At some point either when I worked at the Chronicle or not long after that, the editor Dave Heun recruited a bunch of his buddies to form a softball team and join the Leisure League in St. Charles. Dave wasn’t the most talented player on the team, but his passion for sports (he was a former sportswriter and editor) had its own gravity.
Now, the Leisure League wasn’t as soft as it sounds. The dominating team during the first year that we joined was a big pack of loudmouth muscleheads that specialized in hitting home run balls. Their defense was acceptably good, but the way that they won games was mostly pounding the ball so far that no outfielders could catch them.
Our team changed all of that. Nearly every guy on the Chronicle softball team had played either high school or college baseball. Hardball, that is. Two of the guys on the team, the Horlock boys, played shortstop and centerfield. They both had 90 mph arms, and their brother Scott was not far behind. That trio of brothers gave our club an electric feel. Not only could they field, all were great percentage hitters as well.
I was already friends with their father, Bob Horlock, who was my high school biology teacher and a birding buddy from the early 70s. I’d seen the Horlock boys grow up from toddlers into competitive men about to start families. I think it was Scott’s children that later had my late wife as their preschool teacher.
Beyond the Horlock Boys our team had a full complement of solid baseball players. Every position on the field was solid defensively, and many of us had enough speed to make baserunning a big part of our success.
Our home run hitter was a big man named Joel Crafton. I worked with his wife at the Chronicle, and thus the connection to the team. He always hit fourth or fifth in the lineup because we’d put three guys on base and Joel would crush one deep enough to allow at least a couple runs to score. Often enough he clobbered a home run or two as well. We had a couple other big hitters but most of us specialized in placing well-hit line drives in the outfield gaps, then we’d run the bases like mad. In eight years of softball seasons I only had one home run. Once that ball soared over the gap in right center, I knew that I had a homer in the making. It still felt good to tear around the bases at full speed, kicking up dust under the summer sun.
We played in a “limited arc” league in which the pitcher was not allowed to loft the ball more than twelve feet in the air. The balls themselves were unlimited flight, which meant they flew as far as you could hit them, versus “limited flight” balls that muted the game for reasons of safety or space. I could never stand those unlimited arc games where the softball came straight down from the sky.
Nor did I ever want to play 16″ softball without mitts, like my late wife did. She played first base during her teens and early twenties paid for her 16″ softball career with a couple of bent fingers. I’d gone to see her team play a few times when we were first dating. They were a tough team of factory girls and hard drinkers, that gang, with a few motor-cycling lesbians to round out the lineup. They won plenty of games and had some pretty spiff uniforms in all blue with orange accents. But my wife left that all behind once we were married.
A gang of misfits
But guys have a harder time giving up the sports thing, cause we still liked to play. We all still liked banging our bats on our cleats and driving softballs past the infield. But we looked like shit. The amusing thing about our team was that while most teams wore matching softball uniforms, our gang of talented misfits wore no matching uniforms at all. We wore what felt best each weekend, and let our talent do the talking.
We’d show up on Sundays in our favorite gear of whatever we could find that day to fit our needs. My chosen uniform was a set of slim gray sweatpants with a tight drawstring and an old Luther College football jersey that I’d copped from the locker room before graduating. The football jersey (number 85) was thick and absorbed sweat on hot summer days. I cut off the sleeves to increase the breathability and that opened up the arm space as well, so that I could throw and catch easier. My chosen headgear was a collection of dusty baseball caps with various logos or an Oakley running cap because it was light on my bald head and wicked away sweat on hot summer afternoons. My baseball glove was large Spalding given to me by my in-laws. I wore a set of running shoes or a set of old soccer cleats as footwear.
I played right field still had plenty of running speed. I’d give away some distance along the first baseline and dare hitters to plant a ball in that space. Many times I robbed guys of what they thought was an easy hit. Others tried but hitting to the opposite field was hard. They often fouled the ball off trying to squeeze out an easy hit, and I’d shag down their soft popups in foul territory. I loved that chess match because most teams put their least capable player out in right field. I turned the position into a chess match and an art form.
That first year in the league we were winning regularly until we came against a band of Big Boys with large muscles and a macho demeanor. They were a bombastic crew, yelling boisterously to create an atmosphere of total dominance. Perhaps in that first game, it worked. They pounded out runs against us, cheering and chortling as they ran the bases. But then our outfield learned their lineup and their hitting preferences. We started to adjust and knew where the ball was going. We closed down the runs on their side and started banging out singles and doubles off their pitcher, who got rattled. He walked a guy or two, and the tone of the hollering from the other team started to change from bombastic to a tinge of fear. We kept up the pressure beat them. The next year, we took the championship away from them as well, and never looked back.
They’d always start with the same loud attempt to intimidate us. But all it took was a couple runs from our side to shift their voices from that macho tone to one of anxious desperation. We “had their number” once we’d beaten them soundly a couple times. After winning six years in a row, we gathered around home plate to accept our league championship trophies and one of their players wryly noted, “Just another one to gather dust.” And he was right. But for us, it was never about the trophies anyway. While the core of the team remained year to year, there were shifts in personnel depending on work schedules and family commitments. We kept finding ways to win through it all. That was the satisfying part of those competitive years in softball.
I kept up my running during all those summers as well, putting in weeks of 20-40 miles depending on the weather and such. That kept me lean and fast, and I relished the feeling of showing up for softball games on the weekend. My wife wasn’t always keen on the schedule. “We could do other stuff on Sunday’s,” she sometimes complained. And we did on occasion forego my softball stuff for family priorities. I was never a jerk about it. It was just enjoyable to spend time with the guys with the sounds of softball to fill the senses.
One summer the neighbor next door called me over to the fence and asked, “You play softball, right?”
“Yes,” I told her. “Every Sunday. Why?”
“My husband is a good athlete,” she offered. “Can he join your team and play? He was a football player in high school.”
“Well, sure,” I replied. Then I talked to her husband and told him to show up for that week’s game. When he walked up to the field I told him, “Let’s play catch!”
He pulled on his glove and I threw him the ball. We stood about ten yards apart. He tried throwing the ball back and it made it about halfway. I trotted to fetch it and tossed it underhand to him, and ran back to my spot. He tried throwing it again and it popped up above his head. I stood there in shock, thinking, “This guy can’t throw a ball.”
My teammates had heard that I’d be bringing a possible new player. I glanced around and felt the stares as my protege smacked the ball in his mitt, admittedly embarrassed. “I guess I’m out of practice,” he offered.
I decided not to pussyfoot around. “Yeah, well. Softball’s not for everybody. Thanks for coming out.” He rolled the ball on the ground back in my direction. I never talked to his wife about that day. I think he told her to forget about it.
By contrast, I had to be careful around a couple of teammates, especially in the outfield if they came up throwing the ball back to the infield. The youngest Horlock boy was a kid named Brett, a lefty with a cannon arm. He played right center and I ran over to catch a ball but he called me off. I stood there as he whipped the ball past my ear, and was glad it didn’t catch me flush in the face.
His brother Jim was just as fast with his throwing arm. At shortstop, he’d field a grounder and stand there a minute watching a guy tear down to first base. Then he’d cock and throw and zip the ball over the infield to grab another out. It tore the heart out of many a team to realize that anything he caught was a sure out.
But when his brother Scott played outfield, there was always a chance that they’d collide with any ball hit between short and Left. A couple times they crashed into each other and we wondered aloud if one of them was dead. I had my own collision with other fielders a couple times, because we hated letting anything get through the gap. After getting completely flipped in mid-air by a fellow fielder, I lay on the ground laughing. The rest of the team joined in, but I felt around my body to see if everything was still okay.
One Final Year
As the years wound on, and we’d won multiple championships (eight total) with our core group, many of us by had kids by then. Their activities were taking bites out of our schedule and softball had begun to feel a little selfish. We’d lost a few important guys to parenthood duty and a couple moved away fro work purposes. So we talked among the team and agreed that we’d had a good run and it was time to retire from softball after one final season.
But that summer there was a hard drought. The softball fields turned brown by mid-July and the dirt grew hard as rock. Fly balls to the outfield bounced high in the air, forcing us to adjust our outfield tactics. It proved to be a difficult season to win. Still, we made it to the championship game after advancing through the playoffs. That set up one more encounter with the Big Boys. On the weekend that the game was supposed to be played in the first week of September, a massive rainstorm swept through the area. The rain soaked the fields and washed out ruts that had to be repaired. A week went by and there were rumors that the championship game wouldn’t be played at all.
Finally the park district got the fields back in shape. There was even a tinge of green in the grass again by late September. We stepped on the field with a tinge of autumn chill in the air and scudding clouds rolling low overhead. We won the first game as the afternoon sky darkened even more. With a 1-0 game lead, we pushed to score runs, but the Big Boys hung tough and caught up. With an inning to play and home field advantage, we led by just two runs. The Big Boys smelled blood and were yelling like crazy for one of their home run hitters to crush one with two outs down and a man on first.
At that moment the sun popped through the clouds. Then our pitcher tossed the ball and I heard the bat smack it hard, and it was coming my way. I watched it rise high in the sky toward my position in right field. The ball seemed to shrink in the heights and it looked no bigger than an aspirin against the dark clouds above. But that burst of afternoon sun shone on the ball like it was the face of the moon. I got under the arc of the fly ball and waited.
“Squeeze it!” one of my teammates yelled out from the infield.
As the ball came down out of the sky I realized it would be the last catch that our team ever made on the field. Fortunately, I didn’t drop the ball in some tragic consequence of misattention. I caught it cleanly in my Spalding and raised my glove in victory. Then I opened the mitt took a look at the ball sitting there. “And that,” I said quietly to myself, “Is the end of an era.”
Those eight years of softball served as our own little Field of Dreams. We’d emerge from the respective cornfields of our lives to play softball two hours and go back to wherever we came from. Perhaps it was crazy to care as we listened to the voice in our own heads telling us to play. But we all have to be crazy about something.
Beyond the games
After that last game we all headed home and on to the rest of our lives. Over the years I have seen a few of those guys since we played ball together. One runs the local public golf course. The Horlock Boys pop into my life now and then. We lost their father and my birding buddy to a heart attack back in 1993. He passed away while burning a prairie in April of that year. That’s thirty years ago now.
It’s still fun to see someone and share a memory or two. But playing for that team was never about being the closest of friends. We were never the kind of softball team that went drinking after our games or spent any time together outside the ballfield. We lived for the competition, and that was that. There was a purity to our efforts, showing up each week to play catch before the games and then running out on the field or standing in the dust waiting to bat. Perhaps it was all an echo of youth sustained, but we made the most of it. That is not to say that everything was perfect. There were a few temper tantrums among us when guys couldn’t get a base hit. In fact, one of our it teammates was a genuine hothead who consistently protested calls, screaming at the umpire and throwing gloves in anger. We all knew his anger was mostly a release from the frustrations of his work life.
The simple truth is that we came to play the best we could and that was the entire focus of our being together.
Years later after I moved our family moved to Batavia, we lived next to Memorial Park where a set of three softball fields hosted many games. I walked our dog on the path circling the park and watched softball and hardball games being played at many levels from youth up to men’s and women’s adult leagues.
Often when the games were through for the day, I’d find lost baseballs or softballs in the grass. Over time I collected quite a few. Lifting those hardballs brought back my pitching days, when facing batters was the most important thing to me in the world. I’d grip each hardball I found in the familiar feel that a pitcher never loses. I well remember positioning the seams for a curveball or a sinker, and think back to my father teaching me how to throw a knuckleball. I love that scene in Field of Dreams where Shoeless Joe catches the doctor before he leaves the field and tells him, “Hey kid. You were good.”
Or something like that. I was good competitor, that much I do know. And had a mean curve.