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Spring brings, among other things, slo-pitch softball. I play on a team mostly made up of guys I’ve known since high school. With our ever-disparate business and family obligations, I’d almost never see these people, whom I love dearly, were it not for softball. But as noble as that externality is, it’s not why I still play the game. Nah, I still play because I want to hit a home run. Finding true love would be nice, but I really, really want to hit a homer.
For guys with only ordinary physical tools—I plead guilty to towering averageness—athletic glory becomes less attainable with each passing year. Of the limited set of possibilities available to the post-adolescent male—dunking a basketball, for instance, is way out of reach—only a hole-in-one on the golf links comes close on the glory scale to a softball homer. And getting an ace, when you get right down to it, depends mostly on dumb luck. Not so a homer.
I’m not talking about one of those inside-the-park homers, where you can breathlessly scoot around the bases because the ball takes a blessed bounce or you hit a line-drive “tweener” that rolls to the fence. Any softball-playing putz experiences that every so often. Nah, I want a homer homer, an over-the-fence shot. I want to Leave the Yard, Go Deep and Cheap, Dial 8. I want to Bang a Tater, a Going, Going, Goner, a Seeee Ya! job. Just once, I want to loiter in the batter’s box like Reggie Jackson, completely still save for my eyeballs, which will trace the path of the ball as it clears the outfield fence.
The fence. My nemesis. The chain-link boundary between my reality and my fantasy. Female friends who hear me moan about this trivial desire are prone to reduce it to a sexual matter, the bat being yet another extension of the penis and all that. I’m no psychologist, but I rate the phallus theory as a fallacy. Forget Dr. Ruth; I want to swing like the other Ruth.
My team plays its games at a softball megacomplex in Fairfax County where all the fields have big-league lights and big-league dimensions. A full 305 feet down the lines. Even for a sap like me, hitting a baseball that distance isn’t that big a deal—Tom Selleck and Kevin Costner have reached Camden Yards’ bleachers during celebrities-only batting practice. But getting a softball to travel that far—even one lobbed to you as soft and big as a Larry King query—is a fairly monumental task. Not an impossible one, but those who regularly hit softball homers are invariably 305-pounders with “Moose” or “Dog” woven into their customized double-knits.
Did I mention I’ve never hit one? Our team was founded a decade ago, and I used to come close to pay dirt a few times each season, just often enough to keep hope alive. But last year not a single one of my “blasts” even kicked up dust on the warning track. Things got so bad that by the end of the season I was intentionally hitting to the opposite field just to get on base. In the off-season, I contemplated giving up my increasingly improbable quest and quitting the game.
Then Gary called.
Gary, like me, has been on the team since it started, and he too is among the homerless. Neither of us weighs three bills or has a nickname stitched to his jersey. (We’ve never even had jerseys, come to think of it.) Unlike me, Gary has taken self-improvement steps over the years whose only purpose was to make the fences more reachable, things like regular trips to batting cages and off-season weight-training programs. But his balls have always stayed on the common man’s side of the fence.
But before the season started, Gary called to say that he was relating his sob story to his 300-pound barber, Ben from Ballston; Ben, to understate things drastically, is into softball. What Gary needed to do, according to the supportive barber, was change his tools.
“You need a DeMarini Double-Walled,” Ben told Gary, and gave him the phone number of a Texas outfit that sells such a bat. The “sweet spot” on the DeMarini, the portly haircutter explained, was the biggest one out there. “The bat’s been banned by a lot of leagues,” gushed Ben. That sealed the deal. Gary, like everybody else on our team, had never heard of a DeMarini Double-Walled. But within hours of leaving the barber’s chair, he’d followed Ben’s instructions and ordered one—at a cost of $300.
The bat arrived a couple weeks ago, in time for opening day. In the dugout before our first game, everybody on the team fondled the bat (remember, the phallic theory is crap). The general consensus was that it didn’t look or feel any different from our other bats.
Then the game started. In his very first at-bat with the ridiculously expensive implement, Gary crushed the ball. Everybody in the dugout jumped up as it left the bat, and for a few corny, special moments, life seemed both surreal and predestined. His towering smash recalled The Natural, in which Roy Hobbs uses a special bat, Wonderboy, to hit a home run.
But alas, this wasn’t a movie, and Gary’s shot stayed in the park, though just barely. He settled for a triple. Gary generously offered to let everybody on the team use the pricey hardware, and everybody—even several guys who’d brought their own new, albeit less costly, bats to the season opener—took him up on it. I guess me and Gary aren’t the only ones dreaming of reaching the other side of the fence.
Neither I nor anybody else on the team actually hit a “real” homer in the first week, but several of us, myself included, have come pretty close. Not coincidentally, the game seems fun again. All thanks to the new bat, and the restoration of my dreaming. Last weekend, a light drizzle started to fall just before our game was scheduled to begin. “Can’t use the bat!” Gary suddenly announced, citing a counsel from the owner’s manual (how many bats come with an owner’s manual?) about how “exposure to water can decrease the useful life of the implement.” While he ran toward his car to get the bat out of the rain, I wished out loud for enough thunder and lightning to get the game canceled. Without that bat, I was thinking, there’s no chance I’ll homer. And if that’s the case, to hell with my friends. I don’t want to play….—Dave McKenna