Saturday, May 17, 2014

Banjo Hitter (AKA my life in baseball & softball) #1

Banjo Hitter:  A batter who lacks power. A banjo hitter usually hits bloop singles, often just past the infield dirt, and would have a low slugging percentage. The name is said to come from the twanging sound of the bat at contact, like that of a banjo. See also Punch and Judy hitter. [Wikipedia]

How does a 57-year-old man (whose athletic abilities were even in his prime modest in the extreme) still find himself playing three seasons of softball year, including some with players young enough to be his children? A question I ask myself from time-to-time—not with any intention of giving up this pursuit, mind you. & because I ask myself this question in private, I’m going to ask it & attempt to answer it here in the relatively public space of a blog. But it’s a long answer & will, like a baseball or softball season, amble along throughout the summer.

One important fact is I really shouldn’t be playing softball at all. It’s not that softball is transgressive or that my doctor disapproves (in fact he approves wholeheartedly, as I’ll explain). In 2001, I was diagnosed with COPD & following my first pulmonary function test, I was credited with a whopping 35% lung capacity. In 2002, the diagnosis became more precise: I have a condition known as Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency.

At the time I was diagnosed, I was in fact playing softball. In fact, it was a softball practice that led to my going to the doctor. I was living in Idaho, at a relatively high elevation (3,000 feet, though the league games were played at a mile high); it was May & a cool breezy Sunday evening. I kept losing my breath during batting practice & realized there was something very wrong. Although I’d quit smoking five years prior in 1996 on my 40th birthday, I’d contracted a serious flu the previous winter & knew I was having problems bouncing back.

I played softball that year & the next, & then stopped. It was a big mistake in retrospect, but I decided it was more than I could handle. Of course at the time I believed I needed to play every inning, make every play & run out every ground ball full bore—an all or nothing approach. Over the next several years my activity level decreased significantly, & as it decreased, my ability to do things decreased as well.

Fast forward to 2012. I’d moved to Portland, Oregon the previous summer, following major life changes. Since moving I started walking. Modest amounts at first, but it gradually began to build up, & by spring of 2012 I began the 10,000-step program. &—as I wrote elsewhere—began to think about playing softball again. It wasn’t until last year that I took the plunge, however, first in a league for men over 50, & then in a Fall league for adults of any age. 

Softball (& baseball) have been passions since my childhood. I’ll write more about all that in future installments. What I want to communicate today is that despite disability it is possible to continue living! Do I get frustrated at times playing because of my diminished capacity? Of course. There are only a few positions I can play in the field—third base, first base & catcher—because those positions require very little running. While I can still run to first base (or occasionally—being in fact a “banjo hitter”—second) after batting, I need a pinch runner upon arrival on the base; simply due to age, my reflexes are not what they once were, & this gets exacerbated by some inevitable fatigue—nonetheless, I try always to put the positive part of the experience in the forefront.

Over the past three years, my pulmonary function has improved each year as measured by tests—this has my pulmonologist jazzed to no end. At this point I’m walking five miles a day daily (my goal is to miss no more than once a month), & I take tai chi classes twice a week. This spring I’ve played in an all adult ages league, & will play in two leagues this summer—continuing with my current team on weeknights & also playing Sundays in the over 50 league.

I say this not to be self-congratulatory—after all, I am also the same person who let things go for 10 years!—but because it is one answer to the question with which I opened the post, & also in hopes that it will help someone else along the way. Remember, it doesn’t have to be softball—it can be any activity that gives meaning & vitality to your life.

Until next time!

Yours Truly batting in the over-50 summer league [Boomer PDX] in 2013
Ditto in the Council, Idaho July 4, 2002 tournament—my last game before my long layoff
Last Fall’s team “The Chain” after winning the league championship!
A partial team photo of “The Underhanded Compliments” my spring & summer weeknight team in 2014


  1. Way to go, slugger! Keep it up!

  2. If you hadn't told me I'd have guessed a "banjo hitter" was some sort of violent classical music fan.

    Softball and walking sounds a pretty ideal response to that Alpha-1 thing (I followed the link). I've just looked at your Beer League Box Score post, too. You're quite right about "can't do" notions. When I was a social worker in a previous life, the trendy jargon for these was "statementing" - making statements about oneself that are in themselves disabling. "I'm not musical", "I'm no good at sports", etc.

    (I'm back blogging again, btw).


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