Record scratch. Freeze frame
This … is me. You're probably wondering how I got here. …
As Pop Fisher tells Roy Hobbs when he first shows up to the Knights with a signed contract, "People don't start playing ball at your age, they retire!" But here I am. And here I've been all summer. Recruited into a townie men's softball league literally decades after I last played the game. Or in an organized sports league of any kind since I, Dave Portnoy and the other early writers represented Barstool in the Boston Media Bowling League in the mid-2000s.
The reason I came out of retirement is that I was asked. I met with a group of people that included my town's high school football coach about doing comedy at a fundraiser for the program. And after a few beers he asked me to join. Then I heard from some other guys on his team that I knew from coaching their kids in football. My first instinct wasn't to give up my Sundays all through summer so long after I last played any serious ball.
Then again, just being asked checked off and item on my Bucket List. Which is that, before I die, just once I wanted to have a crew of guys roll up to me while I'm doing work (read: stand up) in the quiet, normal life I've chose and ask me to join their squad. And I tell them, "You got the wrong guy. That was a long time ago. Like I told you, I walked away from that life." Only they persist because they say they need me on this mission. And they know just the right emotional buttons to press to get me to ride with them:
So I put a cigar in the corner of my mouth, slowly pull my old weapon of choice (a Ryne Sandberg model Rawlings RSG8) out of the lock box I've kept it in all these years (the closet with my golf clubs), blow a puff of smoke and say, "I'm getting too old for this shit." Then they look at each other and nod. Cue the training montage.
At least that's how I remember it going down.
So the league has been as they promised. The kind that exists in probably half the suburban towns in the country. Your prototypical beer league, just modified slightly for the age of 90-calorie hard seltzers. Where a dozen teams rotate through two games every Sunday at three adjacent fields. Where music plays throughout. Where the umpiring has been outsourced to a wooden, 5-sided strike zone that lies on the ground behind home plate and close calls are settled with the manly, time-honored Trial-by-Combat that is Rock, Paper, Scissors. With team names like our Mean Machine, the Knights (complete with the Wonderboy lightning bolt patch on the sleeve), and the Bears (with the Chico's Bail Bonds ad on the back). And where the only rules are:
1) No sliding.
2) Every play at the plate is a force.
3) Wood bats only.
4) Stand at attention for the Anthem with your hat over your heart. ( "… or get your Commie ass back to Russia, Pinko" is implied, but not overtly stated. Though to be clear, to a man, this is a group of guys that would do it without being told.)
For me, the biggest concerns going in were obvious. The first being that I hadn't swung a bat or fielded a ball under any sort of live fire in forever. How long, exactly? So long that one time in my old Knights of Columbus league, we were back at that Council about eight Bud Lights into the afternoon and I confessed to my buddy Dez something I needed to get off my chest. "I have a confession to make, and I'm choosing you to say it to," I said. "I secretly love Wham." And he replied, "Wham is my life." True (and ancient) story. How I was going to be able to make contact at the plate and make plays in the field was a major worry, I'm not going to lie. I can humiliate myself in a lot easier ways than whiffing on pitches and dropping pop ups like some sad, washed up relic whose glory days are in the deep, primordial past. The townie softball equivalent of Ted Williams just before they started prepping his head for the Yeti cooler.
The second concern was that I was joining a group of guys who had been together for years. In fact, the Mean Machine had won the last two league championships. So they know each other. Have a 17-man text thread that goes back to right after the Big Bang, contains more gigabytes of data than the Library of Congress and could probably derail the career of everyone on it if it ever became public.
The first concern, hasn't been a huge problem. I'll be the first to admit I'm not tearing up the league like a Boomer Kelly Leak. But I have yet to swing and miss. I've suffered the shame of popping up to the catcher exactly once, but otherwise am putting the ball in play. I intentionally chose 2nd base less for the Ryne Sandberg tribute (ask your dads about him, Millennials) than for the fact I didn't want to be tracking fly balls for the first time since George Michael and Andrew Ridgely were still together. And while I've had a few grounders eat me alive and misplayed a couple I'd love to have back, I can at least say I've done better than I thought and my worst fears have not been realized. In fact, I'm not ashamed to admit I'm proud of the fact old instincts came right back. Situational baseball. Knowing where to go with the ball when it's too slow a roller to make a play at 1st. When to try the throw and when to eat the ball. When to go out for the cutoff and when to cover the bag, and so on. Maybe it's just innate. Or possibly coaching Little League all those years kept my head in the game. Regardless, if nothing else, my bonehead plays have all been physical, and not mental. Despite all the years of alcohol abuse and television.
The second concern, was never actually a real concern. If I've got one weird quality I can't explain, it's that I secretly like socially awkward moments. Always have. Job interviews. First dates. Meeting your girlfriend's weird family. Parties where I only know the host. It's actual, natural, human interaction I'm not such a fan of. So throw me into a chain link dugout full of guys who know each other, have previously forged relationships, friendships, beefs, pecking orders, rivalries and the like, and I'll have a good time navigating through all that. In the same way people like to watch "Survivor" or "Real Housewives." Or in my case, the way Hef would sit around in his smoking jacket and captain's hat and listen to the girls bicker on "The Girls Next Door."
But in this case, it's a bazillion times easier than figuring out how to interact with three fake blondes with crippling daddy issues. Because these are regular suburban guys, the likes of which I've been hanging out with - that I've in fact been - my entire life. Which is to say, we're superficial as hell. Which keeps things simple.
I've got guys I've been friends with literally since 1st grade, and I know almost nothing about important aspects of their lives. But we're still friends. The Irish Rose can never understand how we'll get together and she'll say something like "What's he doing for work now?" and my answer will be "I have no idea. I can tell you who his QB/WR hookup was in Fantasy Football in 1994. But where he goes to earn money after he puts his pants on in the morning never comes up." Whereas she just finished a musical theater show where, two weeks into rehearsal, she knew everything about everyone in the cast, down to how many kids they have and what their spouses do for a living. Because I'm just interested in fucking around and she's naturally deep and caring. Men are from Mars, women are from Planet Super Interested in You.
So two months into my rookie season, I already know all the important, relevant stuff that will serve me well on this personal journey. I know guys by their nicknames, but in almost every case, not their real names. For real, we were talking about this the other day and a veteran pointed to another he's been teammates with for years and said, "Somebody called you by your first name and I had no idea who they were yelling to. Because I swear I'd never heard it before." I can tell you where a defense should play virtually all of them. Who's a power hitter and who's a threat on the basepaths. Where a defense should play them. Who the most positive, upbeat guys are versus who are the accomplished, professional ball busters. The other, less relevant (meaning real life) stuff, you can just sort of intuit. Which guy is a white collar worker, who's in the trades, who has a bunch of people working under him. None of which is useful when you're trying to decide whether you should try to score with two outs based on who's due up next. But it's something.
One thing I was banking on turned out to not be the case. I was sort of hoping this was a geriatric (Jerryactric? Meh. Maybe I'll find a use for that) league. But nope. Teams are loaded with quality athletes in their 30s. And I'd probably put the average age at around 40ish. More to the point, I found out right away I'm the second oldest cat in the entire league, only four months behind the oldest, who is also on the Mean Machine as a player/manager who only puts himself in the lineup sparingly.
I'm blessed with the gift of self-awareness, so I get that to half the guys in the league, I look like I flew my house to the field using a million balloons and should be handed an aluminum cane with four tennis balls on the bottom every time I reach first. But they've been cool to me. Without exception. One of the benefits of having most of them know my name and what I do to pay the bills, I suppose. The first time I reached, in our first game, the pitcher came over to the bag in the middle of the inning to talk about the hot OnlyFans mom I'd written about two days earlier. Last weekend I was shagging balls in batting practice and a guy on the other team thanked me for a piece I'd written saying there is no comparison between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. So I've learned what I've always suspected. That suburban dads who play Sunday beer/seltzer league softball are my target demo. At least in a way that polo and cricket players are not.
The thing about re-taking up a sport you haven't played in forever is your shit gets fucked up in ways that your shit never experienced before. My friends and I had a running joke back in the day where we said it hurts more to stretch out than it does to pull something because you didn't stretch out. That was true of mid-20s me, but for 2020s me, no so much. In the second week of games, pulled a hammy on one leg and a quad on the other. And rather than admit my own legs' mortality, pride took the wheel. I decided to play hero ball and soldier on. Only to get the worst result at the plate you can in a situation like that: A grounder to deep short that I had to try to beat out. No, wait. That's the second worst situation. The worse would be the throw going wide. Which it did. So I had to hobble-run to 2nd. They offered me a pinch runner, but I could cave and stuck it out. Only to have the next hit be right to 3rd base. He fielded it clean and looked me back, but it's hard to unlearn decades of bad base running instincts and I took off as soon as he tried to get the runner at 1st, and barely beat the throw. Mercifully I scored on a clean single, but I was trash from the thighs down and pretty much finished for the day. Though not until I took the field again and got the worst result an infielder with bum wheels can experience: A rundown. Some sadistic prick tried to extend a single, broke back to 1st and made me chase him down. I was like John Candy in Summer Rental with his leg in a cast chasing all the squatters out of his cottage. But I got the maniac. Then had to sit out the next week, under the orders of my primary care physician, my sister the nurse.
And I'm not alone. She pointed out this weird, bruise-like blood blister on the hamstring I'd pulled. I mentioned to a teammate who said "The guys we played last week had like five or six of those." As the runner on first overheard us, pulled up the leg on his shorts and showed us his. It's the Mark of Adult Softball. Like a gang initiation tattoo. If we ever succeed in declaring July "Soft Tissue Damage Awareness Month," we'll all be wearing black and blue ribbons on our pant legs.
It took even less time to figure out what kind of reputation Mean Machine has. When I told neighbors what crew I'd joined up with, they gave me a look somewhere between the one you give someone who tells you they're a Raiders fan, and the one you save for an American woman who flies to Afghanistan to marry an ISIS fighter. We're universally reviled. More than the original Mean Machine was by the warden, Eddie Albert. (Don't talk to be about the Adam Sandler version. Watch the Burt Reynolds one and tell me that's a remake that ever needed to be remade.) And he had Caretaker burned alive in his cell.
Maybe it's the price of winning two championships. Refusing to come back to the pack and be average didn't help the Patriots popularity any. Perhaps these guys are more abrasive and obnoxious than other clubs. Beats me, because they seem pretty much like the guys I grew up with. Except way more supportive than my old KofC team, where I had teammates who were openly hostile and kept a database of every error you committed in the frontal lobe of their brain, ready to talk about at any time. But then when it came to their own boneheaded mistakes, suddenly develop goldfish memory. I'm getting none of that here. It's a competitive league and you're expected to produce. But they genuinely pull for you. Which I'm not accustomed to.
All you need to know is that one day we were tailgating after the game, everyone was full but there was a plate of cooked hot dogs left, and one of the guys offered them to another team standing nearby. The reply was stunned silence like he'd just offered them a platter of roadkill. They looked at him incredulously for a good 10 seconds before one of them said, "There's no fucking way I'm accepting food from the fucking Mean Machine." Point taken.
The playoffs are this weekend. I'll keep you posted on the results. If I survive.
P.S. The next item on my Bucket List is to speed my car up a ramp, fly through the air and crash through a billboard as I land and keep driving. That's shit I'm not getting too old for. I'll keep you posted on that too.