Once upon a time, I was a baseball player. And that’s putting it mildly.
It would be closer to the point to say I was a baseball fanatic. While most teenaged boys would have posters of scantily-clad women or music groups tacked to their bedroom walls, I had ballplayers. And while most would spend their free time perusing the latest issue of Rolling Stone, I would spend mine with Baseball Digest.
You get the idea.
Fortunately (and I can say that now–“fortunately”), God had other things in mind for my future. Baseball was my first true love, and our breakup was a tough one.
Five years ago:
Though the two of us have gone our separate ways, we still have opportunities now and then for a little flirtation. One of those opportunities came last week, care of my job.
College kids are cocky by design. They know much about the world and little about themselves, and the combination results in broad declarations and high claims. So when the girls fastpitch softball team challenged the faculty and staff to a game, the results were obvious. And not.
It began a few years ago with a simple conversation between one college softball player and one groundskeeper. I’m not sure who first said what. All I know is at some point one said something about being a much better ballplayer than the other, which was taken as an insult, which resulted in more insults, which resulted in the first ever softball game between the girls fast-pitch team and the staff.
The games are always interesting. There is an extraordinary amount of fanfare involved, all of which can be boiled down to one word—pride. That’s what fuels these games. It’s not just pros against Joes, it’s the experience of age versus the cockiness of youth. Both teams are out to prove something, whether it be that that a bunch of old men can still kick it up a notch when needed or that the gals can hit and throw and run just as good—better, even—than the guys.
So while there is plenty in the way of friendly trash talking, there is also an undeniable seriousness beneath. My team doesn’t want to be beaten by a bunch of girls. Their team doesn’t want to be beaten by a bunch of groundskeepers, a few office workers, and a mailman.
It was an informal affair at best—no uniforms, no signals, and no stolen bases. And no umpire. Balls and strikes were called by the catchers, one of whom our team borrowed from the other. Baserunners were called safe or out based on consensus.
What could go wrong?
As it turned out, not much. For a while.
Because despite the combination of weakened knees and livers and lungs, us old guys were holding our own. And the young gals were holding theirs, despite the fact they’d been up for days cramming for finals. We were locked in a 1-0 pitchers duel.
But then through a series of walks and hits, we rednecks managed to load the bases with two outs.
Things were suddenly serious, and very much so. The chatter and clapping began in our dugout, while in the field the ladies were pounding their gloves and getting restless. And nervous.
The count ran full, and I could see the sweat building on the pitcher’s face. The intensity was getting to her. It was a look I’d seen before. No way she’d throw a strike.
And she didn’t. The ball sailed about four inches outside.
I jogged to third as the carousel of baserunners moved up one base. The runner ahead of me stomped on home plate with authority. We had a tie game.
Yes! Wait. No.
Because then the pitcher decided her last pitch was a strike after all, which was immediately agreed upon by her teammates.
Team Redneck protested in a most vehement way, of course. But in the end, there wasn’t much we could do about it. We took the field and vowed revenge our next at bat. Which never came, because after they batted they decided the game was over.
I didn’t stick around for the cookout afterwards. I imagine it was a quiet meal.
Me, I didn’t care that much. It was a chance for me to play some ball. The score was irrelevant. And I guarantee you that thought was echoed by most of the people on my team who just enjoyed playing like kids again. It didn’t bother us that we lost. What bothered us was how we lost.
We played by the rules. They didn’t.
You could see this whole episode as something bad. Not me. In fact, I see much good in it.
It lets me know that regardless of how often we’re reminded of how bad both the world and the people in it are, we still expect folks to follow the rules. To play fair. Most do. A lot don’t, of course, and never will. But as long as there is someone somewhere willing to take offense when the rules are broken, I really think we’ll be okay.
All of this has gotten me thinking about the rules my Dad first taught me about baseball. The ones I’m teaching my son now:
Don’t be afraid to get dirty.
Cheer for your teammates.
Keep your head up.
Win well. Lose better.
Shake hands when you’re done.
I like those rules. They’re good for baseball.
Good for life, too.