A line of palm trees separated the baseball diamond from the beach. My teammates in the field had their backs to the crimson and purple sky. The umpire and batter were too focused on the pitch to enjoy the unfolding sunset.
A giant yellow softball hit the corner of home plate.
“Strike two,” the ump said.
I short hopped my throw to the pitcher.
“Come on,” the shortstop said. “Get those throws up.”
I think that was the shortstop’s name.
Being new in California, I didn’t have many friends. My only friend in San Diego, convinced her boyfriend to let me join his winter beer league softball team. It was a group of mid-thirties guys who drank beer and needed some competition. I could relate.
This next throw bounced twice on the ground before it reached Karl, our pitcher.
I was the worst guy on the field.
All I had to do was catch the ball and throw it back to the pitcher. Hell, half the time it didn’t matter if I caught the ball. Just had to get it back to the pitcher. That’s it. But I couldn’t manage to even do that.
The batter crushed the next pitch so far it never landed. Things only got worse from there. Especially for me. There were a few plays at home plate and Karl would rush in front of me to catch the relay throw. My team didn’t trust me in the field. Or to catch a throw. We were down 10-0 at the end of the first inning, and I bounced fifty percent of the throws I made to the pitcher. Two I threw over his head and to the second baseman.
When we got to our dugout, Kevin, the team captain, pulled out a thirty pack of beer.
“Everyone drink some fuel,” Noah said.
So, we did.
The beer worked. Noah batted cleanup and hit a two-run double. There were two outs when I started taking a few practice swings in the dugout. I hadn’t picked up a baseball bat since little league. I quit after my first game in kid pitch. Richie Stevens delivered a fastball straight to my elbow. I didn’t even move. It drilled me. Hard. I dropped my bat. Walked to the bench. Sat down. I refused to take first. I didn’t bat the rest of the season. Or ever again.
The guy batting ahead of me took a walk. I think his name was Eric.
I kicked some dirt and spit when I got to the batter’s box. I used one of the metal bats a teammate brought. I tapped the corners of home plate and made eye contact with the pitcher. I leaned back and smacked the first pitch he threw. It landed between the left fielder and left centerfielder. I ran to first and headed to second as a fielder picked up the ball trying to stretch a single into a double. I slid towards the bag, but the guy at second swung his glove at my feet. He stopped me from hitting the base.
I swear, I used to be a lot faster.
“Just take the single next time, bro,” Marco said.
Things we’re going smoothly.
At least we managed to score a few runs.
A few innings later, our second baseman, Gary hit a ball hard down the third base line. He sprinted as fast as he could and lounged for the base. Gary screamed a profanity, leaned back, and grabbed his hamstring as he ran past the base. But he made it safely to first. Just barely.
“Bullshit,” Brad said.
“Come on,” I yelled.
The ump glared at our bench. “Don’t make me be an asshole tonight. I already had to throw three people out last game. And you can’t afford to lose any more players.”
Gary hobbled back to the dugout holding his leg. “I heard a pop.”
“That’s never good,” Noah said.
Popping noises in thirty plus year old softball leagues meant a death sentence.
“What are we going to do in the field?” Karl asked.
“We’ve only got ten guys,” Noah said.
“I can do catcher,” Gary said. “It’s easy. I won’t have to move.”
“Put the new guy at second,” Brad said.
“Can you play?” Kevin asked.
“Sure,” I lied.
We scored a few more runs and tightened the score to 10-9.
I took the field and settled near second base. I punched a fist into my glove and crotched down. No one hits it to second base, and if they do, it’s never hit hard.
The ball rocketed towards me. I ducked as the ball whizzed over my head.
“You could have had that!” Marco said.
“It’s my first time,” I said.
“You got this, bro,” Karl said.
“Yeah, here we go.”
The team started clapping. I shook my head. Focus. You got this. Karl lofted another underhand pitch. The batter took a step back, readjusted his body towards me, and took a monster rip.
The ball fired off the bat and onto the ground. I charged the ball. Perfect position. I put my glove into the dirt, but the ball shot between my legs. I didn’t get my glove all the way down. I ran behind me towards the ball. The right fielder charged in, but he was too far. The batter got to second before I recovered the ball.
The team sped through the lineup and each player adjusted their stance to face me. Every single batter. Well, minus the power hitters, who just crushed the ball. Eventually, I switched positions, at the direction of Kevin, with one of our centerfielders. The batters still tried to hit the ball towards me in the outfield, but Noah made sure he caught anything hit my way. Noah, that son of a bitch, caught everything hit near him. Or me. In the first inning, he made all three outs. He had lighting speed and covered the entirety of centerfield. Sometimes he would misplay balls by charging in too far, but somehow Noah found a way to turn his poor judgement into incredible plays. He’d make diving, sliding, and leaping catches. Highlight reel stuff. If he didn’t make the catch, he’d recover by gunning out base runners reaching for an extra base on his mistake. Because Noah also had a cannon for an arm. Bastard was good at everything. We eventually got out of the inning, but they scored ten more runs.
My nine teammates and I finished thirty beers before the fifth inning. Noah hit a home run and a double. I legged out a single and flew out to left field. Somehow, we found our way back into the game before we headed into the last inning.
22-21. Down one. Bottom of the sixth. The bases were loaded. Two outs. A single would win the game. I was at the plate. Five beers deep. A chance to be a softball hero.
The pitcher tossed the ball under hand.
It bounced before it reached the plate.
“Ball,” the ump said.
“Make sure this one’s yours,” Kevin shouted from second base.
The next pitch hit the corner of the plate.
“Alright,” Kevin said from bench. “Alright. Here we go. Here we go, kid!”
The next pitch came in high.
It landed behind home plate.
“Settle in, Bobby,” the catcher said as he easily threw the softball back to his teammate. The pitcher caught the ball, muttered something to himself, and rolled his neck around. He set his feet. And fired another pitch towards me.
I started to swing and pulled back last second.
The pitch fell beyond the plate.
“A walk ties the game,” Noah said.
There was no way I was walking. I was swinging at the next pitch. No matter what. I wasn’t going to be the guy who walked in the tying run. There’s no glory in that. Not in beer league softball.
The pitch floated up into the sky. It looked like it might hit the corner of the plate. I reached for it with the bat. The ball hit the bottom of the bat, but not hard enough. The ball drifted towards shallow left field.
“It’s gonna drop,” Kevin said.
My best hope was for it to land between the outfielders and shortstop.
I watched the ball start to fall as I jogged to first.
It’s going to drop.
The left fielder charged towards the infield.
“I got it!”
He slid. The ball fell perfectly into his glove.
“Out! Ball game.”
We shook hands with the other team and headed to our bench to take off our cleats and gather our things.
“Fucking new guy!” Brad yelled.
“Unbelievable,” Karl said.
“You blew it,” Noah said.
“My bad dudes,” I said.
“Should we kick him off the team?” Brad asked.
“He did blow the game,” Marco said.
“Make him bring a thirty next week,” Kevin said.
“If you do that, we’ll call it even,” Karl said.