Friday, May 7, 2010

Beer and danger: Life in slow-pitch softball

Eric Byrnes was hitting .094 for the Seattle Mariners this season when the team mercifully released him. He's been around for 11 seasons and pops up on TV because with his unkempt hair and quick wit he can play the "wacky" broadcaster - following in the footsteps of Steve Lyons. His newest gig will be a slight step down in competition, though he'll still be receiving $11 million from a contract he signed a few years ago with Arizona. Byrnes will play for a slow-pitch softball team that's sponsored by a bar called Dutch Goose.

I always wondered how dominant Major League Baseball Players would be in softball. How hard would they hit the ball? Would they kill anyone with their line shots? Just how much beer could they consume, and would they be able to play six games in one day while nursing a hangover? The answers to those questions would probably be Very, Probably, Gallons, Yes.

I haven't played in a softball league or a tournament in 10 years. It was always fun, if occasionally dangerous. I usually played third, shortstop or second. With the first teams I played on, the competition wasn't the greatest and there's not much difference between any of those positions. But as the competition gets better, the dangers rise. Many people consider slow-pitch to be a joke, something played by God-fearing church groups on outings to the local park or overweight boozers who pick up the glove and throw on the ketchup-stained jersey every Wednesday night.

That's certainly a part of it. But there's another world, the one I'd find myself in while standing at third base, staring at a 6-foot-4, 250-pound, steroid-ridden (probably) monster with a lethal weapon in his powerful arms. We often played Class A teams, which was the top level in the state. Muscular guys with power to all fields filled these lineups. Every time one of them strolled to the plate, a third baseman was one swing away from a trip to the emergency room. These guys could hit the ball pretty much wherever they wanted. And often they wanted to send the pitch screaming down the line. As someone who didn't believe in using a cup, this was especially dangerous for me and my chances of having future Fury children. I trusted my glove would save me.

Against those teams I was always happier to play short or second. Even at shortstop, you have a bit more time to react. And at second, there aren't a lot of left-handed hitters so there aren't as many line shots. Righties can hit it to the opposite field, but even though it will be hit hard, it's easier to handle. Third base was all about reacting in a split second. One guy hit a ball so hard it took my glove off after I thought I had caught it. The ball dropped out of the glove and he was safe. My teammates were upset the guy got on base; I was thankful I still had the use of two hands.

Lots of softball memories over the years.

* Speaking of injuries, my dad broke his leg playing first base in a game. I was maybe 10. Janesville always hosted tournaments out "at the lake." One Saturday, mom left while I stayed to watch him play. He went for a catch at first. A runner hammered him. Broken leg. I stayed behind while they transported him to the Mankato hospital. Mom returned a few hours later to hear me saying dad was in the hospital. I'm surprised there wasn't a forced retirement.

* I once struck out in slow-pitch softball. Swinging. There's not much in sports that is more humiliating. Scoring a basket for the wrong team might be one. But even that can be brushed off as a temporary mental meltdown. To strike out swinging in slow-pitch means you knew what you were doing, but you just weren't capable of doing something that even the worst athlete can do from the time they're 8 years old. And it wasn't one of those pitches that's a mile in the air and tough to hit. It was a regular little lob. My teammates didn't even heckle me. There was just silence, perhaps a "wow."

* Even at the highest level, it is a skill to play after a night of drinking. It was amazing watching a guy who was vomiting and begging for death at 1 in the morning crawling out of bed and to the field for a 10 a.m. game. It usually takes until about the fourth inning for them to wake up. After a few games they're fully functional. It's especially difficult if the team has to work its way through the losers bracket. That could mean five or six games in a single day, in stifling temperatures.

* One year the Fury family cobbled together a team to play in the Hay Daze tournament. Over the years, the Hay Daze tournament has gone from having great competition to terrible competition to great and back again. That year was a good tournament, a lot of strong teams. I was 9 and it was a great time. My dad, his two brothers, a couple of cousins, a couple of cousin's kids and then a couple of non-Fury family folks completed the roster. One of the non family members was the pitcher, Charlie. Charlie's a great guy, a Janesville favorite. He pitched forever. Charlie's a big guy, but even he can't take a softball fired at his chest from a short distance. During one of the games, my uncle fired home. Unfortunately, the ball never got there, as a surprised Charlie took the throw right in the middle of his chest. He went down to one knee while everyone gasped. His teammates ran to him to make sure he was all right. And, maybe more importantly, they still needed a pitcher. Charlie was fine, though branded by the ball.

The team won a couple of games, but lost a heartbreaker. It was against a team loaded with many of the best players from Janesville, a team that had a couple of guys who played with Class A teams. The Fury family battled throughout. They led late. In one of the innings, the opposition flagged one of the outfielder's gloves. They said it was illegal. Sure enough, it was. They'd suspected all along, but waited for just the right moment - the same way Billy Martin knew George Brett's bat was probably illegal before the pine tar incident but waited for a crucial time to tell the umps. It was a ridiculous rule, nitpicking. The momentum changed. They hit a couple of homers and won the game. Jerks.

* Speaking of humiliation at the plate, one year in a major tournament, the team I played for got no-hit. It had to have been one of the few times in slow-pitch history a team didn't get a single hit. And it wasn't a bad team. In fact, one of the players was one of the key instigators on the team that beat team Fury a decade earlier. He was a Class A player, a bit past his prime but still monstrous at the plate. Even he couldn't get a hit that day. Part of the problem was that there was a no-homer rule. Any home run was an out. So our guys did technically hit some long balls, but they were recorded as normal outs. The good news was that while I didn't get a hit, I also didn't strike out.

* Slow-pitch lends itself to loudmouths and jerks. Sometimes they're fueled by alcohol, often it's just their real personality. Verbal exchanges are frequent. One game in particular, the fool on the other team kept screaming, for seven innings, "STATION TO STATION SOFTBALL, BABY!" Christ. It called for a brushback pitch, fired underneath his chin or at the small of the back. Unfortunately, all we could do was bark back. The guy wasn't even any good, just loud. Is there anything worse than an average athlete who talks all the time and can't back it up? That, of course, describes the current version of Kevin Garnett. But at least Garnett could back it up for most of his career. This guy on the diamond in his tight pants wasn't even a has-been. He was a never-was.

* A friend of mine in Madison played on a team last year with Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne. You'd think Dayne would be one of those guys who frightens third basemen and makes them weep at the thought of fielding a liner off of his bat. But he actually wasn't that great. He ass, apparently, a nice guy, a good chemistry guy on the team.

* For two summers, I played with my dad's company team, a ragtag collection that was doomed to lose, and lose often. They were the Bad News Bears, but not as cuddly. There were a lot of good guys and a handful of good players, but many of the players looked like they brought a glove for the wrong hand. Still, we had a good time. In the very first game I played with them, we managed to beat a superior team, one of the better squads in the league. It was like Villanova knocking off Georgetown, only more improbable. The season went downhill from there, with the occasional victory mixed in with lots of frustration. But we had that one victory. We celebrated with beer, while hanging out in the parking lot. It was a real sports victory. But it was still slow-pitch softball.

1 comment:

Jerry said...

Poor Charlie - wonder if the stitch marks are still visible? Good thing Mike didn't have better arm! My favorite is when I got into it with the umpire during the summer league in Janesville. After his response I knew I wasn't going to win THAT argument.