Friday, July 1, 2011

Softball: A memoir chapter 3 "Time to get Serious"

            After uniting our top guys with the other team, we had to name our team. Since the Alpha Male – Taylor liked to drink and for some reason wore knickerbockers to every game we called ourselves the drunken golfers. We all liked to drink, actually. Or we all drank a lot, I can’t say who liked it and who had a compulsory need to embibe, but the line was never quite solid as far as I was concerned. Also, I wanted very badly to own and operate a set of knickerbockers but never did.
            The guys from my team were my Mexican math nerd roommate, Jose, our neighbor Austin “zoolander,” who was a volleyball player stoner burnout, Jason the boss,  Jason’s friend Matt who was in no way affiliated with the university, and myself, who we have met already.
Jose had never had a drink or smoked a cigarette or marijuana when I met him. He was a tennis player and a cross country runner and must have been part Dominican because he was better at softball than one would expect of someone with no official experience. The last time I saw Jose, he was describing to me how awesome credit cards were because you didn’t need to have the money to buy the things you wanted but you could still get them.
Austin was one of those natural athletes who was somehow good at everything seemingly without trying. He had to set an alarm in order to wake up in time for night time Laker games and slept on an air mattress because he kept his laundry on his bed. He would drop out of college a year later after telling his father that he knew he had to get better grades otherwise he’d be a forty year old loser working at a grocery store, which, coincidentally was a spot-on description of his step-mom, which his father took quite personally and cut him off financially.
Jason and Matt were from Chicago. Something about guys from big cities east of the Mississippi draws them to genuinely love baseball and everything related to it. These two were no different. They used to play ball, but as the talent pool got more and more competitive, they washed out, not by choice, and now they had something to prove. Jason was my RA’s boss, which, in light of the tone and name of the team, would complicate things in the future. His friend Matt was working as an accountant for a bar about ninety miles away and was crashing at Jason’s place for free until he could get on his feet and get situated. They were alright dudes.
The other team was, as best as we could tell, a grouping of mechanical engineering seniors. Taylor was the captain, Jacob, Shaun, Pete, Jorge and a few other guys rounded out the squad. They were nerds, but a new type of nerd, which I had never experienced. They had built a kegerator with an hydraulic runner board which made possible the one-man-keg-stand. Usually people use great intelligence for fun in comic books, so when I heard of this, their most notable creation I was baffled. I decided to stop judging before they turned it back on my fat ass. It was a sweet machine, too.
Taylor was a professional caliber in line skater. Jacob was a baseball kid who caught the smart bug and chose the more realistic path. Shaun was blond. I never really got to know Shaun very well. His girlfriend Myra worked as a cleaning lady in the dorms where I lived which was strange because despite my humble upbringing I had never considered “the help,” as rich people say, as someone who I would interact with, or respect aside from the obvious. She was a very nice girl and taught me to separate the person from the job. Not that there’s anything wrong with the cleaning industry, but firsts are firsts. Pete was the worst guy on the team. He was fat like me. He wore a hooded sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off. I went home and cut the sleeves off of my hooded sweatshirt because to me it seemed that his sleeveless hoodie was the source of his self esteem and I wanted some more; or it could have been a form of body armor to hide his body under baggy cotton but keep his arms free and I wanted that too. Jorge was a cross country runner for the school. He was slight and quick and insisted upon wearing those short running shorts for either comedic effect or just plain homo-eroticism.
There were two leagues in the intramural softball all male category: student groups, for fraternities and clubs; and independent for people whose only connection was the fact that they wanted to play softball together. Our main competitors were the Walruses, a group of middle aged professors. Second to them was the History Department whose name nerdily rotated season to season, one oblique specific reference after another including “The Mensheviks,” “Gaius Julius Softball,” and the ever popular “KMD,” which I thought was a bit insensitive but never said anything outloud because I was a history major and they were all my professors and TAs.
I say main competitors because these were the only teams who consistently showed up beyond the first routing we handed to them. Usually it would work like this: we would show up to the field ninety minutes before game time, or as close to that as possible, with beer or beer money. We’d pool our resources, assess the supply and either start warming up or go on a run. By the time the other team showed up we’d been on the field for an hour taking grounders and batting practice, mistakes punishable by taking a drink. It wasn’t psychological warfare, or it wasn’t intended as such. These guys worked so hard at school that when they cut loose they cut hard and I was along for the ride because they were older, hence cooler.
Jason and Matt always showed up right at game time because of their grownup jobs. I never drank in front of Jason because I was only eighteen and he was directly in charge of my living situation, which could be negatively effected in the light of such laws being broken. Either way, it was a don’t ask don’t tell situation. Until one night after some Christian group didn’t show up, we headed over to a local pizza joint for some dinner.
Taylor was a regular here, and one of the guys, Gus worked at the place. I sat down across from Jason and wasn’t paying attention until Jason and I both made to take a sip at the same time. The tension was palpable. Here I was sitting across from someone who’s job it was to supervise the people in charge of my general health and well being, part of which was enforcing the rule of a dry campus, and reporting any laws being broken to the proper authorities. We both froze. Jason was more panicked than I. He put his beer down and looked me right in the eye. “I’m just a guy.”
He was just a guy. He was just a guy having a couple beers with some pizza because the other team didn’t show up to meet his challenge. I was just a guy too. A guy who could have been twenty-one for all this other guy knew. It was the duty of the pizza place to check my ID, not his. This pizza place was near where this guy worked, and where the other guy lived, but not at either place. I shrugged. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” and I took a sip. I call this night the birth of the softball mafia. Now softball wasn’t just a sport I was good at or a place I fit in, it had transcended my newest reality and was now more important than the rules I had just spend months learning.
It was understood that I should not say anything. I would never. But as an Italian I knew that not saying anything was different than not knowing anything. I knew now that while I still owed this man my respect and still had signed a contract to obey the rules of the building I inhabited, things weren’t so cut and dry any more. After that night my behavior never changed, but my attitude did. Softball had suddenly become a common denominator that was more important and relevant than his job or the laws of the state of California. Softball let me demonstrate that I was mature in context. I still abused alcohol on and off the field, but as a testament to my character, or cleverness I never got to out of control. Or he looked the other way if anything I ever did came up because he feared I would sink him, which I doubt because what formed that night over those cheap domestics was a friendship, an unlikely one, facilitated by softball.
Later that year, I applied to be an RA for the following year. I made it through group interviews just fine on my own, as I was well regarded in the housing community for my active participation, thanks to my heightened self esteem. When it came time for one on one interview signups, I was summoned to Jason’s office. I was given a time and location. When I showed up, expecting a panel of interviewers to pour through my qualifications and ask all the bullshit questions, I found only Jason. I don’t know if I nailed the interview or not, but I got the job.
This was my first lesson in nepotism; or it should have been. I am still working on that whole concept, but this was my first real experience in it. I am sure I was qualified enough to be an RA, but the fact is clear that my softball prowess and the maturity I showed that night, and every subsequent night of softball and boozing, had given me an outside the box advantage which I was not consciously aware of.
So by the time I had my second championship softball had given me a job, a place to live, fourteen meals a week, two t-shirts, strengthened my relationship with my roommate, made us and our neighbor into a strange multi-cultural triumvirate, introduced me to the concept of cool nerds, taught me how to interact with males who I hadn’t grown up with, given me a sense of belonging that I lacked after leaving the place and people that had shaped my existence, and most importantly I think, I had lost about twenty-five pounds. After all that softball had given me so far I still didn’t have the love for the game as I do now looking back.
What I knew I liked was the camaraderie, and the winning, which we did a lot of. We didn’t win our first season as a team. The Walruses edged us out in the championship game. We were undefeated until that game. It was a bummer. Luckily it was the winter season so we only took a two week hiatus before we were back out there for the spring. The spring of 2003 would end with one of the most intense softball games I have ever been a part of in my entire life.
It was the championship game. We had beaten the Walruses and KMD in the quarters and semis respectively, and I mean that as a correlational device, not as an adverb. We were hungry and out to prove something so we ran up the score on both of them and invoked the mercy rule. The tournament was held on one day in June. June in riverside is hot. I mean triple digit hot. Couple that with the binge drinking and the lack of shade on softball fields in general and there was definitely an element of danger involved. So we made the smart move and ran up the score to minimize exposure time and conserve our energy for the team we expected to meet in the finals: the team we hadn’t had a chance to play all season because they were on a different night; the team we would never get a chance to play again because they would return to the student group league as soon as their suspension was lifted at the end of the year.
The Fijis. Phi Gamma Delta. They were our only shot to prove ourselves. They were in the independent league for one quarter and they were as dominant as us, if not more. They brought fans. They brought a lot of fans. They brought so many fans, they filled up two bleachers. The fans were as drunk as we were. The fans were fijis too, but not adequate ball players, just gym rats and meat heads. I hadn’t much experience with fraternities at this point in my college career because I was still into punk rock and got my friends for free, whatever that meant.
They thumped us for three innings. At the end of the third it was 17-4. At the end of four innings, if one team is up by ten runs or more, the game is over. The pressure was on and the sun had set on the day. We were playing under the lights like normal. The only thing different was the dried sweat from drinking all day in the sun and the amount of time we’d already invested on our benders. We settled into our small ball strategy and got a run and a guy on base. It was Jorge’s turn to bat and the crowd started jawing at him. His shorts were gay. His shorts were really gay. I don’t know how many dicks he had to suck to get those shorts either, but the homerun he hit should have shut the crowd up because it extended the game.
It would have shut the crowd up had he not jumped onto the backstop like a lizard, humping air and yelled “Who’s the faggot now?!” Because if there’s one way to rile up a bunch of half drunk douchebag frat boys it is to jump onto a backstop like a lizard, hump the air and yell “who’s the faggot now?!” It was like a scene from a gnarly prison movie. Lots of giant white dudes yelling and pounding on the fence separating them from a little brown man in tiny shorts.
The tone of the game changed at that point to one of spite and animated violence. Everyone smelled the blood in the water and the feeding frenzy was on. Every batter of ours had something to say to the crowd and the crowd gave it right back. Their team left their dugout to stand with the crowd and be rowdy, our team stayed in ours, but we were dehydrated so the alcohol in our blood was running wild and made us loud beyond control.
By the end of the sixth inning when we scored the go ahead run, Jorge, who had told us on no uncertain terms that he didn’t care where Pete played and was going to play catcher, had whipped the crowd into a frenzy. I began to fear for my safety. There were about sixty people over there to our twenty, and our twenty were mostly flops and drunks and all nerds. Their fans had now spread onto our side of the bleachers. We were surrounded. We were winning but at what cost. Clearly our drunkenness had gotten into the heads of our competitors and their fans, but now they didn’t care about softball and sought personal vindication.
I had only invested a year in softball, and at that only one night a week. I was not looking forward to getting my ass kicked for such a new interest. I had never been in a fight, or a proper fight at least, so the chance that I would come out on top was especially slim. I imagined myself panicking, tucking into a ball and catching a beat down, then subsequently losing the respect of my fellow troops, making the previous year a wash as far as all of the things I’d gained. I projected shame on myself and stopped participating in the yelling in the hopes that it would somehow translate on the back end to less of a beating.
At a certain point in the top of the final inning, Jorge was taking time between every pitch to bang on the fence or throw the ball at the fence or yell at the rapidly angering lynch mob, or all three, and that coupled with their response was slowing the game down. The umpire threatened a forfeit for the next team that delayed the game in such manner. Not wanting to win or lose in that fashion, everyone pretended to calm down.
We won and shook the other teams’ hands. We beat them fair and square and drunk. We stood in the middle of the field and celebrated modestly. We were worn out. All of us were more than capable of drinking all day in the heat, or playing a bunch of softball games back to back, but few of us were capable of both plus what was about to happen. We turned to the stands expecting a rabbling wall of pitch forks and torches, but instead saw the stands empty into the parking lot slowly and orderly.
Everyone was calm but me at this point. I was a ball of anxiety. I had essentially planned my own beating and prepared for it. I withdrew from the present into the future and had already made a negative decision about the outcome that was still only a distinct possibility. I had panicked. It was a reaction based on my residually low self esteem and my lack of control of the situation and my impaired judgement. I didn’t get a chance to celebrate initially because I was so wrapped up in my imaginary worst case scenario. I was incomparably relieved when I saw that this all was going to end peacefully and I enjoyed that feeling more than the feeling of winning the tournament, more than the two home runs I hit during the game – but not more than grabbing my crotch as I crossed home plate for the second one.
Ten years of baseball and I had never seen a fight on the field or about the game. Well, I saw one, but it was between two coaches and I think it had a bit more to do with their intertwined histories than whatever happened between innings to make one of them wrap his hands around the others’ throat. Plus I wasn’t at risk in that fight. This fight saw my ass on the line in a way I had never experienced before. Softball was more intense than I had ever imagined.
I was happy we could win that game and that championship. Because as far as I knew, the bulk of the team was graduating, and Jose and Austin had neglected to secure a place to live for the next year meaning they’d never come back to college which left just Jason and me. It was triple catharsis. Going out on a high note this time. The past wrongs were righted and I was at peace with my baseball shortcomings. I had successfully compensated for the inequities of my past and accomplished so much more than I ever thought I would when I signed up at the hall meeting nine months previous.
I said my goodbyes to the field, wished everyone could stay in college forever so we could keep winning at softball and I could keep this feeling, then headed to the after party where I rode the high all the way into the hot blond chick’s pants, or shirt. I grabbed her boobies but the sun was coming up and we were pretty sure Jose’s alcohol poisoning was serious so we cut it out, but I had secretly wished all year to squeeze those cans and for it to happen on that night made that night the best of my life to date. I hadn’t hated myself for awhile at that point. Some would even suggest I was happy, and while I’d been happy my whole life, this happiness on this night was a more copious brand that was yet unfamiliar and extremely welcome.

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