Because, after the way last year ended, no team craves victory more than we do. Okay, craves might be a bit strong, given our celebrated aura of equanimity, which has sometimes been mistaken for sluggishness or outright apathy. And victory might not be the right word either, since we are a team that plays for the sheer joy of softball competition on those pocked and boggy park lands that the city’s maintenance crews rarely get around to. Win or lose, we revel in every moment we are privileged to spend on these unfenced fields of dreams, cherishing each twisted ankle and split lip as a karmic souvenir from the gods of slow-pitch. The season-ending debacle of ’06—in which we had to withdraw from the league tournament because one player left when his wife told him she was “kinda bored” and another swallowed his gum and “felt icky”—was hardly surprising to fans who’ve followed us over the past 25 years. Still, it left us with what World Series losers call “unfinished business,” not to mention a nagging case of the great Yogi Berra’s contribution to modern psychology: “déjà vu all over again.” So what I should have said when I talked about craving victory was this: our team would just as soon have an umpteenth chance at not making a complete ass of itself.
Because we approach the game the right way. Look, this is coed, Class-E softball. It’s no place for stirrup socks and metal spikes and little strips of eyeblack on your cheekbones. Hell, we once had a guy named Norbert “Large Papa” Wilberforce pitch a no-hitter wearing Bermuda shorts and Birkenstocks.
It’s no place for vein-wrapped slabs of muscle, either, especially those that appear to be injection-molded. What’s that, Mungo? Yeah, I’m talking about the juice. Gym candy. Arnold’s little helper. Home runs in a hypo. We don’t believe in that stuff. The only steroids you’ll find in this team’s collective bloodstream have been prescribed for the treatment of asthma. Hoo-rah!
Because Taffy’s back, and she’s better than ever. It’s true: our lone superstar, pitcher Lucille “Taffy” Schraft (so nicknamed because of her sweet and supple right arm), has conquered the personal demons that hampered her career for several seasons. First, there was her ill-advised marriage to a golf nut. Then, after the divorce, she wanted to change her look—and who wouldn’t? How the photos of Taffy shaving her head showed up in Softball Starz Weekly is anyone’s guess, but it killed her confidence. She couldn’t throw her three-knuckle drop floater to save her life. By far the most debilitating demon, though, was Taffy’s addiction to sunflower seeds. You know how it starts, or maybe you don’t. You’re pitching a game on a green-and-gold summer evening, and somebody offers you a handful. You pop them in your mouth, chipmunk-cheek-pouch-style, and you crack them one by one between your teeth and spit the shells right on the field. You win the game, and from then on, every seed you eat seems to contain the essence of that meteorologically and emotionally satisfying night. You’re hooked. At first you use them only during games. Soon your car, your home, and your office cubicle are littered with old Starbucks cups full of damp, empty shells. Wafting from these cups is a mustiness unlike any other, which eventually seems to be emanating from your very soul. To make matters worse, the inside of your mouth feels as if it’s been upholstered with salt cod. There’s no 12-step program for this condition, but there is a transdermal patch. It has yet to receive FDA approval, but you can buy it at any corner store in Mexico. In February, the team got together and sent Taffy on a little getaway. Problem solved. Her hair has grown back nicely, too.
Because we survived the memoir scandal. I think everybody understands by now that my book, Snap, Crackle, Pop: How I Trashed Every Joint in My Body Playing Softball (A Love Story), was never intended to be strictly factual. It’s a newish genre into which I’ve plunged; you might call it a novoir, or perhaps a memvel. For the record, no, I did not—to touch on just one controversial episode—hit a game-winning home run while toughing out a dislocated shoulder and torn knee ligament suffered during a running/diving/tumbling catch in deepest center field. I did sustain those injuries thanks to a contretemps over a bottle of lime-flavored fizzy water, which was in my personal Styrofoam cooler. If you want to get technical about it, the home run was hit by my replacement in the batting order while I lay shrieking in the ambulance on the way to the emergency room. That pain was nothing compared to the agony of appearing live on TPT’s Almanac, where Cathy Wurzer and Eric Eskola, white-lipped and trembling at my alleged betrayal of autobiographical values, browbeat and body-slammed me in front of a vast television audience. There was an uptick in sales over the next few days, though, so I’m not complaining.
Because our captain, Clinton “Snarls” Barkley, has completed his court-ordered anger-management therapy and made restitution to the victim/umpire. I missed the altercation, having jogged across three dusty diamonds to use the reeking Port-O-Let and then somehow gotten stuck inside, but that’s another story. It seems that the ump, Ed “Lasik” Lambert, made an egregiously bad call on a play at home plate. Whereupon Snarls—a heretofore gentle giant who’d always been known to the team as D. L. (for “Dalai Lama,” not “Disabled List”)—ended up taking a bat to the windows of Lasik’s vintage AMC Pacer. But it’s all good. Snarls says he’s learned how to channel his anger into ever-more-complex platoon systems and statistical analysis. And he now understands that a person’s ex-wife can take up with anyone she chooses—even a freakin’ umpire.
Because even though we’re old and wheezy, we will turn your pity into plowshares, with which we will sow the seeds of triumph. This is what we tell ourselves, year after year.
Because we have a secret weapon. It’s not first baseman Augie “Babe” Roth, whose towering blasts would all be round-trippers if only he could run anymore, or outfielder Hugo “Girlfriend” McGonigle, whose speed would produce runs galore if ever his bat made contact with the ball. Nor is it shortstop Francine “Zoilo” Coyle, who routinely executes the most incredible defensive stops—impossible, physics-defying feats of glovewomanship that make you wish real life had TiVo—but can’t throw the ball within 10 feet of Augie’s glove. No, this weapon is so secret that even we don’t know who it is yet. It might be that unassuming gal who doesn’t take the bat off her shoulder all summer long. Maybe she’s waiting for the perfect moment to cut out your hearts with a swinging bunt. It might be that weird blowhard dude who claims he made it to Triple-A baseball but quit the game when the CIA needed him in Winnipeg. Maybe his staggering ineptitude is part of his cover. It might even be me, standing out in right field, plotting my next memvel. Something will happen—planets will align, strings of fate will be jiggled, a tsetse fly will flutter its wings in Africa and a gust of wind will steer a ball into my glove—and you will know the piercing disappointment that is our daily bread.
So bring it on, o youths, with your double-wide necks and your spandex and your earbud phones, which allow you to ask your friends “Where you at?” even as you round the bases. We’re ready. We have observed that your mothers wear army boots. Booya! High-fives all around. To quote a long-dead loudmouth who once seemed scary, too: We will bury you. Well, weather permitting.
Contributing editor Jeff Johnson is awaiting the development of a transdermal patch for softball dependency.