Every year for the past 20 or so years my men’s baseball league has hosted a tournament during the May long weekend. Our league enters the prospective All-Star team, which gives the players a chance to play a few games together and the coaches a chance to evaluate guys whom they may have reservations about. Local rivals from the neighbouring city of Nanaimo often enter a team and a handful of teams come up from Washington and Oregon. Although I was never selected to the “pre” All-Star team I was usually able to pick up a few games with some of the visiting American teams as they would often show up with anywhere between 8 and 11 players. I’d usually be at the park anyway, watching games, scorekeeping etc. so I’d just throw my gear in the back of my truck and wait for the call. Inevitably a team would put the word out that someone got called into work, missed their flight, or just plain bailed out at the last minute, and they needed an extra guy.
So one year, as I’m getting ready to head up to the yard, I get a call from my dad. He tells me that a bunch of his old buddies have decided to enter a team and they wanted to know if I would like to join. They played first thing Saturday morning and originally they had about 35 players. As can happen with 50 year olds, the injuries were quickly starting to mount up and they realized that they would need some new blood in order to complete their remaining games. I was probably 25 or 26 at the time which means my dad was 53 or 54.
I get up to the park and immediately spot my old man, sitting in the beer garden with a bunch of other old guys. The term “rogues gallery” doesn’t come close to describing these guys. The newest pair of baseball spikes must have been 20+ years old. Some guys had soccer boots. One guy just had running shoes. One guy finds a huge, dead spider in his glove which in all likelihood, he dug out of the attic/shed/garage/basement only a few hours earlier. There are more ankle and knee braces than I can count. One of our outfielders has metal, NFL O-lineman style knee braces on both legs. He was also sporting a huge bobandy which I estimate was made up of at least 15,000 beers. But the crown jewel of this group was a former major leaguer named Frank Williams. Frank had pitched for the Giants, Reds and Tigers between 1984 and 1989. Through the 4712/3 innings he pitched in the show he’s compiled a 24-14 record, had an ERA of 3.00, a WHIP of 1.367 and a K/9 of 6.0.
Amongst this rag-tag group of soon-to-be pensioners were a few other guys who, like myself, were still young (I.E.: under the age of 40). There was Charlie Stratford and his cousins Jason, Trevor and Mike. Charlie was an amazing player who played college and independent league ball. If he wasn’t the size of Dustin Pedroia he’d surely be playing in the minor leagues somewhere. He could play pretty much any position on the field better than pretty much anyone else. His cousin Jason, who was about 35 at the time, was a seasoned veteran and up until recently, was a key component of the league’s aforementioned All-Star team. There were also the Engen boys, Dale Sr., Dale Jr. and Danny. Despite both of Dale’s sons having chosen soccer over baseball in their late teens, they were extremely athletic and knew what they were doing.
After a few introductions I ask when our next game is. A brief debate ensues. Finally it is decided that our next game is about an hour away. “Shouldn’t we start warming up?” I ask. “What do you think we’re doing?!” shouts some old guy as he raises his plastic cup of beer. Everybody within earshot cheers and laughs. One guy makes the proclamation that us rookies need to ‘learn a thing or two about baseball’. Sweet. Eventually a line up is written by consensus. Players are selected as follows: Young guys (again, this is anyone under 40), old guys who aren’t injured, followed by old guys who ‘aren’t hurting that bad’. Some groan and protest but they’re quickly swayed when the de-facto coach announces that there will be ‘lotsa subs’.
I’m a first baseman by trade but that went out the window as soon as they found out that I had two knees that actually worked. I get ready for a day in the outfield until someone notices that the starting first baseman Jeff (I forget his name so we’ll call him Jeff) is missing. Apparently he went home after the first game to get something and hasn’t returned. He would turn up Sunday and announce that he’d fallen asleep in the bath. So wrecked was he from the first game that he’d gone home and taken a load of pain killers. He then got into an Epsom salt bath and promptly passed out. In baseball, first base is often a place where a poor fielder can be stashed, as all he really needs to do is catch a ball thrown directly at him. I would find out later that in the first game, some of these old guys’ throws were a little wild and a younger, quicker first baseman is now required. The coach sees me playing catch with a trapper and I am drafted in to fill the void. Unlike traditional first basemen, I have almost no power and hit more like a leadoff man than a corner infielder. But what I do have is a knack for making outs out of horrible throws. Scooping short-hops, coming off the bag and making a tag, ‘accidentally’ impeding the runner when there’s an overthrow… those are my specialties. The game starts.
I don’t remember much about the game itself. Only two specific events stand out in my memory. The first one was my first at bat. There were two outs and a man on first. I got into a no ball, two-strike count early. I could hear the guys encouraging me from the dugout. My dad was one of them, which was pretty cool. He and I had never played in the same game before, which is probably why this stands out. I go into two-strike mode. I foul off pitch after pitch, take the occasional ball and eventually work the count full. At this point it’s gotta be a 10 or 12 pitch at bat. I keep hearing tons of encouragement from the dugout. Guys I’ve never met (or met when I was a kid and haven’t seen since) are cheering me on, as if we’ve been teammates for years. It’s a great feeling. I step in for what feels like the 15th pitch of this at bat. The pitcher has either grown tired of our game or just straight up makes a mistake and leaves a batting practice fastball belly high over the middle of the plate. I’ve never claimed to be a great hitter (because I’m not) but I can certainly handle straight, 75mph fastballs tossed right down the chute. I pull a line drive over the second baseman’s head for a base hit. The dugout cheers. This feels awesome.
The second event that stands out to me was near the end of the game, when our team was in the field. Whether it was by design or by accident, we ended up having three families on the field at one time. There were four Stratford’s (Charlie at short, Jason catching, and Trevor and Mike in the outfield), the Engen’s (Dale Sr. pitching, Dale Jr. at second base and Danny in left field) and my dad and I (third base and first base respectively). I can’t remember if someone pointed it out or if we all just kinda noticed but it was pretty surreal. Dale Sr., a crafty left hander of the Jamie Moyer variety, was dealing an array of slow, frustrating junk, designed to induce huge hacks and slow grounders. He wastes no time in getting the first batter of the inning out (although I can’t remember how) and proceeds to start working on the next guy. I keep checking on my dad at third base, I mean, the guy hasn’t played baseball in over 20 years. He’s wearing huge Rance Mullininks-esq glasses which would surely explode into thousands of shards of glass were a ball to take a bad hop and hit him in the eye. I know he knows what he’s doing but let’s be honest, he’s in his early 50’s and refers to his knees as his bad knee and his worse knee.
Dale Sr., pitching out of the stretch, comes set. He delivers a big, overhand curve which the hitter attempts to crush. Instead, he dutifully hammers it into the ground, down the third base line. My old man crosses over to his right, back-hands the ball and throws it to me at first. He released it almost immediately and I can already see that it’s dead accurate. Unfortunately, due to his bad knees he can’t really push off his legs to put much velocity behind his throw. I stretch forward to attack the spot where the ball is going to bounce, essentially nullifying the short-hop. The throw beats the runner by a step and I pick it easily. I point my glove at my dad as if to say “nice play” and throw it around the horn.
When we got back to the dugout after the inning ended we fist bumped.
“Nice scoop, thanks for saving me.”
“You made a good throw. Way to get it out quick. That guy was fast”, I replied.
The scorekeeper will record it as a routine 5-3 putout. For any first baseman it was a routine short-hop, something that we’ve all done thousands of times. But it was so much more than that. That “routine out” was bookended by two nice plays, one from a father and one from his son, playing in the same game, on the same team for the first and last time ever.
That’s the magic of Baseball. That’s its indescribable allure. The routine plays are the ones that are the most memorable.