Sunday, June 24, 2012

Our losing season

The 2012 Chapel Hill men's softball season will put my pessimistic honesty to the test. I am already off to a challenged start. I could not figure how to start such a post, so I searched for my copy of Pat Conroy's My Losing Season, a memoir of his tenure as a college basketball player at The Citadel. I planned to find a suitable epigraph that would give me some direction and perspective. I evidently never found the book, so here is my own perspective.

I wanted to play on a softball team for years. A broken face and concussion interrupted and practically ended my high school baseball career in April 2002. That loose end annoyed me for a decade. In 2007 I socialized my way onto a decent team in Charlotte and enjoyed playing second and first base for a few Sunday-night games. My then-girlfriend-now-fiancee watched me play that season and decided she wanted to marry a man who owned a jock strap.

After moving to Chapel Hill in 2008, I either coached junior varsity baseball in the spring or forgot to register for the local league until it was too late. What I did not know then is that many of the teams had been in the league for longer than I had been alive and never forgot to fill the schedule to capacity by an early March deadline. Last winter, two years removed from my brief coaching career, I finally registered on time. I sent an e-mail to my friend Roddy to ask him to play and recruit other guys to field a complete team. We decided to compose a roster of our friends regardless of their skill level. Anybody with any experience would be a pleasant accident.

In preseason practices we found that about half of our guys were accidents. But even the other guys could hit a 12-inch, slow-pitched softball lofted to a mouthwatering height of six to ten feet. We figured that defense would be our primary weakness. Judging fly balls, throwing, catching and understanding game situations were all obvious concerns that we subconsciously ignored. This was easy to do because our least experienced players were also our most optimistic. As the team's player manager, I found this quite endearing. Our practices consisted of nothing more than batting practice and ball shagging. We christened our team with $3 uniforms, the name George's Pitches and the Pancake Batters, and a bat with the foreboding label "Freak Show." I anxiously awaited our first rundown.

I attended the preseason coaches meeting and discovered that the next youngest guy was at least 10 years older than me. Another fellow wore two knee braces. To the meeting. Things were looking up for the Pitches. One purpose of the meeting was to debate a couple flexible rules. The American Softball Association of America had recently lowered the maximum pitch height from 12 to 10 feet to make the ball easier to hit. To my surprise, all of the coaches wanted the ceiling to remain at 12 feet. The guy with two knee braces really wanted to keep the ceiling at 12 feet.

"Two years ago I pitched to a guy who broke my arm," another guy wearily said. "I didn't see the ball, but I felt it."

I was in the presence of older men without the reflexes to protect themselves against a 50-foot line drive. I felt a wicked urge to go against the grain on the issue and did exactly that, but my vote meant nothing. The ceiling stayed at 12 feet by a 7-to-1 vote. I left the meeting without making a single friend.

We opened the season against a church team composed of middle-aged men with scant athletic ability but more than 20 years of league experience. Some of them had children who attended the high school at which several of my teammates and I taught. I did not know it at the time, but some of those children attended that game to watch their daddies invoke the mercy rule on their sprightly, young teachers. A botched play at the plate saw one of those daddies run over our starting pitcher, whose shoulder turned a puffy yellow. He sat out the first half of the season while it healed. I saw the son of one of those opposing players at school a couple weeks and many consecutive losses later.

"I heard you have a softball team," he said to me.

"I do," I replied, still unaware of how he knew how I spent my Monday and Wednesday nights. "A few teachers play on the team." I went on to identify them by name.

"You have a young team," he said.

"Yup," I said. "We are young compared to the other teams."

"Don't you think it's strange that older guys beat you by double digits?" he fired.

"No," I said and proceeded to explain our plight. We discovered early that our defense, which actually improved as the season progressed, was not our only problem. Offense was our other problem. Optimistically speaking, those were our only two problems. Hitting a slow-pitched softball was easy, but we failed to hit it where the fielders were not. We had no guys with home run power and no guys with the patience to wait for a good pitch. They all looked good to us. The ball was big and yellow and slow. It was hard to miss but harder to resist.

To say that hitting was our only offensive problem would have been an understatement. We overran bases that could not be overrun. We stopped on bases that should have been overrun. We even took an illegal lead off and paid the price with an automatic out. If Yogi Berra was watching, he was also blushing. When I was about to introduce our defensive troubles to the bold 17-year-old, he tired of listening and interrupted my monologue.

"My dad almost killed your pitcher."

It was not long after that short conversation that I was running to second base on a fielder's choice and tore my hamstring, which had never happened to me before. Without a good reason to heal or someone to tell me otherwise, I decided to play the rest of the season with the injury. I pulled, strained or tore that hamstring at least a dozen times. I learned to run slow and play out of position to protect it, but fielding ground balls was painful.

One night my fiancee yelped when I turned around in my boxers. A large purple stain had suddenly appeared on the back of my leg above the knee. Worried that it was a dangerous infection or bite, I went to my doctor. He explained that my hamstring was bleeding from repeated tears. Somehow that made me deeply satisfied.

At some point we found ourselves with no wins, ten losses, another sidelined infielder and many bloody knees (and many bloody bedsheets and therefore many bulky, bloody loads of laundry). Those optimists I mentioned earlier still thought we could win a game. I was certain we would not. My fiancee often asked me whether we would win, and I invariably said no. Do not misunderstand. I played with a great attitude and cheered my teammates. I enjoyed every inning until we played a Sunday-night game against the second-worst team in the league and lost by 20 in three innings that lasted for 25 minutes.

The game was a makeup on an irregular night, so most of our best players were absent. Our defense was really something to see; I think we committed eight or nine errors in three plays. The game ended when the home-plate umpire spoke a few inaudible words with the scorekeeper and walked back to the field.

"Who is the coach?" he asked only loud enough for the infield to hear. I raised my hand. He dropped his head so that the brim of his cap covered his eyes. He gave me the grimmest come-hither gesture I have seen in 28 years. I jogged toward him with the awful feeling of knowing exactly what would be said and that it did not need to be said. It was insulting. I was suddenly the face of something I did not want to represent on my own.

"It looks like we've reached the third-inning run rule here," he said with eyes still directed downward. "I'm very sorry."

"OK," I said. I wished I had something better to say.

The dugout after that game was tense. Losing by the mercy rule was nothing new, but the 20-in-the-third rule felt quite fresh. Our earnest left-center fielder explained to everyone that we should be embarrassed. I already was only because of the umpire's odd gesture. But I also knew that our lineup was the weakest it had been all year. Even crazier than the humiliating loss was that we all knew we could easily beat the team that had just beat us by 20 in three innings.

"Did they cancel the game?" my fiancee asked when I walked in the door 40 minutes early.

"No," I said. "We lost in 25 minutes by 20 runs. We will beat them tomorrow."

I was not showing resolve. I just knew we would have a better lineup than them in 24 hours, and we did. We won by 2. They were surprised, but we weren't. Still, we celebrated on Franklin Street and recounted the game inning by inning. We thought it might be the only opportunity. A day later I refreshed the league results page a dozen times. I wanted to see a 1 in that first column. It was important to me. Winning is more fun when you're a loser.

We beat the same team a second time a week later to take two of three from them. Then we lost in the first round of the playoffs to the best team in the league. As was the case ten years ago, I did not want it to end. At least now I can regret this season instead of my lost season of 2002.

We will be back next year. And maybe with several strokes of good luck and good health we will be back in 38 years, which is exactly how long one of the current teams in the league has competed. Their roster has undergone a few makeovers, but their name is still McCauley Street and their two white-haired founding players are still swinging away.


1 comment:

  1. Dave From LHS Class of 1975 again....... A good sports story. I have been playing softball (and lately old man hardball) for the last thirty years, so I can relate to your story (and pain). I also can relate to the broken face because I broke my nose as a 14 year old playing baseball in those baseball fields North of Butler Lake in Libertyville. Of course, I am sure that the baseball fields at LHS were much improved by the time you played there three decades later. You and I could probably share some old stories and comparisons since some my young coaches were still there teaching you thirty years later. Dave From LHS 1975.