Thinking Mans Softball – by Michael Vaughn – The comeback
By Michael Vaughn
After a year's layoff, I was placing secret bets on which of my playing skills would be the most corroded. The odds-on favorite was my batting stroke, so I set my expectations low and just hoped I could find something over the middle of the zone to put into play. So, naturally the very first pitch came over my primo spot – the outside corner, belt-high, and I grooved a line drive into right for a single. I stood on first base, marveling at the power of muscle memory.
Things didn't stay easy for long, of course. Our next batter, Doug, hit a drive off the right-center fence and I was off to the races. I spied my base coach Mark's go-ahead and geared up to head home, but tooling around third I heard him say something like "Right here!" As in, right here at third? By the time I computed the exact meaning of this phrase I was watching the catcher receive a throw and attempting some sort of evasive head-first slide, apparently forgetting that I don't do evasive head-first slides anymore. The resulting slop-roll was so ugly that the catcher apologized for tagging me too hard. "Don't worry," I said. "That train-wreck was entirely my own creation." (I later found out that Mark's go-ahead sign was for the runner ahead of me, and the trailing runner had slipped his mind).
I was all ready for the magic to be over my next at-bat when I cashed in even bigger: another pitch on the outside, resulting in a deep drive down the line that did that beautiful rightward spin-skip past the fielder, who then had to dig the ball out from behind a tree (yes, we have a tree on our field). I stood on third, happily gasping for air, thinking, "The heck with low expectations - I'm going for the cycle!" I have to admit, though – this running three bases at a time was for the birds.
In the outfield, my Big Brown favorite bet was on depth perception – always an interesting re-adjustment, especially in night games. I reminded myself to pause a split second and read the ball before going off in pursuit. Once again, this was the least of my problems. I knew exactly where the first ball was going – way, way over my head. I switched into Willie Mays back-to-the-infield mode pretty quickly, but came up a foot short, and fetched the ball back to the infield. The next booming shot landed a foot fair, and would have been past me regardless, so I didn't feel so bad. I liked what came next, though. I picked it off the fence, fired it to Doug at short, he threw it to Jimmy at third, and Jimmy made an excellent short-hop pickup to tag the runner out.
By my next opportunity, I began to realize my true rustiness – my legs. Some tiny eighth-place batter managed to get a hold of one and drove it over my head. I spun to pursue but felt like my legs had entirely dropped off. With little help from the deep, spongy, grass, I felt like I was running through a bowl of fettuccine alfredo, and finally managed to tackle myself, a la Rex Grossman. I achieved the rest of the 15 feet to the warning track on my hands and knees, and decided to stay right there as I turned and threw to Doug. Amazingly enough, Doug gathered in my throw and fired in to Jimmy at third, who tagged the runner out again!
Jogging into the dugout, I pulled out one of my older jokes for Doug – "Hey! Just like we practiced it." But I felt embarrassed and shaky at my legs giving out like that. Not one to leave something like that un-analyzed, I realized it had a lot to do with my workout regimen. I have a very physical day-job that involves a lot of leg work, and I tend to supplement this with a lot of long hikes, on the beach and in the hills. But softball muscles are very specific, and my exercise involved no sprint-work. With my early three-base dashes, followed by all those retreats to the fence, I had obviously worn out whatever sprint muscles I had left. Thankfully (I reassured myself) I had not actually committed any errors, and had managed to go three-for-four on a day when any hits at all would have been fine with me. Who knows? Maybe I can manage to play this game for a few more years.
Michael J. Vaughn is a novelist and arts journalist living in San Jose. Home page: geocities.com/michaeljvaughn.