It was the top of the last inning of the championship game and we were down by a run. We had players on first and second. The count was three and two. Everything hung on the next pitch. The park fell into a silence as ominous as the inky, dark clouds roiling overhead. We held our breath as an apparently equally enthralled Mother Nature held her rain. Finally, after chicken scratching at the mound, the pitcher released the ball. It seemed to hang at the top of its arc for a long, lingering moment and then Val stepped into a mighty swing. Her aluminum bat kissed the top of the spinning lime green ball which dropped with a thud at her feet – but fair. Val didn’t care. The bat flew and she was off like a rocket. The catcher leapt forward, snatched the ball but then, inexplicitly, sailed it two feet over the first baseman’s outstretched glove.
Our bench exploded. Our base coaches screamed. Our man at second did not slow down over third and passed home. Their right fielder’s angle must have convinced him that the ball was out of play for he was ambling toward it with a cool casualness, but we could see it. The ball lay clearly within the chalk line and so like the Monty Python villager it was not quite dead, in fact, it was still very much alive. It was their bench’s turn to scream but Val was already sprinting to second as our other runner rounded third.
Their fielder finally awoke to the moment, ran to the ball and with a long stride hurled it toward home. Our runner from first was puffing toward home and nearly there. The ball was nearly there. The catcher’s glove smacked and the umpire yelled, “Safe!” We had done it. Really, Val had done it. She stood on third base breathing hard and beaming. We were jumping and cheering and high-fiving each other, but, it was not over.
We were soon on the field for their last at bats. We were up by a run but earlier in the game they had scored seven in a single inning and so we respected their speed and power; we feared it. We knew they were younger and stronger than us. As one of our team mates had noted earlier: “They don’t even jiggle when they run!” A one run lead was nothing.
A long loping hit to left field put a man on second and with a bloop single he advanced to third – the tying run. Two quick outs and a couple of pitches later they were same spot in which we had found ourselves only minutes before. There were two strikes on the batter. It all came down to this pitch. He swung hard but spun the ball into a high pop fly in foul territory just a couple of yards from third base – my base. I edged carefully forward and to my right and moved my free hand to the back of my old black glove. I could not drop this. I had time to think: “Don’t drop this. Do not drop this!” I felt it find my glove and squeezed as tightly as I’ve squeezed anything. I heard the cheers. I heard the shouts. I stood with the ball in my glove still held high above my head. We did it. We won.
It was the second year in a row that our team, the Black Plague, had won the championship. This year was even sweeter because a dear friend of ours, a giant of a man who lived meagrely and gave generously and whose laugh sparked laughter in all he met, had died. One of his many nicknames was spray painted on the snow fence that delineated the outfield. Another was on the shoulder of our new jerseys. We had dedicated the season to him and now we had won.
The Black Plague is one of eight teams in the Trent University slo-pitch softball league that has been playing for fun for thirty years. Everyone involved works at, attends, or went to Trent. The weekly games on soft summer nights bring hearty cheers, good-natured jeers and shouts of, “Yay Dad!” and “Way to go Uncle Mike!” During the season the diamond has neither lines nor umpires. The arcane rules that no one seems to fully fathom are enforced by mutual consent. Hit the plywood board and it’s a strike. The catcher calls outs and foul balls. No leadoffs. No stealing. There are occasional discussions but never arguments. One of the rules states that a team must have at least three women on the field at all times. I think it must be a hold-over from another era because nearly all the women are terrific players; many are a lot better than a lot of the men and nearly all are better than me.
You see, I love baseball. I love listening on the radio and following the season. I love the pace, the strategies, and the fact that it is a team sport that comes down to individual moments. I love that there is no clock, no regulation field size, no best way of doing anything and I love the game’s rich and storied history. It’s great that statistics say it all but the legends say even more. I love that every season starts as a story, slows to a paragraph and ends as a sentence.
My grandfather was a Yankees fan and so as a boy I was too. While I cheer for the Blue Jays now there’s still something about the Yankees that moves something within me no matter how much I try to dislike them and their pennant-buying, celebrity-driven ways. I’ve been to Yankee Stadium and Cooperstown. I saw the Expos at the Big O and saw Ripken play at Camden Yards and Griffey hit one into the Sky Dome’s third deck. But loving something does not automatically make you any good at it. In fact, despite loving the game I am really no good at it at all.
I take my turn at third base and most times I can stop and sometimes even catch balls coming my way. Most times I can make the long throw to first but I occasionally bounce them. My hitting is laughable. I try so hard. I try to ignore the ball jumping erratically every time its trajectory carries it in and out of my bifocal range. I desperately try to be patient and to wait for the ball to fall into the strike zone and to keep my elbow up and to swing level and to follow through and to turn my hips and to do everything else that jumbles my brain at the plate – at the board, that is. I have hit a few doubles and a couple of triples and a slew of singles but far too often I just pop it up or smack a toothless grounder to the short stop.
My lack of prowess is sometimes embarrassing but my team mates are as patient as they are kind. They coach. They tease a little, but they never criticize and I always get my turn. Despite being so bad at it I have fun. And that’s the point.
Because you are good at something does not mean you have to do it. Consider that upon the birth of his second child, John Lennon retired from the music business. He didn’t publicly sing a note or record a song for five years. He wrote, “I’ve already lost one family to produce what? Sgt. Pepper. I am blessed with a second chance.” He baked bread and changed diapers and read stories and took his son for long walks in Central Park. Finally, right there at home, he found what he had been seeking for so long – peace.
Because you are bad at something does not mean you should not do it. It would be a quiet forest indeed if only birds with the sweetest voices sang. So I look forward to next spring’s baseball season. I will try harder but probably not be much better, but so what? For now, the Black Plague has received not a single challenge from any other team on the planet. That makes us World Champions. A few months from now, in the depths of a cold, Canadian winter, that thought and memories of Val’s legendary six-inch triple, will offer a little warmth. And could we all not use a bit of that from time to time?