Tuesday, June 5, 2012

"For the Love of the Game"

We played softball last Friday evening. "We", meaning the youngsters and I. (along with two of the dads)

The "youngsters" are the girls and boys ages 9 thru 14 from our church. Willis Byler had started these games for the boys maybe 5 years ago and had gotten me to help. Then when Willis moved away I kept it going for the boys and then a couple years ago decided to try adding the girls in also. At the end of the year I told them that  I had wondered how it would go over with the boys to have the girls help play. You know at this age boys are a little concerned about associating too closely with girls in fear of catching some of those dreaded "cooties" that girls supposedly  have sometimes.

I told the boys I was proud of them for not acting like it was any big deal, and I told the girls I was really proud of them, because they played along with the boys even while knowing for a fact that the boys definitely had the cooties.

We bend the rules a little to help out the first year players. First timers get unlimited strikes and also I as pitcher can't field the ball when they do hit it. It gives them a much better chance of getting on base. 

Anyway, the game last Friday was a good one. Usually these games have scores like 25 to 14 or something similar. This one stayed close, 4 to 2, then 7 to 5, etc. At the end of 9 innings the score was tied, so into extra innings we go. Ten innings, still tied. Eleven innings, no change. Finally it was the bottom of the twelfth with two outs, the bases loaded, and Clayton up to bat. The suspense is almost too much to bear.

Now Clayton is a very promising young man, good sized for his age, and can swing a bat like he means serious business. But every once in awhile he'll take a tremendous swing that you are sure is going to result in the ball being hit clean into the graveyard in deep center field, but somehow he strikes out instead. Reminds me of the Mudville Nine and "Casey at the Bat".

Now let me tell you up front that I'm really not a sports nut. Right now I can't even remember who won the last World Series. I think professional sports are overrated and way too many of the players are spoiled brats. But now a good old fashioned country softball game on a fine summer evening, that's somethin' else awhile.

And softball (or baseball as well) is such a dignified sport. As opposed to football where brute force is so important. Or basketball, where the players run back and forth like idiots the whole game, trying to decide on which end of the court they want to be playing.

My love for softball goes back a long ways. I learned the fundamentals in my Uncle Robert's front yard  watching him and his five boys play. Home plate was just in front of one flower bed, first base right by the front porch step, second in front of the other flower bed and third base by a big oak tree. Aunt Esther must have had a lot of patience as those flower beds had to have gotten a rough life. I can't remember if I was old enough to help play at the time but I do remember lots of games later on with Sonny, Missy, and "Nookie". I can still hear Sonny saying that here comes Missy to bat with her "washerwoman chop".

Actually Sonny and I had many baseball games just the two of us. (Hey, we had imagination when we were growing up) We would take turns catching and pitching and if I remember right the catcher would call the balls and strikes and say when there was a "long fly ball hit to deep center field, it's going, going, gone!" and how many runs had scored, etc. etc.

At the peak of my make-believe baseball career.

One thing that influenced me greatly in my developing love for softball during my "growing up years" was that I was doing very little of the growing up part. I was too scrawny to be any good at football. And I wasn't a real fast runner either.  And I was too short to make a good basketball player. And my lungs were (still are) too small for long distance running; I would always come in towards the end of the pack along with the fat boys on the 600 yard run we had to do in school.

But I can remember the good feeling in grade school when the "big boys" William Bell and Gary Hall were picking up teams and I got picked  fairly early on. "He can catch", one of them said. (Now not catch as in being the catcher, but as in fielding the ball)

 At the time I loved to play left field. You got a lot of hits with the majority of players being right handed. I can still feel the rush that came with the crack of the bat and racing to try to make the catch.

I never got to be a power hitter. One field we played on at Gladys Elementary  was fairly narrow with a bank going down just past third base. If  I hit it just over the third baseman's head hard down the line it would go over the bank and I could get on base.

During the teenage years our weekly softball game was as much a part of the fabric of summer as were eating and breathing. We had a ball field in the middle of a cowpasture  down on the Seneca Creek just upstream from the swimming hole. We built our own home run fence out of slabs and old boards we got from Dan Zehr's sawmill.

We would take a pickup truck up to Halley Dillard's store and pick up a whole pickup load of neighborhood boys and haul them down to the creek where we would trek across the narrow trail over to the swimming hole and up to the ball field. Most of the guys we picked up played in some sort of "bush league" and were pretty good. We prided ourselves in being the underdogs but still won some games now and then.

One year we even kept batting averages, rbi's, and all those good statistics. Hey, we were pretty good, too, with batting averages around 600 or so. Not too many of those in the major leagues these days.

But back to our game last Friday evening; I guess I've kept you in suspense long enough. As I said,  two outs in the bottom of the twelfth, bases loaded, and Clayton up to bat. I was thinking about "Casey at the Bat". And actually also wondering if there would be enough daylight left to play thirteen innings if necessary.

Here's the pitch. (I pitch for and sort of coach both teams at these games) As I said, here's the pitch. Clayton swings mightily. He connects! It's a solid base hit to I don't remember where. The leading runner crosses home plate. The game is over.

It was a summer evening at it's finest.