The Daily Star, Oneonta, NY - otsego county news, delaware county news, oneonta news, oneonta sports

August 28, 2010

No matter what age or condition, guys just want to play ball


Daily Star

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It was just the other night, and it was pouring rain in Laurens.

Peering out from what passes as a dugout were a dozen or so morose softball players whose amateur careers possess far more yesterdays than tomorrows.

As the field began to resemble Lake Michigan, their spirits dropped as the gentle rain from heaven.

They wanted to play.

Well, all but one of them did.

That would be me.

It didn't seem to matter to my teammates that anyone venturing out to the pitcher's mound without a snorkel would be putting his life in danger.

They wanted to play.

The scene reminded me of Garrison Keillor's fictional Lake Wobegon, an old Indian word, he says, that means "the place where we waited all day in the rain."

The folks with whom I shared the dugout seemed perfectly content to wait all day in the rain, and all night, for that matter.

As for me, I decided to go home when I saw a bunch of different species of animals getting into a line, two-by-two.

It's a fascinating and quite admirable phenomenon, this willingness to suspend logic and squeeze each molecule of athletic experience out of bodies that deserve a nice rest.

My teammates come from many different walks of life, the only thing they really have in common being their sense of how wonderful it is when a ball somehow sticks in your glove or flies off your bat.

Some of my teammates in the age 35-and-older league are in excellent shape, but not many. One outfielder's back hurts so much that sometimes he winces even when he just walks.

Another gentleman almost got killed in a terrible motorcycle accident last year and had his neck in a brace for months and months. He still tries to finagle his way into games.

One of our best players had his aortic valve replaced a few years ago and has the huge scar on his chest to prove it.

Our third baseman customarily has a lighted cigarette between his lips when fielding practice grounders between innings.

During a recent playoff game, our first base coach was waving runners around with only one arm so as not to spill the beer he had in his other hand.

That was me, and that's the kind of league it is for all of us who play _ an informal but quite precious last stop on a bumpy road that began with Little League ambitions of baseball stardom.

Week after week each summer, they show up. They play the games with more grit than ability, knowing that the day will soon come when they won't be able to do it at all, and how sad that day and all those to follow will be.

It's a chance to feel alive, to razz a teammate and yell at an umpire, to be part of a group with the same goal.

Older major leaguers commenting on their bodies breaking down say, "the legs are the first to go." That may be true, but I'm certain about the last thing to go.

One of our guys got a bit carried away last week when he thought he heard a player on the other team say something nasty. Amid various ensuing threats and gestures, violence was only narrowly avoided.

The ump kicked our guy out of the game and suspended him from the next one.

The last thing to go? That's easy. It's the competitive fire in your brain telling you that you can, even as your body is telling you that you really can't, or at least, shouldn't.

As for me, I'm the oldest guy on the team, and each year before the season starts I tell myself I won't be playing, that it's time to hang up my Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars.

But _ against my better judgment _ I play.

It's like that scene from "The Godfather, Part 3" when Michael Corleone bitterly mourns his inability to escape a life of organized crime:

"Just when I thought I was out," he cries, "they pull me back in!"

Something keeps pulling me back in, and I think I know what it is.

First of all, my teammates are a splendid group, inordinately kind and patient with my waning abilities. I've evolved into sort of a combination of Yoda, giving sage strategic advice, and the team mascot.

I am definitely not one of the better players. My role is to be kind of a utility infielder, playing first, second or third when a superior player can't make it to the game.

I'm always pulling this muscle or that one, and during the summer, you're likely as not to find me limping around. If you do, please don't tell me I should stretch more. I stretch plenty. Then I pull another muscle.

But for a couple of hours once or twice a week, I'm able to escape to the same mental field of dreams I discovered when my father gave me my first baseball glove.

I don't worry about family or work or even if it's raining a little bit. As far as I'm concerned, only one thing is really important.

That the batter hits the ball to someone other than me.

Sam Pollak is the editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at spollak@thedailystar.com or at (607) 432-1000, ext. 208.