Sunday, July 20, 2014

Banjo Hitter #2 – The Boys of Summer

Sunday July 20th, Erv Lind Field, Portland: One thing I’m particular about—I have to get there early. Our game—the second of the usual Boomer PDX League Sunday doubleheader—doesn’t start until 1:45, but I’m already taking a seat in the stands by the first pitch of game one. & there’s already a rhubarb about line-ups before the first pitch is thrown, but then order is restored & the first pitch makes its way toward home, only to be greeted squarely by a bat & lined into left field. I remember one of the umpires remarking last season about how the players were all over 50, but they argued as much as little leaguers. The boys of summer.

It’s crucial to relax in the surroundings—to get into that timeless feel that playing either baseball or softball can impart. Not so much as a spectator, though even then time is altered. But once the first game ends & ours is underway, time really becomes altered. It’s not even a question of minutes or the time of day—it’s easy to lose track of innings or the exact score—the focus is on how many outs & where the base runners are & where are we in the batting order.

A cool day for July—overcast, a bit muggy. We take the field first, give up three runs, take our turn at bat & fail to answer. Back to our positions, & they are back to hitting the ball hard to the outfield. Those long innings in the field, a combination of miscues & base hits, bring time back into the game. The sun comes out—then back behind a cloud. Focus. Am I too close to the line? I need to go to second if the ball is hit to me…

Of course, viewed objectively we are a ragtag lot. Some of us were good players when younger, though I can’t count myself among those. There are men who played college baseball some 35 or more years ago, & you can tell the athletes, even at this age. There’s an 80-year-old man on the opposing team who was a college ballplayer once. His first at bat he lines a base hit to left; his final at bat he lines a ball right at me, but low, & I have to drop to my knees to make the catch on the fly.

A friend tells me that her father, a Scotsman who immigrated to Canada’s maritime provinces, believes baseball is a children’s game—football (in the world sense, not the U.S. sense) is the only real sport. I wonder what he would make of slow-pitch softball, baseball’s congenial & easygoing sibling, especially when played by such grandfatherly or at the very least, avuncular types as present company.

In truth, it’s not a good game for my team—the final score is 19 to 6, & that included 3 runs we scored in the final inning. We fell behind early, a combination of our opponents’ solid hitting (including back-to-back homers over the left field fence in the middle innings, some misplays in the field & our own weak, over-anxious hitting. In terms of personal performance, I’m satisfied: two singles & a walk in four plate appearances. But I can see the pitch in that fourth time up coming in, probably a bit outside, the thoughts of hitting to right field & at the last micro-second realizing I was swinging under it. A weak pop fly to first base.

It’s taken me 50 years, but at last I feel comfortable with myself playing, at least more often than not. I play third base in this league, & enjoy it. The first ball hit to me—to my left, the glove side, & well struck, hugging the ground. I pick it & throw to second for the force. The second ball very like the first until at the last second it hits something on its track toward my glove & shoots upward, glancing off my left shoulder & somehow landing on my right. By the time I get a handle on the ball, there’s no play.

For years, sports were a locus of frustration for me. I was never especially athletic—much to my chagrin. More specifically in baseball & softball, a weakly hit ball, an error in the field became a stinging & bitter distillation of failure—of all failures, real & perceived. Failure was a companion I always had beside me, ready to assert itself—ready to remind me. But coming back to the game I loved in my late 50s, something seems to have happened. What is it?

The boys of summer. How much have any of us really changed in the 50 or 60 or 70 years since we first took up playing ball? How many times have we failed in the interim? At work, in relationships, undergoing all manner of disappointment & cognitive dissonance. What I seem to remember more often now: we all fail; we all take it to heart—& we are the boys of summer only in our imaginations, not in our bodies. We exist with memory & expectation & the realities of slower reflexes & bifocals.

But enough about failure & aging. Because even softball can be timeless on the field. Kenneth Patchen has a picture poem that states, “All at once is what eternity is.” The boyhood of summer isn’t about re-capturing a mythical moment in the past—it’s not about time travel—because, at least for me, that never happened. It’s all about now—the gratitude & exuberance of being in this moment, on this softball diamond, win or lose, succeed or fail. Perhaps I really do belong in this eternity.

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