Opening Day: Field of Memories

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Here's small memoir to celebrate the opening of baseball season.

Maybe it’s that Everest-sized mound of snow remaining in my driveway, but lately I’ve been thinking about the days when I played softball for Pleasant Journey Used Cars in Northampton’s mixed-sex summer league.

My wife and I moved to Northampton, MA in 1985, and my decision to play with “PJs” was one of my wiser ones. I’d like to say PJs was a fabulous team, but I think we had a winning record just once in the five years I played. The team reflected the character of owner/manager Bob, who remains a kind, generous friend. His motives for fielding a team were, in order of priority: making friends, having fun, catching some sun, enjoying post-game fellowship, and competition. A lot of our competitor teams consisted of hell-bent-on-winning folks in their late teens or early twenties; PJ’s was mostly over 30 with an occasional graybeard within sight of 50. Team motto: “We may be slow, but we’re old.”

We did have some very good players. Our shortstop, Rich, could clobber the ball and dazzle with the glove; nothing got by Patty at third and she was amazingly strong. When Patty wasn’t at third, Jessie was nearly her equal. John was another great fielder and was fleet of foot, though not nearly as swift as his wife, Elaine–the fastest person I've ever met. She couldn’t hit the ball further than 20 feet but if she made contact, she was on base. Peter was also a good player, as were Bob and Chris. Yours truly was a decent hitter—one year I hit nearly .700—but I was definitely a singles and doubles guy with very little power. I was pretty good with the glove too, though the less said about my throwing arm, the better.

Mostly we were a reverse Lake Woebegone: slightly below average. Bob’s son, Dereck, kept score on a cleverly fashioned electric scoring board powered by a car battery that he lugged to the field of combat, and he often needed to jerry-rig some crooked numbers–for the other team. PJs had what can be charitably called a fungible roster fashioned from newcomers, friends, spouses, paramours, and persons of interest. Because we were older than most teams, many of us had work and family obligations that prevented us from attending every game. When you showed up on a given night, there might be 20 people vying for nine slots, or just seven. Bob’s position was that if you were there, you played—a democratic worldview at odds with a winning-is-everything ethos. Some times we lost games we would have won with our best nine on the field. Meh! We made fun of those who confused recreational softball with game seven of the World Series.

More often we often found ourselves short of players.  On those nights, we drafted partners and friends no matter how loudly they protested they were “no good” or didn’t know the game rules. As we hysterically discovered, most were telling the truth! Some draftees had to be tutored on how to hold a bat and there simply wasn’t enough time to consider the fundamentals of catching.

No one was too lonely, lost, or un-athletic for PJs. Just moved to town? Show up and someone will loan you a glove. Danny had cystic fibrosis, couldn’t see well, and was fairly immobile. We didn’t care. When Danny hit a dribbler we screamed as if he had launched a moon shot over the light stanchion. We also had some eccentrics on the team. Ron had a powerful arm capable of gunning down anyone reckless enough to try stretching a cheap single into an even cheaper double. The problem was he had no idea where the throw would land once it left his hand. Rumor has it that some of the comets in the summertime sky are Ron’s errant throws. Dave was a pretty good player—when he was focused. When he wasn’t, it was as if he paused mid-pitch to compose haiku.

Even our practices were like Keystone Kops outtakes. Once we tried to practice at Child Park. After about ten minutes, a guard appeared to tell us that “organized games” were not allowed there. I pointed out that it was inaccurate to call us “organized.” He agreed that I had a point, but we still had to move on.

After a few years, most of us crossed the line between being getting older and fearing we might seriously hurt ourselves. Peter kept the team running for a while—longer than he should have, as he later conceded. Left behind, though, was something far better than a winning record: a passel of good friends and a field of memories. --Rob Weir

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