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The (Un) Natural

Softball Can Be a Great Equalizer When You're Short and Lack God-Given Skills. But You Can't Play Forever, Can You?

January 12, 2003|Marvin J. Wolf | 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.

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