Softball as Fountain of Youth
Playing the game with men in the afternoon of life, trying to keep it from turning into evening
Every Sunday morning in the summer, I play softball—even though I’m 49, and as terrible at the game as I always was. I drop the ball, I make errors; so do the other middle-aged men in our group. Why do we persist in a game for young men while our bodies creak with age and strain?
Many can recall a time early in life when we became entranced with the sport. We played it on the streets, or in the park. Perhaps we collected baseball cards and kept tabs on our favorite players, argued passionately in our bunks at summer camp about which team was better. Maybe some of us even had fantasies of becoming major league players. These fantasies fade rather quickly for most people as we get on with the business of life, but a few fall permanently, hopelessly in love with the game and find a way to remain faithful to this love affair despite the passage of time and our diminished capacity and the things that test all of life’s loves.
To be sure, while there is no maximum age for softball—baseball’s milder cousin—many of us who play are at or near retirement age for these kinds of activities and so for us there is a layer of gravity, of seriousness, now. We might play in the morning but it is really the afternoon of our lives, and perhaps by playing this young man’s game we are trying to keep it from turning into evening.
Our somewhat informal game draws a de facto Jewish group of weekend warriors, a collection of lawyers, doctors, psychologists, and even a few rabbis, with names like Feldman, Jackobowitz, Nissel, Junger, Greenberg, and Strickman. (American Jews of the last century have seemed more drawn to baseball as opposed to say, football, its closest rival. By comparison, baseball is far gentler; perhaps my forebears, with their “eidelkeit” sensibility of der alter heim, imagined the game to be less goyish, and with its dexterous use of both mind and body, even a little bit Jewish.)
About 100 men (for reasons of modesty, only men are invited to play) are on the e-vite list, and the first 20 to sign up for each week’s game are the ones chosen to play each other on two teams of 10. Most of us are not in good shape. Collectively, the team could lose several thousand pounds: this one with a middle-age paunch, another carrying around a spare tire. We traumatize our joints and beat our limbs to play this quintessential suburban American game. We clunk, dunk, and clink the ball around a shoddy, uneven diamond with the hopes of achieving a more personal satisfaction.
Around 9 in the morning, an uneven conglomeration of men assembles on the field adjacent to a monstrous Costco in Passaic, N.J. An impromptu batting practice materializes, with balls being launched like mortar rockets. Truly, there are few pleasures in the world that equal standing in the grass, shagging fly balls. There is the pop of the bat on the ball and a trajectory high into the sky, finding the ball, positioning yourself under it and waiting, waiting for it to plop right into your glove; perfect pleasure for all parties.
Eventually, two or more men become sufficiently impatient with this dream practice and insist we choose teams. Because there are no fixed players, one does not really develop any loyalty or affinity to a team. Not that it matters, because as a contest, the game is less than meaningless; no one even remembers the score. But what does matter is our own performance. We swell with pride when we make the artful catch (did you see that?) or sock the ball far (I really clobbered that one!). And we shrink down to half-size when we boot the ball or otherwise mess up as we battle the demons and bugaboos of our painful childhood failures on the field.
One of my teammates, a 51-year-old rabbi, is excellent, though he jokes about his stiff joints. He plays shortstop and throws lightning bolts across the diamond. His face is bronzed by summers spent on the field in the sun. He is a grandfather now, and he worries aloud about his swing: His first few at-bats this season were weak fly balls and grounders, but in the late innings of the second game he came to life. Waiting on the first three pitches, he held back the bat as though it were a powerful bow. Sure enough, the fourth pitch of his at-bat was lazy and slow, hanging over the plate. He let loose a majestic catapult over the left-field fence. “I can still do it,” he appeared to be saying to himself as he trotted the bases. “I am still in the game.”
I saw agony on his face when he popped out or threw the ball away in the fourth inning or did any of the things that even major-leaguers sometimes do and become the goat of the game. On the other hand, I saw the fleeting but supreme pleasure he took in his well-hit ball, smacked to the heavens and beyond the fence. For me, the joy is indescribable when I fire the ball to the first baseman to beat the runner. It is embarrassing to say, but I feel an afterglow that can last for a day or even several days: I can do it, and I even have witnesses to prove it.
One recent Sunday, I was one of the last ones to be chosen for a team, and I stood at the very bottom of the order, which is basically a public acknowledgment of my weak abilities. In an unreasonable, ridiculous reflex of childhood, I lapsed into a very brief demoralizing, pout-like depression: Why was I condemned to this body? Why couldn’t I be a 6-foot-2 power hitter?
I tried to banish these self-attacking thoughts with little success. By the time I reached the batters’ box, my team had men on first and third. Could I bring one of them home? I rarely strike out, but often the best I can do is to bloop the ball into the outfield, an ineffectual missile that can do little damage. Waiting for the pitch, I tried to remember the good moments, hits of seasons past, like the time I ripped a double down the line in 1979, and more recent solid base hits in the opposite field. I was ready to attack the ball. (It is no big deal to hit a slow-pitch softball, but you have to get the right angle on it; if it hits the sweet spot of the bat, it can go a distance even if the batter is not particularly strong.)
The first pitch was definitely a ball. “Good eye,” someone shouted. I suppressed a smile. The ball had gone over my head. The next pitch was low, but called a strike. I glared at the umpire (one of us rotates every inning to call balls and strikes; later I would be glared at, too). Finally, a pitch came that I could hit. I swung and the ball sailed into the outfield—right into the glove of the left fielder. Not bad, but not good enough. Not this time.
Still, I returned the next week in what seemed to me the vain hope to recapture the glory of my 1979 heyday. Surprisingly, I did, getting multiple hits and shining in the field during that next game.
The writer Primo Levi once said that the aims of life are the best defense against death, and in this game the aims of life are quite simple: Throw the ball, catch the ball, hit the ball. One might even say, I hit therefore I am, and the farther and harder I hit it, the farther we are away from death itself.
For us, there are no kegs of beer on Sunday afternoon, no crowd watching us, no postgame picnic; maybe a few of our teammates high-five each other, but the thrill of life shrink-wrapped into a good play—or the hope that a good play will come the next week—is enough, at this point in the afternoon of our lives. And that is why we play.
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