In an extended moment of insanity, last night, I played softball with a bunch of twenty-somethings-- nine innings worth. Some no-shows produced a need for a warm body in my son's softball team. My son volunteered me as one of the warm bodies.
Ends up the other team was a no show, so a pick-up game was put together. I started pitching the first inning. I should mention that I have not played baseball in probably 40 years and I literally never, ever played softball (well, maybe in a few interviews, but that's metaphorically speaking.)
My pitching was terrible, so they moved me to first base. But before they did, the guys were very kind and suspended walks with balls. I just kept throwing. I also, silently, wondered what this would do for the minor arthritis in my shoulder and elbow that had also affected my fly fishing casting.
My son Ben, on a drier day, pitching. Note the angle of the ball (in upper
left hand corner)-- it's very different than baseball
I thought there'd be a lot of action at first base, but no, since there were only six guys on each team, the rule was you had to hit to one side of second base-- between second and third base if you were batting right handed. So most of the action was away from first. I ended up having three plays. My years of experience came into play and I bobbled the one play where there was a shot at getting the guy out. I caught the ball, actually pretty well, the other two times, but it had been thrown too late.
Finally, I came up to bat. I'm a big guy, and I thought, my son thought that I could real slam the ball. I swung hard and... Strike one!. Ends up I struck out. I was batting all wrong-- moving my head, not positioning my feet properly. A lot of the guys on the team were giving me tips.
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My left shoulder was killing me after the first strike-out. Next time up, I struck out again, but the guys, perhaps giving me senior privileges, gave me an extra swing or two. I actually, finally connected, hitting a weak infield grounder, easily fielded, but it didn't matter, I had already struck out, At least I got a shot at the ball.
Did I mention that it had rained all day and the field as half slimy, oozing mud? Just playing first base meant I had to navigate between quick-sandish spots surrounding the base. When I'd pitched, I worked either side of the soggy, slippery mound, depending on whether the batter was a righty or lefty. I had a serious fear that I was going to end up slipping, sliding and falling in the mud.
Most regular softball games the team plays go seven innings. This being a pickup game, it went nine. I was not pleased. I was pushing it going seven. But I persevered. I was actually catching ball, and even, finally, connected in the last inning, with the ball-- another short inside grounder-- but it was without already being struck out. I was thrown out, but still, I had the damned ball.
Actually, the game went back and forth so, right before I was up, the game was tied. My turn at bat was almost certain to be the last out, ending the game. I offered to let someone pinch hit for me. The team was unanimous that I was part of the team and should bat. What a good batch!!.
I failed to mention that my son, the regular player on the team, was on the opposing pick-up team. So was his younger brother. There were three Kalls playing this game. I played terribly, like an old man, even though I do go to the gym regularly. But it was a wonderful opportunity to do something I was never able to do before. I'd coached little league for my older boy, when he was 11 and 12. But that was not the same as playing.
A few decades ago, I published self help tapes that included subliminal messages. The psychologist who created them, Thom Budzynski, used the subliminal message "I can beat Dad" as a regular part of the program. When I first published the tapes, that phrase reminded me of how the day my father came home from the hospital, after several weeks there for chest pain, he, a skilled card player who used to send money home from the front, during WWII, he was so good at poker, let me beat him at cards. He died the next day. I was eleven. Decades later, I realized the gift he gave me.
My boys sure beat me last night. I was so out of their league. That's the things should be. We let go of some things and the next generation takes over. I'd let go of baseball over 40 years ago. It was my boys' gift to me to share the game with them-- a gift all the guys on the team shared. The sore shoulder-- just minor aches 17 hours, two Alleves and three Ibuprofens later-- was my homework from this lesson.
What did I learn? I'm not in as good shape as I thought. I WAS able to run the bases as fast as some of the youngsters in their twenties. I encountered kindness that was totally unexpected. I had new reasons for humility. I will take my boy's advice and go to a batting cage-- with them-- a new way to have a fun experience. I'll learn the proper form for batting. It may not be that I'm too old. It may be that I just have to learn the stance and swing parameters. I'm not sure I ever even learned them when I was an eleven year old little-leaguer.
This tale is not over. It reminds me of the Kevin Costner movie, Field of Dreams. There's a scene where James Earl Jones, playing Terrence Mann, tells Ray,
"And they'll watch the game and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh... people will come Ray. People will most definitely come."
Well, even through the shoulder pain, it did feel like was dipped in magic waters. Even with the gritty, wet mud, the good feelings of playing came through, producing what will surely be memories so thick. And while I am no fan or follower of baseball, last night gave me a an hour or two of experience that was unforgettable.