Thinking Man's Softball By Michael Vaughn - THE PERFORMANCE ENHANCERS THEY (DON'T) TEST FOR
By Softball West
I thought I would take this month's column to discuss substances - and you might as well stop that thought you're having right now because anyone who would take steroids for softball is a lost cause.
Let's take beer, for instance. Believe it or not, I know a few nervous types for whom a couple of brewskis before a game actually enhances their performance. Calms them down. (For me, even an ounce of the stuff just makes me sloppy.) I had one teammate who hid an entire six-pack behind the dugout and drank about one an inning. He played hardball in college and couldn't adjust to the much-lower brand of competition at the corporate slow-pitch level. Halfway through his stash, he would start to throw knuckleballs at me from left field (always on target, but hard to catch). Otherwise, he was such a good player that even being downright drunk didn't really affect his performance. I know a female player who's the same way - empties glass after glass during a tournament, but is so good it doesn't seem to matter.
Not that I'm terribly fond of such behavior. I played on a bar team once (and only once) and discovered - to my utter astonishment - that my centerfielder smelled like a Liquor Barn after an earthquake. This became even more evident when he hit a single and just kept running - finally getting tagged out at the plate by a very surprised catcher. I got on his case about it and we almost got into a fistfight. Being twice his size and completely sober, I'm thinking I could have taken him, but of course the rest of the team - barflies all - were firmly on his side.
Digression Alert! My little brother and I were recently on a cruise to Mexico, greatly enjoying a couple of Coronas after a day of kayaking in Mazatlan, and we got to talking about the best beer we ever had. His was a warm German model that came after a long day of traveling with a friend in Europe. Mine was a first sip of ice cold Miller Genuine Draft after playing seven straight games in a midsummer tournament. In other words, it's not the beer - it's the context of the beer.
On to smoking. My old manager, Big D, was rather fond of cigarettes - and for him, they probably were a performance-enhancer, because he was a dry alcoholic, and if he didn't have any smokes he'd probably turn to something much more hazardous. You're not supposed to admit to such things these days, but I used to join him after victories for an after-game smoke. More recently, this has turned into an after-game cigar.
On the adrenaline side, you hear lots of stories about big leaguers doing coffee before games (and, during the carefree seventies, those lovely "greenies"), but I really can't imagine that helping matters. Being overamped, in a game that requires quite a bit of clear thinking, doesn't seem like a good combination.
Of course, I've got other considerations. Like more people than you might think, I've got cardiac arrhythmia, a condition that causes my heart to skip beats (once or twice a year) or lock into an accelerated pulse that takes a minute or two to kick back down. It's not a terribly hazardous condition, but it's highly distracting. I've had it happen only once during a game - while playing shortstop - and was intensely conflicted between going for a lie-down behind the dugout or just "toughing it out" and hoping nothing got hit my way. Fortunately, I got the latter. But the condition is exacerbated by caffeine, so I leave the pre-game lattes to the pros.
My alternative pre-game amping is a substance of the sonic kind - really loud music. I have pulled into the softball complex many a day cranking "Brave and Crazy" by Melissa Etheridge (you wouldn't know it now, but Melissa used to rock) or "Interstate Love Song" by Stone Temple Pilots. These days, it would probably be "Vertigo" by U2. It most definitely got me in the mood for a ballgame. One time, the complex actually had a rock band playing on a stage just behind our dugout, and I've never had a better time in my life.
Another crucial substance is food - especially for that six o'clock game, when you're rushing straight from work and don't have a chance to stop for something. There's always the snack bar, of course, but I tried a slice of pepperoni pizza once (and only once) and you can probably guess the end of that story. I have since found my emergency foodstuff in one of those big bread pretzels with all the salt raked off.
Then there's the during-game food. I am amazed at those players who can process thousands of sunflower seeds, or blow hundreds of bubble-gum bubbles. (I remember watching Mark McGwire blow one in the middle of putting a guy out at first). In fact, I have the opposite problem - a family-wide propensity for heartburn that requires the constant availability of Rolaids. One important thing to remember; since baseball pants only have back pockets, make sure you keep the Rolaids over your non-sliding buttock. Otherwise, you may alert Homeland Security with all that white powder.
I have a day job staining decks in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and I generally don't even know who I'm working for; my boss handles all the clients, and I just show up to do the work. I was running late on a recent job, however, long enough for the client to get home from work and peer out the back door to say hi. Turns out it was a former teammate!
John was one of those "stealth" ballplayers. Never talked a lot, never looked all that athletic, but he always seemed to be hitting singles up the middle to start rallies, or saving my butt by scooping low throws at first. One week, though, John just disappeared, and I never knew why. Turns out he and our rascal manager, Tommy, got into a business deal, and Tommy, deciding that John had tried to rip him off (despite all evidence to the contrary), unceremoniously booted him off the team.
Sadly, I'm sure this kind of thing happens a lot, and it also reminds me how often we become friends with teammates without really knowing anything about them personally.
But it was great to see John again, and great to see that he owned such a beautiful house. So maybe there is some justice in the world, eh?
Michael J. Vaughn is the author of the softball novel The Legendary Barons. See deadendstreet.com.