Sunday, July 28, 2013

Put me in coach.....if you have to

So my eldest niece and her friend decide they want to raise money for cancer research. As they've played softball nearly all their lives, they decide it would be fun to have a 100-inning softball game to do it. If you play, you convince people to give a donation to the cause based on the number of innings you can complete.

This is how they sold it to me: "Oh, come down. It'll be fun. We'll have a bunch of girls and you'll only play as long as you want to. You won't have to play every inning. We'll mix it up and play with bouncy balls and running the bases backward and fun stuff. Even the little girls can play. It'll be fun."

So I said yes. As long as I could just write a check and not hit my friends up for donations, I'd do it. Jeff would get a weekend at home alone (he had to work anyway); Ali would hang out with her cousins; and I'd get to hang out with my sisters before and after the game. 

Here's what really happened:  Ali and I went down Friday night. She wanted to spend the night with her cousins and I didn't want to get up at dawn for the 9 a.m. start. Friday night, Jaime tells me not to worry about being at the ballfield at 9. They had a bunch of girls ready to play. Just sleep in and show up when I was ready.

So Donna, Jim  and I were having coffee, catching up on Saturday morning when the call came in. The crowd hadn't showed. Could we please get our butts in gear and get the heck over there?

Off we go. Forty innings later -- that's six hours for you unfamiliar with how softball works -- we called it quits.  Some of us had had to leave early due to family obligations; others were just there to fill in and never wanted to see a softball again; but most of the original 15 or so were there til the bitter, aching end. 

And it was SO much fun.

It had been something like 15 years since I'd played and my only real goals were to deliver my check; get Ali on the field and having fun; and not embarass myself. 

Many of the girls -- I can say that because I was literally the oldest on the field (not that I outed myself; at least verbally) -- had been playing off and on together since high school. They had real skills. I threw my mitt away years ago after discovering it had grown over with mold in the garage.

Connie Bolinger was non-stop hilarious. We'd never met before but I do hope we meet again. She was  part coach, part rodeo clown. I don't think she stopped talking for more than 30 seconds from inning one to 39 when she had to go home to get ready for her high school reunion. 

That reunion had to be something. She has a twin sister, who I deeply regret not meeting. Apparently "back in the day" they were fearsome on the diamond. Brittany, of course, we knew, but there was an Angela, an Ashley, Tiffany, Tara, Alisha, Sherri, Diane and a cluster of others who I'm sorry I can't remember all their names.

This is all you need to know about them all: 

We'd gotten there, were introduced and lightly mentioned that Alison hadn't really played before. Ali got up to bat. A swing and a miss. On her second try, she got a hit. The field and dugout erupted in hurrahs and claps.  Alison's grin rivaled the sun.

Now she didn't stick with it as long as the rest of us. She took a few breaks to help Aleasha out in the rarely-visited concession stand, and she ended up playing with small children -- enough to earn $5 as an unexpected babysitter. But she had a good time. 

I'd never met any of the softball ladies before, other than Jaime and Brittany, but I felt like I was home. 

I asked Tiffany how she'd gotten mixed up in this. "Brittany," she shrugged. And that word said it all.

These girls were there for fun and love of the game. And probably for love of each other. For me, it was as if my Bunco and Book Club had gotten together on a softball field in Sullivan County with little pink houses on two sides, a field and U.S. 41 on the others.

The ages ranged from 12 to past 40. My sister Nancy, Jaime's in-laws and a host of others dropped in to watch. My sister Donna was there almost throughout. Mostly, though, it was just us on the field. 

The laughter could have fueled the highway traffic. I'm not sure today that my muscle aches are all from sprinting and throwing. Thank God I work out.

Rachael, Jaime's daughter, is a sought-after fast-pitch softball pitcher. She's 13 and played in the outfield. Others play on high school teams. When the defense was short, some of the offensive players ran to the outfield. And yes, they'd get their teammates out, given the chance. 

Did I mention that girl's softball is big down home? The older ladies were local legends in their day. These days if they're not playing women's travel leagues, they're playing coed. When I say I just didn't want to embarass myself, I mean it. 

Connie should be a color announcer for some professional team; she was so excited to be there. She cheered on even semi-good plays her teammmates made. She cheered on the opposition.  She ribbed players for running too slow or swinging too wide. She even had commentary on her own hits and misses. You couldn't help but laugh with her.

We played one style for five innings. Once it was a drill from high school (not my high school) where the fielding team would have to run to wherever the ball was hit as the runner ran the bases. If it was left field, you had to drag your sorry butt from 1st or 3rd or right field to get out there. 

Once there, the team had to toss the ball to each other without dropping it. If the defense could get the ball around before the runner got home, it was an out. If the runner scored first, it was a run. If someone in the defense dropped the ball, you had to start over until the whole defense caught the ball.

My team somehow ruled at this drill. But it was a heckuva lot of running for everyone involved.

Other innings involve using a bouncy ball instead of a softball; using a foam ball and bat and playing regularly; and running to 3rd first instead of 1st base -- it's easier to run the wrong way than you might imagine. I actually got Jaime out at home because she'd run all the way to first and had to hot foot it back past home to third base. 

Sometimes we had enough people to field every position. When we didn't, it was an out if you hit to an unmanned outfield position. Two of Jaime's daughters played every inning with us. They were thrilled to get  their mother out. At one point, poor Rach was getting it from both sides. Mom in the outfield and Grandma in the dugout were criticizing her batting form. 

"Softball season is over," she reminded them. My sister, Donna, coached Jaime's team. Jaime coached her daughters until they got to school. They've eached served time with the local ball associations.

Tara and Jaime were rival players in opposite schools when they were in high school. Jaime once slid into Tara and broke one of Tara's limbs. Tara is now the principal at the elementary school Jaime's girls attend. Happily, their softball rivalry is behind them.

Rachael had a hard time cheering for "Tara" and ended up using her title instead. "I just can't call her 'Tara,'" she said.

Cousin Kaitlin -- long banned from softball due to her failed knees -- got in a few innings. She's only 18 and is generally unable to play because of knees ruined from her years as a softball catcher. 

You'd have thought she'd died and gone to Iowa to play in Kevin Costner's Field of Dreams. She loves softball. It's been three years since she played. 

It's not as if we were competitive. So we promised her mother to keep her from injury, and Kaitlin got to bat and run and play 1st base.  

So we didn't get to 100 innings.  But it really was fun. No one got hurt, though Becca, Jaime's oldest,  ended up with raccoon eyes from her wrap-around sun glasses, which she didn't remove once during the games. We raised almost $1000 for cancer research.

Sunday dawned and both Jaime and I could still walk, though I think I am more sore now than I was yesterday. I don't know about the others.  

We'll see what tomorrow brings. I'm pretty sure the memories will eclipse the pain.

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