I am 37 years old.
For at least 32 of those years, I have played some form of softball, starting with t-ball at Lyndon Recreation when I was just 4 or 5 years old.
It’s a long time to play, and at this point in my life, the glory days are over, long over. I play co-ed D-league slow-pitch softball—the only step down from this league is the kickball league. And there are fewer and fewer heroic moments to be had in D-league softball at 37 years old.
Playing for this long has meant my enthusiasm for the game has waned. I’m just as excited now, at 37, for a rain-out as I was at 16, when I had far more exciting prospects off the field than just a glass of red wine. And I’m usually the first to throw snark at the guy who loses his cool on the field or starts telling people about his stats when he was in Little League. It’s co-ed D-league slow-pitch softball for God’s sake.
But I’m also the first to throw snark at my own teammates, particularly when they screw up a play by attempting something they clearly haven’t been able to do in the last decade. During those times, I hear my father’s voice in my head, “Mechanics. Focus. Always get the lead runner. Know where your play is.” And when my teammates don’t have those fundamentals drilled into their head, that muscle memory my dad ingrained in me from an early age, it drives me mad.
It’s not just my father’s voice I hear in my head when I’m on the field. There are others, never crowding or conversing, but they’re there.
For years, I’ve imagined my Papa at my games, leaning on the side of the fence, telling me to back up in the outfield, move a little bit more down the line. I like to imagine him standing with a bunch of players from Kingston, watching the game that came after theirs. I think it’s part of some memory I have of him watching a game at Lyndon, leaning on the Pepsi scoreboard while I was in left field, the red paint fading off the wood that was holding up the chalkboard sign. And I hear him, “Come on Buddy!” or “Back it up a bit. Right there, bud.”
Then there’s my own voice, which at times comes across as Crash Davis, especially when I’m up to bat. Tonight, instead of thinking, “C’mon Meat, throw me that weak-ass shit,” I watched the pitcher as he started his wind up and thought, “Show me what you got you Happy Gilmore son of a bitch.”
But the glory days are gone, and the times when I’m excited about softball have become fewer and far between.
We were playing the league’s undefeated team. I was in my regular position in left field, where four balls had come out to me: two that were caught easily, one a clean hit well over my head, and one that left me frustrated after my glove tipped the ball before it careened toward the fence at the back of the field. While I had no particular biases towards this team, they were undefeated, and there’s something to be said about beating the reigning league champ.
In the bottom of the final inning, we were up by five, the bases were loaded with two outs, and their big third baseman with an attitude came up to bat.
I let my muscles remember what my dad taught them. I let Papa tell me where to stand. At the crack of the bat, I heard Crash Davis say, “Well, he really hit the shit outta that one, didn’t he?”
And I thought, “Nah. I got this.”
I don’t know what other people are thinking during those moments, when the ball changes directions from home plate to left field and whistles powerfully through the air down the third base line. I imagine my teammates following the ball with their eyes as it leaves the bat, mouths slightly agape, helpless in what they can do, and the other team, jumping up and down in the dugout, screaming for the home run that would bring them within one run, the hitter grinning as he rounds first.
For me, it’s just grass, breathing, running, and the ball. Everything happens slowly and magically in those moments, the ones when you know the play is yours, no matter how it looks to everyone else. Sometimes I think I watch the ball too long, enjoying the magnificence of something sailing towards me, knowing where it’s going to land. As I begin to run, left arm outstretched, matching my trajectory with the curve of the ball, I don’t see or hear anything but that yellow globe. Although, I don’t know if I see the ball in those final moments, not even as it moves slightly behind me and I feel the thump as it lands firmly in my glove.
When I turn, after making the catch, holding the ball tightly in the basket of leather, I see those who were jumping stop—and those who were not, start.
And then someone turns the volume on.
There are few moments, few game-winning catches in anyone’s life, but no matter what age or what league, you should enjoy them. And so when my team, the opposing team, and the two teams waiting to take the field came to congratulate me on my game-winning catch, I did.