Today we are reintroducing a classic West Side Rag column:
Five years ago, I joined a softball team called the Consenting Adults. They were in their 23rd year of existence, with colorful characters who were writers, psychologists, teachers, and gifted softball players. They gave me a much deeper understanding as to what it means to strike out through the words of Twain or Shakespeare. Most on the team were married, until our ragtag group of friends came along with confetti coming out of our ears, single and ready to mingle.
When you’re drinking beers out of your mitt, changing clothes in the bushes, and getting sticky sweaty with other like-minded gamers, shenanigans are certain to happen. Central Park is undeniably magical after hours.
We used to say there were eleven degrees of separation, which doubled by mid-season, and no one seemed to mind the overlap. Birthday parties turned into dance/costume shindigs which turned into sleepovers for the entire team; people sleeping four across on a surprisingly supportive air mattress, three in a bed, and two on a couch lying on opposite sides. We’d pile into the diner on the block, rye toasting to each other’s good health at the noon hour
But when relationships went awry, so did team dynamics. A former captain used to get angry at me, my sister, and chick friend for our mid-season break-ups with stat-leading sluggers. “Great…now who’s going to bat clean up?” or “He was the only lefty we had!” She is practical and mathematical. How would we find a replacement for third base or another quality pitcher? What about the 6’8″ outfielder who used to play both left and center field?
Last year, we were reduced to bringing on Rafael, a 10 year-old Little Leaguer, to fill some big shoes at first base. He had a bowl cut, a wooden Louisiana Slugger bat the height of my knee, and no clue what batting clean-up meant. “Does that mean I clean up the bats off the field?” And that’s where he stayed in the line-up. His bat was a fly-swatter, but knocked off a few hits, none out of pity from the opponent. The playing field was leveled when we played the old guys, ages 40 to mid-60, bones creaking with the trees.
Other substitutes are internationals picked up on the fly, who try to translate cricket skills to softball. Two Brits I met while bartending thought they’d use their bare hands or shirts to catch balls, only to find out how badly a bruised sternum hurts. Overall they’re pretty good, but can’t get a grasp on which bases you can overrun. “Only first base and home,” we instruct. “But where’s first?” Our German friends Udo and Thomas were naturals. Thomas caught a line drive at second and said, “What’s this ball doing in my mitt?” while Udo homered his first time ever swinging a bat
Strangers ask, “Well, who umpires?” Easy, we self-govern. Tie goes to the runner. We have rubber bases or flattened pizza boxes, and line-ups are drawn on newspapers or in the dirt.
Our traveling three-ring circus of a team play in dirt clearings throughout Central Park against three other teams, and carry around the caveat: “We’re drinkers with a softball problem.” Our league commissioner often reminds us of this, along with bringing beer and “Don’t throw the ball!” Some trees and bushes sit in fair territory, so we play off them. But make no mistake: We’re serious about winning.
We’re loyal to old equipment and friends, but vow to keep off-season dalliances off the field. It’s a fine, fine line not marked with chalk, but rather, “that big tree over there.” No one wants to foul out.
For more of Katie’s columns, click here.