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Man of the House by Chris Erskine

Look, Ma, we're top of the league!

May 08, 2003|Chris Erskine

CROSS FENWAY with the Garden of Eden, that's what this softball field looks like. Rusted metal and lush landscaping. Our field of screams.

"Don't leave early!" a coach yells to one of our baserunners, good advice she can carry all through life.

"Wait till the ball leaves the pitcher's hand," another coach advises.

Even after all these years, after all the pleading and hollering, our girls still run the bases like drunks who've set their whiskeyed shirts afire.

Arms up. Eyes wide shut. Watch them run the bases, and for a brief moment you'll understand chaos theory.

"OK, Erika, you're going on a grounder," I yell to Erika at second base.

"I am?" she yells.

"Yep, you're going on a grounder," I say.

One day, in about 40 years, I will no doubt be sitting around a nursing home mumbling, "You're going on a grounder, Erika" or "Eye on the ball, Anna. Eye on the ball."

Other residents will probably shun me, except for fellow former coaches, who'll gather around and swap batting tips and fondly remember DiMaggio's smile. You know, the one he used on that actress.

"Run!" I yell to Erika at second base.

"Now?"

"Run!" I yell.

In the bleachers, the parents sit, on hamstrings rarely used. It's Friday night, and they don't much look at their watches. On Friday night, their cell phones finally sleep.

"Come on, Kirby, base hit," yells a dad.

"I think that's Meghan," a parent notes.

"Come on, Meghan!" yells the dad.

"I think that's Traci," says someone else.

For the parents, there are no presentations tomorrow. No sales meetings or jury selections. They sit there in the twilight fully focused on some of their finest work. Clare out in left field. Laura, jitterbugging at first.

"Hey, coach," one of the parents yells.

"Yeah?"

"When's the team party?"

"Right now," I say.

It's been a pretty good season so far. We went into it thinking, "Hey, why not win a few?" encouraged by our pitching and a dedicated staff of coaches: One's a Cubs fan. One's a Red Sox fan. One's a former stand-up comic. Never before has a team begun a season with so much senseless optimism.

"Hey, coach," Coach Bill said at the first practice, "I think your infield fly is open."

And, like all of Bill's jokes, it turned out to be pretty true.

The Lucky Charms won their first game when Taylor, a right fielder of some promise, slid awkwardly into home, her body taking a bad hop, but her foot beating the catcher's tag by a shoestring.

"Was I really safe?" she gasped later.

"Never safer," I said.

We barely lost the second game when Erin, who's showing potential at second base, nearly scored on a little nubber to first, as Scully would call it.

"How do you," asked my friend Paul, "teach future Rose princesses to slide?"

"Arms up," I say.

"That's it?"

"Cleats high," I say. "Like Cobb."

"And they listen?"

"Not once," I explain.

Yet, we've been mostly winning all season, a phenomenon as big as global warming. As inexplicable as lasting love.

"We're in first?" the little girl asks.

"Don't sound so surprised," I say.

"It's early," says her mother, who married a Cubs fan, then gave birth to several.

"We're in first," shouts the little girl, then kisses me through her catcher's mask.

It's May, and I think we're still in first, though those scrappy Mixed Berries are knocking at the door. And you can never count out the California Girls. Or the Tsunamis, whose kids tower over ours like sunflowers.

Opposing coaches stand out on the base paths, growing increasingly frustrated by our success. Most are great sports, but others look like ads for acid reflux medication. They're not ready for a ballgame; they're ready to seize the Karbala Gap. One guy makes an angry fist in the first inning, and can't unclench till the fifth. It's the pressure is what does it.

"Does this hat look good on me?" one of our players asks.

"Who's got gum? asks another.

In the meantime, Jessica is strolling to the plate, and Sarah's on deck. The sun has been swallowed by the trees, and a Friday evening game is disappearing into the record books.

"Go, Lucky Charms," the proud parents chant.

Eye on the ball, Anna. You're going on a grounder.

Chris Erskine can be reached at chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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