Hanging up the cleats

“Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.”

— Lou Gehrig, farewell speech at Yankee Stadium, July 4, 1939

“Fuck me! Fuck me! Fuck!”

— me, farewell speech at Northbrook Softball Field #28, July 13, 2005

One farewell speech is considerably less eloquent and heartwrenching than the other. I also suspect they won’t ever make a movie out of the second. But like The Iron Horse before me, a debilitating muscular/neurological disorder (known in medical circles as “aging”) also mandated the end of my career last night. And in a fashion that those who know me well will appreciate, my career ended not with a rousing game-winning hit or a fabulous putout from the outfield, but instead with me being ejected from the game. For swearing. At myself.

I’ll bore you with a little history before I get back to what happened last night. This is a blog, after all, and it’s all about my personal view of my navel, right? I was a decent little leaguer back in the day. I could hit like a motherfucker, and I was the fastest kid on the team. I had a respectable arm, and I sucked with the glove. A three tool player in the classic sense. But they’d find a place to hide me on the field (usually RF) since I was money at the plate, a lead-pipe cinch. One summer I batted over .800 and was league MVP. Then when I got to be about 12 years old, all of a sudden the pitchers passed me up, big time. I couldn’t catch up to their heat, and if they had any kind of breaking ball, my at bat would go from embarrassing to pathetic. So in sixth grade I quit. Back then, as a boy, there was no option of playing organized softball, so I turned to other interests, like music, and school. I missed it, but I had no real choice.

When I got to college, there was a pretty active intramural scene, and some friends suggested I join their 12” slow pitch softball team. Where I came from, 12” softball was strictly a girls’ sport, and I was reluctant to play. But I went out and watched a game, and it was obviously a ton of fun, so I started playing. And I was immediately hooked. And I contributed: I could still hit, run, and throw. And I was still suspect with the glove, but it didn’t matter. I’d bat first or second, and I’d make great contact all the time, usually lining singles right over the pitcher’s or shortstop’s heads. And occasionally, if the outfield would sneak in on me late in the game, I could muscle up and power one over them. I’d usually play center field, as I could cover a lot of ground and had enough arm to consistently keep runners from taking third on fly balls, and even sometimes make a play at the plate. I eventually became the captain of the team. My senior year was probably the best team I ever played on. We were a co-ed team and went undefeated in the regular season, only to get squashed in the championship game by a bunch of scholarship athletes who had put an unbelievable team together. I think Joe Girardi and Todd Martin were on the team that smoked us. But by that point, I was deeply and hopelessly addicted.

After college, I captained lots of co-ed rec league and even some “competitive” league teams. I recruited my best friends, and in some cases friends-of-friends, and we played lots of softball, 12” and 16”. One summer I was on 3 teams. The thing that mattered most was that we played for fun, not to win. We were mostly around .500 as far as our record went, but the important thing was hanging out with our friends and the mass quantities of alcohol we consumed after the games. Some great stories come from this era, involving stealing a bottle of Jack from behind a bar, winning an air guitar contest, and several great mash sessions with waitresses and girls on the team. Good times!

Well, as life goes, a lot of people from that group got married and moved out to the burbs, or got jobs in California or New York, and the core of the team changed. It was no longer my “first degree of separation” friends, but now it was people I met playing and friends-of-friends. And it was still fun to play. But captaining had become a chore, struggling to get enough bodies out to a game to avoid a forfeit, and dealing with unhappy people (“I don’t wanna bat seventh! I don’t wanna catch! Waaah.”) became the bulk of the job. And slowly but surely, my arm, legs, and reflexes at the plate were slowing down a little bit. I could still contribute, but I wasn’t the money player I once was. I had all the competitive fire, but things were falling apart, both on the field and in the dugout.

I quit captaining a couple of years ago, but still continued to play on teams with a lot of the same people. Now it was their problem to find a sub 15 minutes before the forfeit deadline, not mine. And as the rosters morphed, I transitioned from the guy at the center of the web of friends to the guy on the outside. It was becoming a lot less fun all the time. And as I said, slowly but surely entropy took its toll on my muscle, eye, and brain tissue. I found myself moving down in the order…I wasn’t batting second and playing center field anymore; now I was batting ninth and catching. And there were guys on this team who were straight up jagnut dickheads. One thing that I had always prided myself on as captain was that I didn’t brook any assholery on the team. But now I’m in no position to do anything about it. There were at least three guys on my team this summer that I couldn’t stand, and I’m sure it was mutual. It was no fun at all now, and I didn’t even want to go to the games anymore. So I’d decided that this was going to be it for me.

So that takes us up to last night. It was a playoff game, single elimination of course. There I was, dutifully catching and batting ninth, without bitching about it. I never bitch; I hated it when people used to bitch at me. So I’m catching, and I thought I was developing a rapport with the umpire. It’s one of the things that you learn as a rec league veteran: buddying up with the umpire can work for you and your team. Your pitcher’s strike zone grows; close calls at first go your way. Well, that didn’t help much: we were getting cold smoked by the other team. We were down 12-0 in the fifth inning when I came up to bat. Nobody out, bases loaded. This could have been the point where I could have maybe turned the momentum around with a big hit, driving in a couple of runs and getting us back into it. But I made a poor swing and hit a roller back to the pitcher. He forced the runner at the plate, though I beat out the throw at first to stay out of the double play. I was pissed off. I don’t care much about losing and winning at this point, but I care a lot about my own personal performance. I always have. And I was fuming at myself for making such a limp swing under pressure. As I got to first base, I shouted what was to become my pre-retirement speech. Fuck me! Fuck me! Fuck! The umpire said something, but I didn’t hear it. Bad move.

I ended up stranded at third to end the inning. As I was walking back to the dugout to get my glove, I was talking—conversationally—to one of my teammates. I said, “I can’t believe I didn’t hit the ball past the fucking pitcher.” Like I would have said, “boy, it’s hot out here tonight.” I wasn’t yelling, or talking to anyone but my teammate. But the umpire, the guy I thought was my new pal, heard me and went batshit crazy. “YOU’RE OUT OF HERE!” he screamed, and gave me the familiar thumb gesture towards the parking lot. I thought he was kidding; the rest of my team had no idea what the hell was going on since they hadn’t heard me. I asked him if he was kidding, and he pointed at the bleachers and said, “there are women and children here! That kind of language is unacceptable! You’re gone!” I swear to God, I thought he was kidding. I walked into the dugout, and he looked at me and screamed, “IF YOU’RE NOT OFF THIS PARK PROPERTY IN ONE MINUTE, YOUR TEAM IS FORFEITING AND I’M CALLING THE COPS.” Turns out the bit I didn’t hear when I got to first was his “final warning” about my language choices.

Regardless. I wish I was making this up: he was threatening to call the police because I said the word “fuck” on a softball field. Because of the women and children there.

So, I grabbed my stuff and left. What else could I do? I was stunned, angry, disappointed. The kid from the park district who keeps score asked me for my name. I guess if we managed to come back from the 12-2 deficit to play next week, I’d be suspended for the next game. I told him my name was Xxxx Yyyyyyy, one of the guys on the team who hates me. Since I’m not wild about him and some other guys on the team, I didn’t bother going to the bar we always go to after the games. I haven’t heard from any of them today either, and I doubt I ever will. I left my bats there, but whoever grabbed them can have them. I don’t need them.

So I drove home, windows and moon roof open, tunes cranked, taking the scenic route, thinking back a bit about the twenty years or so I’ve spent playing the game, the people I played with, some of the great times, and the beautiful, perfect irony of how it all ended.

Fuck me. Fuck me. Fuck.