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I do wonder if I could still play the game

When you hear the phrase “Church League softball,” several images appear unbidden in your mind’s eye, most notably one that involves sportsmanship, fair play and a good dose of that old-time religion.
 
That’s utter nonsense. When I played — and my career spanned parts of four decades — Church League softball was a competitive and complex mix of egotism, bad blood and skill at a very high level.
 
In my little town, games commonly drew crowds in the hundreds, which may not sound like a lot, but trust me, people cared.
 
I miss that. Not that at my age I could possibly play again. Or could I?
 
It’s something guys think about as their 60th birthdays recede in life’s rearview mirror, the one that says, “Objects may be farther away than it appears.”
 
And when I look in a regular mirror and try to see myself as a player again, I just smile. Part of me knows it’s silly, but another more vain slice wonders, “Why not?”
 
In Church League you weren’t supposed to swear, spike opponents, argue with umpires, make obscene gestures at fans or throw punches when things got out of control, but guess what? Those things happened.
 
Before I give you any misleading information, I should make it clear at the outset that I played 23 seasons for the Catholic team.
 
And you’re thinking, “So what? A church is a church.” Well, yes and no.
 
Back home ours was not only the sole Catholic church in town, it was one of just two in the entire county, and the other one was 16 miles down the road and was only open for business every other Sunday or when the missionary priest was in the neighborhood.
 
In other words we were a small segment in a much larger pie.
 
Protestants, by comparison, had most of the money, most of the people and nearly all of the softball talent. In the mid-60s just after we’d moved from the state capital to a little town we’d never heard of, our church fielded a team comprised almost entirely of parishioners, including our pastor, who pitched every now and again, which was to my way of thinking a very cool thing.
 
We’d attend a few games every summer, and it occurred to me how in a few years' time I might have a chance at playing on that big ball field, representing our church. Which is precisely what happened. Two summers after I’d graduated from Notre Dame, there I was, wearing that uniform, and that too was a very cool thing.
 
Now I’d played baseball or slow-pitch softball every year since we moved to town, but there was a learning curve when it came to fast pitch. For one thing the best pitchers could make you look pretty foolish by making the ball rise, drop, curve or knuckle. You only had a second or so to figure out which one was coming, so that was a challenge.
 
And the speed was another revelation. The distance between pitcher and batter was significantly shorter than in baseball, thus shrinking reaction time even further. Oftentimes you never really even saw the pitch. You just heard it pop into the catcher’s mitt.
 
Finally, the game was all about defense. Because so few balls were put in play, those that did became the backbone of the game: either make the play or incite the wrath of your pitcher.
 
Games, which lasted seven innings, were scheduled to last about 90 minutes, but most were over far sooner. Sometimes you’d go into extra innings, which was always fun for me. Because as the crowd thinned out, the night wore on, and there was a coiled sense of anticipation.
 
As a first baseman it was my job to make sure any ball thrown in or near my vicinity — up to an including the dugout roof — was caught. I’d always tell my infielders, “Just throw it and don’t worry. After that it’s my ball.”
 
Being a tall, slender guy with only occasional gap power, this was my chance to contribute to the team effort. I just loved that part of the game, using my glove to snare liners, pick up slow dribblers, making the one-hop stop on throws in the dirt or over my head or up the line.
 
It’s another world, playing first base. You had to have your head in the game at all times.
 
Once there was a high pop-up in foul ground, and as I glanced at the 15-foot-high fence, I could tell I’d have a play. As I settled under the ball and prepared as always to use two hands to catch it, I failed to notice that the catcher, a former Div. I lineman, was heading straight for the spot I was occupying.
 
Suffice it to say there was a reason I didn’t play much football beyond the backyard variety.
 
“Sorry man,” he said, offering an outstretched hand as I struggled to my knees. “Didn’t see you.”
 
I winced, my rib cage rebelling, and flipped him the ball. “No problem,” I said. “I should have called you off.”
 
Because that was what made a good team better: communication. If you had any doubt as to whether or not you could make the play, get some help. After a few seasons we got good enough to know without knowing, if that makes any sense.
 
Winning as often as we did, things did get nasty sometimes, but that’s another thing good teams understand. Don’t risk getting thrown out of a game because the other guys are baiting you. Use it to your advantage.
 
A quick example: In a game against our arch-rivals there was a bang-bang play at first, and the runner intentionally veered out of the baseball to spike me. This was in the days of metal spikes, and he put a nice gash in my leg, just above the ankle.
 
My first reaction was to go after him, but then I had a better idea. From that point on just before I caught a ball, I’d quick-skip an inch off the bag just enough to gain a half-second on the runner and then start the around-the-horn routine that followed every infield out.
 
Oh, there was howling and the gnashing of teeth. “Hey ump! His foot wasn’t even on the bag! Call it!” Stuff like that.
 
I just smiled. Was I cheating? Or was I playing smart? You decide.
 
When you’re a part of something special like that, something that lasted so long and meant so much, you tend to romanticize it, to dwell on what Bruce Springsteen captured in “Glory Days.”
 
My memory’s good enough to understand that most of what I relate to you is as close to the truth as I can make it. There’s no point in dressing it up because you’d call me on it.
 
But I do wonder if I could still play the game, 17 summers since my last one. About the only thing this place has in common with my hometown is there is only one Catholic church. And that’s not enough.
 
Mike Dewey can be emailed at CarolinamikeD@aol.com">CarolinamikeD@aol.com or snail-mailed at 6211 Cardinal Drive, New Bern, NC 28560. He invites you to join him on his Facebook page.
 

Published: July 14, 2017
New Article ID: 2017170719974