Unfortunately, the overhyped, televised claustrophobia of the major league playoffs just ain't the same. Maybe it's the incessant petroleum propaganda. Join the Marines! The few, the proud, clawing to the top of improbable pinnacles to find ... an SUV that gets 16 miles a gallon. Maybe it's because my boyhood team, the star-crossed Cleveland Indians, will win the World Series when Phoenix freezes over (which will take even longer than hell, considering the heat-island effect).
For me, baseball satisfaction is best achieved these days by playing it. Well, it's not quite baseball, I guess, but it's close enough for a skinny, middle-age white guy who still remembers the ball he dropped in the seventh inning of a scoreless tie in the high school district final.
Yes, redemption is a dish best served slowly, like the pitches in E League softball.
My team is a spectral collection of humans--old, young, female, male, longhairs, lawyers and layabouts. Some of us are just staying in shape. Some of us are young enough to be maintaining the momentum of an abbreviated athletic career, while others are old enough to be reaching for one last round of glory. And some, like me, cannot resist the competition.
Yeah, I know. E League. Competition? Glory? Who am I kidding, right?
Nobody. While it may be a friendly, laid-back sort of competition (sliding is definitely optional), just about everybody plays to win. Otherwise, what's the point of umpires calling balls and strikes, or an official scorer counting runs? I'll never forget the sight of one of our female players putting a hard, two-handed tag on the meaty shoulder of a male baserunner barreling headfirst into home plate, converting his face into a brake pad in the process. He was pissed (tagged out, and injured, by a girl), but it was a clean play.
At times, however, the atmosphere of sportsmanship is compromised. One team in particular has emerged as our arch-nemesis. Loaded with cocksure jocks who take it all a bit too seriously, this team's general attitude, combined with a series of ugly incidents, has created some bad blood, as they say in the bigs. Oh, and did I mention that they usually beat us? Minor detail.
But most of the time, E League is delightfully amateur, with a decidedly Tucson flavor. You gotta watch out for the holes along the warning track where a colony of round-tailed squirrels lives, as well as the young hawk that hunts them, flying in low enough to make our shortstop duck. During the "monsoon madness" season, it's dust storms and lightning. Man, that fence looks so close when those thunderstorm gusts are blowing out to left field ...
I often bat leadoff and play third base. I like to pattern my game after Caitlin Lowe, the NCAA champion Arizona Wildcats' stellar leadoff hitter: Slap the ball hard, and bolt out of the batter's box like a frat punk on a crotch rocket down Speedway Boulevard. Apparently my bony butt (not to mention my batting average) just doesn't measure up to Caitlin's, however. Last year, not one, but two concerned fans called league officials to complain about my boxers showing through my tattered jeans. For now, thanks to my beloved teammates, my softball nickname is inescapable: "Pants".
No matter how "soft" the balls, or how slowly they're pitched, it still feels like baseball to me. The superstitions, the multilingual chatter, the immutable principles of the game remain. Keep the ball down. Move the runners up. Look for your pitch. And now, thanks to our new, community-oriented City Council, player fees have dropped significantly, and you can play year-round. So when Anheuser-Busch has squeezed every last dime out of the Series, we'll be taking the field, heads high.
Of redemption, E League softball has taught me this: It's not so much about miracle tournament runs and clutch hits, although we've had those. Redemption lies in learning how to keep your composure when you make three errors in one inning, or walk in two runs with the bases loaded to lose the game. True redemption is remembering that it is, after all, just a friendly, competitive, glorious, game.