Creeks complex in Sunnyvale, CA. Ray is one of those players who seem to get better as he gets older (currently rounding the big 4-0).
Of course, this might be because, when Ray was younger, he was a bundle of raw talent with little discipline. One of my all-time favorite softball stories begins with Ray standing in left field at the very beginning of a game. The first hitter slashes a line drive in his direction - one that should be easily caught - only Ray isn't moving a muscle, because he has managed, like a horse in a stable, to fall asleep standing up! When he does wake up, he finds his teammates screaming bloody murder at him, and has to retreat to the fence to fetch what is, by now, an easy home run.
Considering the general temperament of our manager, Big D - the Billy Martin of slow-pitch - he probably should hop the fence and keep going. When he returns to the dugout at the end of the inning, we are treated to one of the more colorful and verbally acrobatic cuss-out sessions in slow-pitch history.
Ray was also single-handedly responsible for the most unusual of my personal accomplishments: breaking the team's single-season RBI record while batting second. Ray gave me an ample head start on this statistical anomaly by leading off probably seven of our ten games with triples. Pretty easy pickins, really. (And quite generous of him to keep stopping at third like that.)
(Speaking of, have you noticed that a home run can sometimes kill a good rally? The next time you're in the bottom of the final inning, down by a few, consider stopping at third, just so the next guy will have someone to knock in.)
Anyways, Ray emailed me recently to complain about the management at Twin Creeks, which was considering kicking his team out of the league because "players don't feel safe playing us."
He added that they were already playing in the highest available league, so perhaps the other teams needed to work on their skills.
Which brings up an interesting question. Don't you find that the sweetest victories come when you have a genuine chance of losing? Maybe even when you probably should lose? My old coed team, which had grown a little jaded from picking apart younger, stupider teams, recently suffered a mighty scare in the semifinals of their playoffs - going down ten runs before winning 21-19 - and found their eventual championship much more satisfying than the several easy ones that had come before.
For that matter, name a single great sports movie about a team that was expected to win it all - and won it all. No drama there. Call me weird, but I sometimes don't even mind a loss, as long as both teams play really good softball.
(And then there's the ultimate dilemma: when you play the game of your life while your teammates are having their rear-ends handed to them. Or its logical opposite, when your team has a great victory while ‘you' are playing horribly. How are you supposed to feel?)
Another email came from Sheila Goolcharan, who was, essentially, the den mother of my men's team. And it was largely exactly that which was so great about the legendary Dukes - the fact that all the young wives and girlfriends would show up each week to cheer us on. (Lately, I can't recall the last time one of my teams had more than two people in the stands.)
(And tell me, do you play better or worse with spectators? I gotta admit, I am a total ham, and have my best games when I've got a new girlfriend in the audience. Late last year, I was having a terrible game, and was approaching the batter's box when I noticed my nephew Kyle had just arrived to root on his dad. I summarily crushed a triple to left-center.)
Sheila was much more than head cheerleader, however. She was the keeper of the Holy Scriptures - the scorebook. And ours was one of those rare teams that actually kept defensive stats. (By the way, am I wrong to resent first basemen, whose fielding percentages are constantly higher than my shortstop statistics? I mean, come on! It's first base!) Lobbying Sheila for generous decisions was a full-time occupation for our more shameless players, but I tried really hard not to indulge. I made an exception only once, the day my second baseman decided not to show up at second base to receive my throw (Sheila was nice enough to agree with me).
Sheila was also the only non-player to appear in team photos - in uniform - because that's exactly how important she was to us.
At the moment, I am in mourning, because California has suddenly become the new Rain Coast, and muddy fields have obliterated the first two games of the season. My Ryne Sandberg glove sits there in the passenger seat of my Corolla, staring at me with that leathery face of his, wondering why he hasn't intercepted the flight of a softball for nigh-on six months.
Here's hoping your glove is not so lonely.
Michael J. Vaughn is the author of the softball novel The Legendary Barons, available at amazon.com.