Tales of triumph and tragedy in a middle-aged softball league.
BY EDNOR THERRIAULT
The best part of summer in Montana happens twice a week, when I get to act like a 12-year-old. Every Monday and Wednesday I lace up my cleats and take the field to play softball, and my inner little leaguer gets to run wild. Well, as wild as he can with chronic asthma and a touch of rheumatoid arthritis in his hips.
Missoula, Montana, is a softball-crazy town, and the league has trouble finding enough fields to accommodate all the teams, so they cram four games into each evening, the last of which starts at 9:45 p.m. Nowadays, that’s usually when I start my bedtime routine, which, coincidentally, takes about as long as an average softball game.
There are several divisions, including 35-and-Over, 45-and-Over, and Your-Wife-Thinks-You-Should-Retire- and-Over. Me? I’ve had a couple retirement scares but I’m still out there dropping routine fly balls. I’m the oldest guy on a team in the lowest division, where nobody takes it too seriously. We enjoy a few oat sodas during a game, even though beer was banned from the dugouts *wink* four years ago. Not to brag, but most years I lead the team in average PBRs per game. (“Hey, Ednor, what inning is it?” Me, opening a beer: *pssht* “Top of the third!”)
That’s the only area of the game where I excel. Well, that and getting hurt. In letting my inner middle-schooler hurl my middle-aged body around the field for 25 years, I’ve suffered every injury you can imagine. Yes, even that one, which is why I wear the number 1.5 on my jersey. But more on that later.
Like most “athletes” whose grasp on reality gets weaker with age, I believe my body is still capable of doing things on the softball field I could probably never have done even when I was young and spry. Now I’m old but have good insurance. I’ve never been able to hit the ball out of the park, for instance, but every time I step up to the plate, I’m pretty sure this is going to be the one. If I swing as hard as I can, I can hit the ball over the shortstop’s head, and it will fall harmlessly in the real estate between the infielders and outfielders, giving me enough time to “sprint” to first base. One reason for this lack of power is that I insist on using a wood bat. It tends to confuse umpires and elicits disbelief from catchers. (“Move in! Grandpa’s using a wood bat!”)
Another source of pride used to be my ability to steal bases. In slow-pitch, you’re not allowed to lead off so it’s a lot harder to steal. Also, I’m pretty sure they’ve been moving the bases farther apart every year. It’s always an exciting play at the bag, though, largely because I tend to slide headfirst, which in my case means simply falling over at the right time. There’s always a big cloud of dust, some grunting, the slap of leather and a few cuss words. Maybe a little crying. Sometimes the baseman even gets involved.
I love to slide, and sometimes when there’s no play at all, I’ll slide anyway. A couple of years ago I was on third base when our batter drove one out to the fence. I trotted in and slid across the plate, seriously annoying the catcher, who was watching the center fielder running after the ball. As I dusted myself off and walked to the dugout, I heard our new right fielder say, “What? He slid into home when he didn’t have to?” Our coach, with whom I’ve played for 20 years, said, “You’re new around here, aren’t you?”
I’ve mentioned injuries, and I have accumulated a bloodstained laundry list of them. Once, while shagging fly balls in left field during warm-ups, my attention was focused on the piece of fried chicken I was eating. A long fly ball sailed my way and I started backpedaling, sure I could get a glove on it without dropping my chicken. I jumped for the ball and a fencepost came out of nowhere, knocking me out. A gash on my skull prompted a trip to the ER where they determined I’d gotten a concussion. I had temporary short-term memory loss (“Did I catch it? Did we win?”), and one of my teammates later told me he had kept me from swallowing my tongue during my convulsions. I still have the blood-soaked glove they put under my head while waiting for the ambulance. I don’t know what happened to the chicken.
I’ve pulled hamstrings, sprained ankles, torn quadriceps, dislocated ribs, suffered a torn rotator cuff, cuts, bruises, and gravel rash on every extremity. I had to sit out an entire season while I recovered from a spinal fusion to repair a congenital condition called spondylolisthesis. Softball did not cause it, my doctor said, but it certainly didn’t help.
The most spectacular injury of all, however, came early in my career. As a rookie, I was relegated to right field. I was already in my late 30s but wanted to show my new teammates that I was worthy of a more prestigious position. Charging a low liner that zoomed over the first baseman’s head, I went down on my knees and slid, glove extended to scoop it on the fly. The ball skipped off the heel of my glove and nailed me right, uh, below the Mendoza Line. It then plopped into my bare hand, I held it aloft to show I’d made the catch then keeled over in the grass.
As I writhed in pain, I could hear my teammates screaming at me to hit the cutoff man, while the runners kept rounding the bases. Somebody dragged me into the dugout and flopped me onto the bench like a gutted salmon. When they realized I was going into shock, a couple of guys drove me to the hospital.
Later that night, I woke up recovering from emergency surgery and a nurse was telling me it was a good thing I’d already had the two kids I wanted, because I’d ruptured my cojones (to use the medical term) and lost half of one. It was a good object lesson, apparently—by the next game, all my teammates wore cups.
Now and then an umpire or another player will ask about the significance of 1.5. I squint right into their eyes and say in my best Clint Eastwood voice, “Let’s just say a softball isn’t soft.”
When Ednor Therriault isn’t engaging in risky activities like softball, he writes and records music as his alter ego, Bob Wire. He can frequently be found road-tripping around Montana with his wife, Shannon, looking for new and interesting subjects to write about.