I FLUNKED HIGH-SCHOOL physical education two years in a row. Organized sports had no appeal to me, except for watching the Mets pour champagne over each other when they won the pennant in the late ’60s. But somehow, decades later, I find myself with glove in hand for the first pick-up game of the spring season at O. B. Nelson Park in Fairfield, Iowa.
As game time nears, I tell one of the guys, “I feel shy. I can’t bat because of my back, but I would like to play catcher. I can’t really cover home plate . . . .”
Suddenly my worst fear becomes reality. I am catcher, standing behind home plate as the pitcher warms up with me. Last year I learned to never catch a ball in front of the plate. So I let the ball come to me. Using my left hand, I return the ball. “You throw like a girl,” a player remarks. “Are you sure you’re not right handed?” I laugh. A team of big brothers from hell. I am not great, but I vow to get better.
Finally, the first pitch and the 2004 pick-up game begins. My body tingles. I see the guys in the field waiting for the ball to come their way. The adrenaline is pumping and sports hormones are flowing.
“Don’t strain. It’s spring training,” yells a concerned player. I throw the ball to the left of the pitcher, saying, “Sorry.”
There are no contracts, no salaries. Only heart. The love of this game. In this moment I feel the wholeness of the team. I want to own them. Unfortunately, the sum I’d have to come up with is more than my writing stipend allows. I want my name drawn on designer T-shirts flowing across their bodies. Secretly, I aspire to own a professional team, and now I am in training as assistant manager to Demaree Construction—one of the men’s 40 and over league teams.
At next Sunday’s game the ante is up, with the guys pumped to really practice and improve their game. There is a decidedly different approach—hit the ball as far as possible and run hard to catch whatever you can. One team has come out before the game to practice fielding and batting. A second team is ousted to an unused diamond where they also practice. I feel a bit out of my league—the tension to compete and win hovers thick in the air.
The outcome of this game is also different, as two injuries occur. A high fly ball goes out to right field and the ball jettisons off the fence and into an outfielder’s face. I watch as he bends over holding his head. When he looks up, I see a trace of blood running down his face, and as he comes closer, I see that his glasses are broken. The other guys assemble around him to see what they can do. Then a woman descends from her green van holding a yellow plastic first-aid kit.
She opens up the small kit stuffed with Band-Aids, alcohol swabs, and even a cold pack that freezes once it is broken. She gives the injured player the swabs and he drives himself home—hoping that he can still go to Europe next week. I begin to talk to this benevolent bystander, Darcy Hackert, and she tells me that she began to carry a first-aid kit when her kids were playing softball. Back in the days when cell phones were non-existent, she said all of the moms would take turns watching the kids at the practices and games. One time, one of the moms was driving away when her son got hit in the mouth with the ball. The mom was gone and no one had medical supplies to help the child. Fortunately, the school was open and they found aid inside. But after this crisis, Darcy purchased a first-aid kit for further emergencies.
“I’m a professional spectator,” Darcy declares. She is the mother of four children who participated in softball leagues, and wife to Craig, who has been playing ball for over 40 years. Today, she has driven from Richland with her husband to watch him try out a primo bat, the “Miken Freak,” that he wants to purchase for his birthday. Although many of these composite bats have become illegal to use in the leagues (due to safety issues), Craig got assurance from Scheels sporting goods store that this bat is guaranteed to be legal for four years.
Darcy’s four children—Karissa, 28, Nikki, 25, Eric, 24, and Ryan, 22—started playing softball at about age two when they first held plastic balls in their hands. Craig says they have been hanging around softball diamonds their whole life. Darcy comments that during Craig’s tournament games, some of his teammates would throw the balls around with the kids. They all played organized ball as soon as they were able, and Darcy umpired (first or second base) at three games. Nikki was recognized by the Golden Triangle newspaper organization as being one of the best high school athletes in the region.
Her children have all gone on to play in leagues. Ryan plays four nights a week—traveling from his home in Oskaloosa to Iowa City, Knoxville, and North Liberty. Nikki plays coed and travels from Washington to play in Iowa City.
While Darcy was attending a coed game in Ollie, she was recruited to play when they needed another female to avoid forfeiting the team. Except for three players, the team is entirely composed of her relatives. Craig, daughter Nikki, and her two sons are on the team. One son was pitching and the other played short stop. Darcy agreed to play catcher, but warned, “The pitcher will have to walk halfway to the base for me to throw the ball to him.” Her son instructed the other fielders not to throw to home plate. Unfortunately, he forgot the rule, and as the ball came whizzing towards home plate, Darcy dodged it. Only after it hit the fence did she pick it up. As it turned out, her team won anyway.
“Softball is good because kids play with other kids, there is teamwork involved, they get good exercise, and you are using all of your body,” says Darcy.
When her children were younger, in order to juggle their hectic sports schedules plus that of her husband, Darcy bought herself a generic calendar and markers. “Each kid had his or her own color. During one week I had 21 games between all of them.”
Once she managed to see all four kids play in one evening—watching Ryan for one hour in Columbus Junction, then driving 15 miles to see Eric play in Wapello for another hour, and then back to Columbus Junction to watch her two girls play. “I only missed one inning,” she says proudly.
One Hundred Years of Play
Softball was created in Chicago in 1887. Originally called indoor baseball, it was developed in the winter and played indoors. When spring came the game moved outdoors onto a playing area smaller than a baseball field. Official rules were adopted in 1934 when the Amateur Softball Association was formed.
The popularity of softball grew immensely when it became a sport in the 1933 World’s Fair. Fifty-five teams (divided into fast pitch, slow pitch, and women’s) participated in a tournament on the Chicago fairgrounds. On the opening day, the Chicago American reported, “It is the largest and most comprehensive tournament ever held in the sport which has swept the country like wildfire.” Seventy thousand people came to watch. In 1934 softball became a viable sport with hundreds of leagues and thousands of players all over the country. Women’s fast pitch softball became an official sport of the 1991 Olympics. The United States team won gold medals in the 1996 and 2000 games.
Leagues for Everyone
Standing in Bill Strawhacker’s office one can’t help but notice two massive photos of a team sporting “Rebels” uniforms. Bill is the district commissioner of softball for southeast Iowa and the softball supervisor for Fairfield Park and Recreation. The Rebels, he explains, won the Class B state championship last year. They are a group of men under the age of 40 from Fairfield and Waterloo (originally the team members were all from Fairfield). In 2000 and 2001, when the team was only Fairfield area residents, the Rebels won the Class A state championship. They beat Scotts Decorating, a Quad City team that has won seven state championships.
“Iowa is fairly above average with softball. We hold our own with upper level teams around the nation,” says Bill. Two years ago the Rebels and another Iowa men’s team, Upper Deck, finished 13th in the Class B nationals. The Deery Brothers, a team that has been together for 20 years, has also given pride to Iowa softball as they placed third in the Class A nationals.
Bill says there are several options available to kids and adults to join official Iowa leagues. (Official leagues are all regulated by the Amateur Softball Association [ASA], the National Governing Body of Softball.) On local levels boys and girls up to the age of 12 play Little League softball. The girls continue with ASA league softball from 13 to 16, while the boys generally do Babe Ruth League Baseball. After high school, if the boys don’t go to college, they return to softball. Usually, local adult leagues are divided according to age—in Fairfield, the two men’s leagues are 18 and over and 40 and over. Women’s and coed leagues include players from age 18. These teams usually finish the season with local tournaments in their age bracket.
However, for those interested in competing at a higher level, the ASA has “championship play” tournaments, which teams can participate in according to age and skill level. The higher level teams usually compete at district and state tournaments and advance to national if they win. In 1992 Fairfield residents Ken Smith and Gene Liske formed an over-40 team (sponsored by First National Bank) that came in second in the state.
For the Love of the Game
Little league softball player Kadie Roberts, age 7, enjoys playing because “I like running and hitting. Also, I like it cause my Dad’s into it.” When asked about the competition and wanting to win, Kadie’s response was, “Everybody likes to win. You go out there to have fun, but if you win it’s a jackpot!”
Although there are injuries, and bodies get worn down (some players wear one or two knee braces), the players continue with league competition. Ken Smith, whose team Classics won the local 40 and over league three years in a row, says he continues to play because “I like to chase fly balls and make great catches. I’m mostly a defensive player. I run like hell and catch the ball before it hits the ground—this is the biggest high I experience.”
Veteran player David Herzfeld explains, “I play softball because I can be outdoors getting exercise and the rules are clear. Everyone plays by the same rules, which isn’t always the case in life.”
Bill says his most memorable moment playing softball was when “I got a double down the right field line. This enabled my team to come back to win the last of the 7th inning. I drove in the winning run.”
Bill also recognizes the overall value of softball for the community. “Softball provides great recreation,” he says. “There are enough levels of play that you don’t have to be a great player to get out there and enjoy it. Softball helps build respect and establish a friendly rivalry between teams. . . . We experience this in life anyway. If two golfing buddies live next door, they still want to beat each other. They respect each other, but they want to win. Softball allows for more interaction between any types of groups.”
As assistant manager to the Demaree Construction team, I now keep stats on the guys’ batting averages, shout out who’s on deck, and recruit new players, particularly subs. Last night we had a team practice and I played pepper (a drill where a player lightly swings the bat to practice making contact with the ball). “You’re the pepper queen,” one of the guys declared as I impressed even myself with how often I actually did make contact between bat and ball. Although I can’t play for this men’s team, I have been recruited for a second year to play coed ball. “I want you for your gender,” team manager Micky Elston bluntly told me. Traditionally, there is a lack of women available to play and so my assistance—even as a budding player—is sought.
Last season, for my coed debut, I played catcher. I stood at home plate wearing pink patent-leather flip-flops with rhinestones, my toenails painted a chic burgundy color. Obviously, I had come to the game unprepared to play, but my gender was in high demand. The only glove available was for a righty—I’m a lefty—so my throwing and catching were worse than normal, until a spectator suggested that I give up the glove.
When the game ended, I joined up with the rest of the team and went onto the field to give the traditional high-five to the opposing team.
This year I am becoming more prepared. I am seeking out proper footwear, getting myself a trainer to increase endurance and strength, and even shopping around for the perfect novice’s bat. In the words of my team manager, Randhy Lockhe, softball is both about having fun and competing. I’ve succeeded at the first dictum and I’m earnestly practicing for the second.
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