The (Un) Natural

Marvin J. Wolf last wrote for the magazine about the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

I toe a corner of the rubber with my cleats and bend forward, squinting to peer at the holy trinity: batter, catcher and umpire. It is a late afternoon in early winter; until my eyes adjust, the banks of lights towering above Rancho Park have little effect. Time was when I could see a camouflaged soldier turn his head at 500 yards in twilight--but that was 1959, when I was a 17-year-old grunt with 20/10 vision. Now it takes enormous concentration to focus on home plate only 50 feet distant.

It's a long time and a long way from when I picked up baseball's rudiments on the streets of Chicago. Long before Little League came to the inner city, I spent sweltering summers on vacant lots, picking glass, rubble and defecation from the weeds before each game. Bases were cardboard swiped from the corner market. Usually someone brought the essential equipment, but often we swung a broomstick at a worn tennis ball.

On the sandlots of my youth the pitcher was inevitably the tallest boy or the best athlete; but early on, I knew I would never be either. Still, I persevered. In my ninth year I went to summer camp, began to learn the intricacies of the game and came to idolize Nellie Fox, the diminutive White Sox sparkplug.

At 12, a ball smashed the bridge of my nose. The resulting twin black eyes horrified my mother, who locked away my glove and forbade me to participate until I could "play with boys your size."

My vertical growth ended at 64 inches. I went from Fairfax High School--my family moved here when I was 16--to the Army, served 13 years and did not swing a bat or throw a ball again until I was 40. I joined a group of freelancers who challenged some editors from the Herald Examiner (former daily newspaper, long since closed) to a softball game. Nobody wanted to pitch, so I tried. We lost, but by the end of the game I knew that I could become a pitcher if I worked at it.

More importantly, I realized how much I had missed the game.

This was related to a matter that I had never dared confront. When I left the service, I was married briefly, then divorced. New relationships were elusive, and I wondered if it was because I was short and tubby in a society that equates tall with good, taller with better. I thought being a soldier in Vietnam had settled the issue for me: I had made sergeant before I turned 19, won a battlefield commission, rose to captain, commanded a company of troops. The chevrons on my arms or the bars on my collar proclaimed me a man among men.

But few women seemed to care, and going without female companionship undermined my sense of manliness. Between the white lines of the diamond, however, players are what they do. I returned to the game not to meet women or to recapture the spirit of my youth, but for the feeling that comes from playing well, of being accepted by peers. Of liking myself as a man.

I know. It's crazy. And I put a lot of pressure on myself.

Softball is a hitter's game, but even in slow pitch a good hurler can keep his team in the contest, and a poor one can lose it. Rules require that balls rise above the batter's head and land in a rectangle 17 inches wide by 30 inches deep that includes home plate. For two years, several nights a week, I tossed softballs into a box. Meanwhile I found a Sunday morning pickup game. Eventually I was invited to join a coed team, the Brewjays. I practiced endlessly in my alley, but it was not until I took the field that I learned to pitch.

I began carrying a softball everywhere I went. At night I dreamed of becoming the ball, soaring out of my fingers into the wind, rising into the sky, falling toward the strike zone. I thought about each game for days afterward. For years, I hardly slept Saturday nights. In the morning I was exhausted and wanted to stay in bed.

Often, just before taking the field, I wanted to puke. I kept it all inside, put everything I had into every pitch. My teammates socialized between innings, but I coached runners or sat alone, immersed in the game.

In a late inning of my first championship game, I choked. Tired after pitching two previous games, with irresistible bubbles of fear welling up within me--fear of failing, of revealing that I was a fraud--I walked several batters, forcing in runs and putting our opponent ahead for good. Afterward I apologized to my team. "We would never have gotten this far without you," replied one teammate.

I learned to wall off fear, to stay in the moment. A year later we played the same team again for the championship, and in the final inning of the last game, with the bases loaded and no outs, I induced two pop-ups and struck out the last batter to seal a victory. Weeks later I ran into a man against whom I had often played. Tall, handsome, muscular and 20 years my junior, he shook my hand and volunteered to his wife that I was the most intimidating presence he had ever faced on a ball field. I never knew. After that I learned to relax, to stay within myself, to savor every moment.

The Brewjays wore beer T-shirts and Toronto Blue Jays caps; as years slipped by we played under different names and sponsors, two seasons a year, April to July and September to December. Players came and went, but our corps of regulars remained intact. My life shaped itself around the team--not just games but practices and trips to the batting cage. As a prolific author with several published titles, I made sure that my books were released between softball seasons.

In the spring of 2000 we won the league championship for the third time. Afterward, most of the veterans quit to focus on family or medical matters. Our new teammates were in their 20s and 30s, with little playing experience. The Mixed Nuts, as we were now called, won only one game. I hit .669, my best season ever.

In slow pitch, a hitter has an eternity to swing a bat almost 3 feet long and weighing nearly 2 pounds. Aided by graphite composites or aluminum/titanium alloys, even an average player can swat a ball well over 100 mph. It can reach the pitcher in less than the blink of an eye.

My teammates once said that I had the fastest glove in the West. Well, at least in the Westside Entertainment Softball League. I snared anything within reach, leaping to capture line drives, bounding off the pitching rubber to scoop up a hot grounder.

Every season I took a shot or two off a leg from a ball that I could neither catch nor avoid. Once my sternum stopped a liner. It voided my lungs and I blacked out momentarily. Another time a horsehide bullet crushed my groin. Woozy and rubber-legged, I retreated from the field, asked the ump for a few minutes and returned to pitch--and win.

I never thought much about it: Injuries are part of the game, I have a high tolerance for pain and my bruises heal in a week or two. But in the spring 2001 season, I was hit almost every game. After several weeks I wasn't even flinching anymore--I had accepted the inevitability of being hit. I saw then that my glove was no longer fast, that my body could not respond as once it had, that I could no longer will myself to perform. Near season's end I was hit twice in one inning. In agony, I took myself out of a game for the first time. Then I noted that my bruises took longer to heal.

Realizing that I was no longer afraid of getting hit, I knew it was time to quit. A shot to the breastbone could precipitate a coronary. I could lose an eye. I could need a new knee joint. There were books I wanted to write, places I wanted to visit. To continue playing amounted to a death wish. I was not ready to die for the sake of my manliness.

But knowing how hard it is to find a pitcher, I decided to play one more season, to try and pass along some of what I had learned to my young teammates.

Back on the field in the uncertain twilight of December 2001, I straighten up, glove high, right arm behind my body, feeling the breeze from that side. I grasp the ball palm downward, fingers along the seams, thumb below. I bring my arm up rapidly through the dull soreness of my shoulder. Despite the ibuprofen I swallowed an hour before game time, an electric jolt zaps through me as my weight lands on my left leg, residue of an injury suffered months earlier. Wincing, I slide into a crouch, gloved hand in front of my chest, watching the windblown ball's curving descent toward the plate.

Now it is the last game of that season, and the ball hurtles out of the dark to land on the front inch of the plate, an un-hittable called third strike. The batter turns away in disgust. We go on to win; I get two hits, knock in three runs, snare a line drive, make three other solid defensive plays and am awarded the game ball.

Driving home, I consider playing another season. Maybe I'll find an over-50 league. Then I remember the agony of getting out of bed on Monday mornings. I think about going hitless in my first four games, of finishing the season with a batting average barely above .300--more or less the bottom rung for softball players. I recall nearly getting thrown out at first on a single to left field and the humiliation of legs so sore and bruised that I required a pinch runner.

Safe in my driveway, I wipe my eyes and decide to listen to my intellect, let go of my emotions. The boy inside me must shut up and sit down.

From my first day, I was the oldest in the league--including umpires. In 27 seasons I missed no more than four games; no one played more. I struck out more batters than anyone and gave up fewer walks per-inning-pitched. No one pitched or won more games. Hell, nobody lost more games. I had nothing left to prove. Gehrig quit. Ryan hung 'em up. Ripken was gone. I didn't play in the majors, but, hey, I was 60 bleeping years old.

Two weeks later the playoffs begin and I return to pitch what is likely my last league game. Before we start, league commissioners Adam Rosen and Vince Crooks--both veteran players--assemble the teams. They say nice things about me and produce a cake. Atop its frosting is an icing rendering of a photo: me, my arm thrust skyward to launch the ball.

Below the picture it says "Ironman."

Players I hadn't seen in years, including Richard Martell, our former manager, turn up to say farewell. Richard takes me aside. "I've never seen anyone with less ability play as well," he tells me, not for the first time. "You don't have much talent, but you got the most out of it." It reminds me of what Yankees skipper Miller Huggins said about 1923 rookie first baseman Lou Gehrig: "Only this kid's willingness and lack of conceit will make him a ballplayer."

It's been a year since then. I wear glasses now, and while I often join a Sunday morning pickup game, I haven't returned to visit my old team. I know that I'd want to play, and that I can't. But I'll always remember my last league at-bat, when I singled to center.

Take that, Ripken.

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