It’s been a while since I posted anything so I figure I’m due. Here is a little piece of a story I’m working on about the two years I played on the community softball team in Geary, NB where I grew up.
There was a point in my childhood where it seemed like every rural community had a ball diamond. The simplest of infrastructural endeavours, these recreational hubs often employed nothing more than a few fence posts and some chicken wire to fashion a crude backstop and some leftover lumber to build two rickety benches on either side of home plate. With minimal investment, any backwoods community could add a taste of municipal flare to a vacant lot, the backyard of a church or the far corner of an elementary school playground. And judging by the number of deserted ball fields you can spot when driving through these tiny hovels today, this crude form of community revitalization appeared to happen every couple of generations. Lucky for me, my interest in softball came along during one of those periods of rustic renewal, when it seemed every small community within a twenty minute drive from home was hoping to foster the next Babe Ruth.
While some stretches of rural settlement were content with converting any field into a vague resemblance of a ball diamond, others left nothing to the imagination adding sheltered team benches, outfield fences and an outhouse for players and spectators to share. Over time, it became evident that many of these small communities may have been slightly ambitious in the construction of these homespun Candlestick Parks, neglecting to take regular upkeep into consideration. I watched many a field-of-dreams become countryside eye sores for nearby residence over the years but somehow, despite their lack of floodlights, adequate parking, acceptable lawn care, baselines or even spectators of any kind, these glorified patches of well-worn grass spawned countless community rivalries and memories that would live-on for our entire lives.
In the spring of fifth grade, I brought home a notice from school announcing tryouts for little league softball. Several of my friends were planning to attend so I went to work on my Mom and Dad, hoping they would allow me to try my hand at line-drives and pop-flies. I’d never played softball before and the closest I’d ever come to swinging a bat at a ball involved a rusted badminton racket and some frozen horse manure from our backyard. The thought of being part of a team had always seemed like an unobtainable goal until then.
Up to this point in time, my previous track record with pretty much any group activity usually ended with me stubbornly refusing to ever go back and doing my best to make my protest known. My childhood fear of being embarrassed and humiliated in front of a group of strangers usually resulted in me embarrassing or humiliating myself in front of a group of strangers. Like the time I ran screaming out of swimming lessons because I didn’t know how to swim. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Thankfully, my parents gave me another chance at humiliation and let me join little league.
Tryouts consisted of nothing more than showing up, signing a form and being told what team we were on. Due to overwhelming interest that year, we ended up being the only community in the league to field two teams. A few parents had volunteered to coach and claimed to have picked the teams by drawing player’s names out of a hat. As if by design, the two teams that were formed that year ended up being just about as one-sided as a North Korean election. It seemed like all the kids who naturally excelled at organised sports and were raised among generations of athletic supremacy ended up on one team, while me and all my introverted friends who collectively knew as much about softball as we did about kissing girls made up the bulk of the other. Even though I could see the writing on the wall, it still felt good to tell my friends and family I made the team.
Once a week our team would meet at the school ball diamond for batting practice, drive drills and plotting the most basic of plays, like how to catch a pop-fly without colliding into one another. It was somehow assumed that we all knew the rules of softball inside and out prior to our first practice but as I was quick to learn, I knew a lot less than most of my misfit friends. One of the first rules I learned was that a runner could overrun first. I knew something was up the first time I actually hit a ball and delivered a dramatic slide into first base. What to me seemed like the introduction to some inner athlete I had not yet met, sparked a display of laughter, applause and heckling like I’d never seen before. Even my coach got a good laugh out of that smooth move. That was just the reaction that would have sent me home in tears sworn to never return again but for some reason, I remember wanting to stick it out. Somehow I was able to brush the embarrassment off and keep going, something that up until that moment I had never done before. I was charting new ground and softball was my guide.
Thankfully, I wasn’t the only player on our team who lacked the natural ability and athletic agility possessed by most every other player in the league. We all took our turn making foolish mistakes, fumbling plays, swinging at wild pitches and listening to the taunts and insults hurled by the other team. I can remember dreading my turn at the plate, hoping the coach would have somehow forgot to add me to the batting order. He never did and when my name was called I would reluctantly make my way to the plate to the shouts of “easy out” and “this guy’s a no-hitter”. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t running away from the hecklers and the name-callers. I was bound and determined to prove them wrong and knock one out of the park.