Thursday, November 1, 2012

Relax. It's just Rec League Softball.

It was a beautiful Northern California day with the sun shining brightly and not a cloud in sight.  The baseball field was well manicured, green with only a couple patches of yellow and the infield dirt, recently replaced, was soft and reddish-brown.  Though the rec league softball playoff game about to be played wasn't for another 45 minutes, in a league where forfeits can be a regular occurrence due to lack of participation, both teams were already in full attendance warming up, taking grounders and batting practice.  As softballs whizzed through the air back and forth, though some of the banter was light-hearted, the intensity and air of competition was palpable.  The focus and concentration in each players' eyes betrayed the fact that this was just for recreation.

This had been one of the most competitive seasons in league history and to cap it off, the top four teams out of eight were going to play a two round tournament with each round being the best two out of three games.  This was the first time using this format.  For most of us, this was the closest to competitive baseball we could get, living our childhood pro baseball dreams vicariously through these games.

The team on the other side of the field was a team we were very familiar with having played against them for years.  In our match-up history, there had been very few blowouts with the vast majority of the games being very close.  The past season was no different as we tied in our first regular season match-up and won a nail-biter by one run in the second.  Their team consists of almost entirely the same type of player: short, stocky, athletic, and philipino.  Imagine seven or eight athletic, 5'6'' bowling ball philipinos, one white guy, and a tall, athletic, attractive brunette in baseball pants and designer sunglasses and voila. Essentially, they have no major holes which meant that their catcher, second baseman, and right fielder were all capable.

The game about to be underway was actually the second game of the first round of playoffs.  The first game had played out as expected from our two teams.  Full of intensity, my team had eeked out yet another hard fought, one run victory.  The win was slightly uncharacteristic as our team has been better known for our late inning collapses than our ability to fight to the finish.  The killer instinct, ice water veins our team had not - until that game, I guess.  

As the second game got under way, it was clear that neither team was going to give an inch.  Through the first four innings, the lead was traded in each inning. We were the home team in this game and so we held them to no runs in their half of the inning and then scored one in our half.  The next inning, they would score two to go up by one and then we would score one to tie it up.  It continued to play out this way until the second to last inning.  The bottom of our order came through with a couple of hope-for-the-best-but-I-can't-believe-they-got base hits and paved the way for our top of the order big guns.  We finally broke through and scored four runs to go up by three runs going into the last inning.  If we held them, we would be on to the championship!

Before we could even blink, the other team had scored two runs.  When my eyes opened, they had a runner at first with only one out, down by one run with their three four five hitters coming up.  Sensing that the game was about to get away from us, I re-focused my mind on the situation at hand.  The next batter was a big-time lefty who could easily give his team the lead with one swing of the bat.  As per usual, we all yelled, "Lefty!' as he strode to the batter's box and employed our version of the wishbone defense with me, the shortshop, playing to the left of the second base bag and the second baseman playing at the edge of the outfield grass.  I always thought he could play just a tad bit deeper.

Crowding the plate, the first pitch was outside and deep to the bowling ball lefty.  A walk in this situation could be okay to avoid his bat, but he had good protection behind him so we didn't want to give them base runners for free.  The second pitch was on its way.  PING!  A scorching knuckling line drive was hit in my direction to my left.  Reactively, I quickly take two steps to my left and find myself in a good position.  In the split second it took for me to see that I could catch the ball, I quickly calculated the one out we had, the slow-ish runner on first, the need for him to tag up, and the speed in which the batter was running out of the box.  Using the proper fundamentals that I was taught way back in my pitching machine days, I reach for the ball with two hands with my bare hand prepared to watch the ball into the glove and make sure it stayed there.  In an instant, instinct took over.  As the ball reached my glove, instead of securing the ball, my bare hand popped the ball out of the glove towards the second base bag.  Time stopped.

 "How's the little one?"  A tall, grandfatherly white man, the umpire would often stop by and chat with me before the games.  He had played minor league ball in his younger days and he was the go to umpire/referee for all of the various sports leagues.  We had gotten to know each other throughout the years and while he was a better umpire than he was a basketball and volleyball ref, we had become quite friendly.  "She's good!  Growing too fast," I would often reply.

As the ball hit the ground, I was just waiting for the umpire to signal something similar to the infield fly rule, that I had dropped the ball on purpose and that the batter was out and the runner was to stay at first base.  My vision was a couple seconds ahead of my hearing and looking up, I saw the forceful motions of the umpire's arm pointing to the ground.  All of a sudden, the gravity of the situation hit me like a ton of bricks.  My body went into auto-pilot mode and I found myself picking up the ball near second base, touching the bag, and then motioning for the first baseman to cover his base as the batter had completely stopped running in anticipation of me catching the ball.  I threw the ball over to first.

"Out at second!  Out at first!  Ball game!  Series!"  My heart sank and immediately, I covered my mouth with my glove.  What the hell did I just do?  "He dropped the ball on purpose!"  "That's a horrible call, blue!"  "That's fucking bush league!"  Amid all the angry shouts of the other team, I slowly and somewhat sheepishly walked back towards our dugout.  My teammates, many of whom were too shocked to react, made their way in from the field.  Normally, both teams line-up to shake hands after the game and some of my teammates were beginning to line up.  The yelling was continuing though some of the players from the other team began to line up.  I was unsure of what to do.  Suddenly aware of my instant public enemy number one status, I didn't know whether to shirk from the situation or attempt to own up to it.  In a dejected and apologetic manner, I take my place at the end of the line and prepare myself to apologize.  As guys made their way down the line, before I could speak, the first guy shakes his head, "Naw man, I can't respect you for what you did," as he turns his back on me and walks away.  Most guys ignore me.  One or two gave me a stone-cold high five.  It is pretty clear that if I was a jerk about the situation, things would have degenerated quickly.  They continue to berate the ump as they begin to pack up their things.

I sit myself on the end of the bench hoping that some semblance of clarity, anything, would begin to come to me.  Most of my teammates are unsure how to interpret the situation.  A couple guys, albeit guys that don't have the baseball instincts to even consider a play like I had just made, sort of playfully jab at me, "Yah, you should probably hang your head."  Shaking it off, I walk over to the umpire who was starting to prepare for the next game.  He looks over at me, clearly weathered from the verbal tongue-lashing he just sustained.  "Did you drop the ball on purpose?"  "Yah, my bad," I apologetically replied.  He gives me a somber, sympathetic half-smile and looks back down.  I slowly walk back towards my things and begin to pack up.  What just happened?

It's funny how situations can take on a life of their own.  The aftermath of the situation was even more intense including multiple apology emails and a consolation round that was boycotted.  It wasn't something I intended, but something born out of athletic instinct with, I suppose, a tiny bit of thought.  I guess if I would have thought it all the way through as the ball was coming towards me, "If I drop this ball on purpose and the umpire happens to call it a live ball and the batter happens to stop running to first, I will get a double play to end the game and their season," then I probably would have just caught the ball and took our chances with the next hitters.  Not that it is in any way a fair comparison, but when Lebron made The Decision and guaranteed multiple rings, I imagine he made a multi-millionaire, pro-athlete, who was at the then height of his game, decision.  He probably didn't expect the backlash as it took on a life of its own.  I guess I have more sympathy now for the human aspect of that experience (except he gets to go home and cry to his millions).  Really, I didn't expect to become the (pre-championship) Lebron James of rec league softball.

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