HOLSATHER HAS JUST LEFT THE BALL PARK
If you have to leave the game, what better way
to go out than hitting a line drive to center that
nearly decapitates the pitcher?
Dreams die hard, even
on the softball field
By KENT HOLSATHER
Our team had a softball game under the lights last night and it was brutal. We lined up against a team of 20-year-old rugby players and we were getting our shorts handed to us. The fact that we were older than most of their fathers was being hammered home with every line drive to the fence, infield single and base hit that was stolen by outfield speed not seen since our youth.
My last stop as a player found me sharing first base duties with another old-timer of similar limited abilities. A torn cartilage and sore Achilles had robbed me of my mobility and left me helpless to any grounders that were more than a few feet to either side of me.
One ball to my right forced me to move more than my eyeballs as I attempted to lie out. But it was already bounding in the outfield when I hit the deck in a cloud of dust and an empty mitt. It was a move that I hadnt attempted for some time and I felt quite proud of myself for still being able to sell out on the play.
When the inning was over I limped to the dugout possessing the grin of a man who still believed that he had something to give the game. I found a spot on the bench and proceeded to ask one of my teammates what he thought of my diving stab. He looked at me with a straight face as he delivered a dagger deep into my heart.
You looked like an old man trying to get into bed, he said.
All of a sudden, I was alone on the bench. I should have seen this coming but I didnt want to look. I loved the game; I loved it for as far back as I could remember.
It was the summer of 1957 that I played on my first Little League team. I was a chubby seven-year-old and it was the first time that I would be playing with kids my own age and not just taking balls in the face from my hard throwing and unsympathetic older brother. We were divided into several teams and given sponsor uniforms. My team was sponsored by Puget Sound Freight and our uniforms were green and white. Although it was made of wool and itchy as all get out, it was my first uniform and it will always be my favorite.
Playing in the early years exposed me to all kinds of players and emotions. It was not uncommon to gaze at the outfield and notice a player making animal noises while balancing his mitt on his head. Some kids were just not really into the game but for others, it was life and death. On one occasion, a ball skipped between the legs of our second baseman and he crumbled into tears. His mom had to console him for several minutes while we stood around rather uncomfortably kicking the dirt with our shoes.
The first few years of Little League saw the paring off of those kids who decided to travel new directions that didnt necessarily require the ability to throw, bat or run down fly balls.
By the time that I reached junior high school I found myself pitching more often than not. I was blessed with below average foot speed so working from the mound was the perfect fit. I could throw hard but I was somewhat erratic with my control and on one occasion broke two ribs of a batter who failed to bail out on a hanging curve ball. It was at that point that no player would dig in at the plate when I was on the mound, no one with common sense that is. I owned the plate in those days but unlike Bob Gibson, I could hit you if you were even near the batters box.
At 14 I was still throwing hard enough for the coaches to notice and they would occasionally place me on a few all-star teams but by the time I was 16 I was moved to first base. It seemed that my fast ball was still pretty good for a 14-year-old
I continued to play first base and right field in high school but I really wasnt all that happy. I missed being involved in every play of the game and that involvement could only be achieved from the mound.
I graduated from high school in 1968 and that summer a friend of mine invited me to watch him play a game called slo-pitch softball. He belonged to a league that included churches, taverns and merchants; he played on a Lutheran church team. The league was run by the YMCA and it was strictly recreational. Most of the teams had sponsor shirts but everything else was come as you are. Shoes were optional.
I joined the team that year for lack of anything better to do and found that I could pitch a softball quite well. I was back on the mound and back in the action.
Over the years, the church team morphed into tavern teams, sporting goods store teams, and multiple merchant teams. During the middle 70s, we went through a highly competitive stage. It was not uncommon to pick up college ball players who were on summer break and players who split their time with us and playing with semi-pro baseball teams. In 1976 we hit our high water mark by placing second in the state. We played 130-game seasons and traveled to tournaments all over the area. It was a good life for single guys at the time but marriages were on the way and families werent far behind. Some kept playing but many dropped out to raise children and do family things on weekends instead of running off to places like Yakima in July to play in 48 team softball tournaments.
As the years went by, the tournaments that we entered were cut to one or two in the summer. In 1985 we moved to an over 35 league. At this point, we had devolved into more of the traditional beer league mentality but we could still compete to some degree.
By the time that I had turned 40, I had suffered only a few injuries. I took 13 stitches over my left eye, hyper-extended a knee and had a finger--20 stitches--nearly ripped off my hand from a line drive. Not counting the dozens of strawberries inflicted on my knees and thighs, I escaped pretty much unscathed.
At the turn of the Millennium we started to look for over-50 tournaments that would give us a fighting chance to compete but they were few and far between. In the meantime, the over-35 league folded and forced us back into the open age leagues; the writing was on the wall.
Back to now. It was the seventh inning and we were down by a ton of runs. I was first up and I trudged to the plate for the umpteenth thousandth time.
I settled into the batters box and waited for the pitch to be delivered by a kid who had a father who was younger than me by 10 years. It arched towards me with a slight backspin. I strode into the pitch as I extended my arms and rolled my wrists. The ball shot off the bat, whizzing by the pitcher's left ear as it lined into center field and for one brief instant I was that seven year old kid slapping his first hit as his parents cheered from behind the backstop.
I dropped the bat and took off, but as I approached first base, every step along the way had added all the physical burdens that I had forgotten only moments before. I stood on first and signaled the bench for a courtesy runner. He came out and high-fived me as I gingerly walked to the bench. I sat down and put my coat on as the night air had become oddly cool and uncomfortable.
This would be the final season for me and for several other friends that shared those endless summers on countless diamonds with me. As I sat there, a forgotten poem sprang up to whisper in my ear. I had found it years earlier scratched on the back of an old line-up sheet that had been left in the dugout by some bench jockey with too much time on his hands.
On countless nights when the lights are bright
And the air is cool to touch
Theres a certain spot you set your sight
And you await the ball to crunch
With a mighty swing and a sonic ping
The infield you start to riddle
With a solid blast you hit it past
With a shot right up the middle.
I smiled to myself. A shot indeed; I nearly took the kid's head off.
©2008 by Kent Holsather. The illustration is from IMSI's Master Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA. This column first posted June 30, 2008.
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