Recently, a group of teammates parted ways at the end of another season. So close. Maybe next time. Wait till next year. The last two weeks of the season had been difficult physically and mentally; losing three out of four is never enjoyable. There was talk of possible retirements. But the team had gone out winners, roaring back from a deep hole to win the last game in dramatic fashion. The team walked off the field to the bus and the waiting off-season without a post-game stretch, much to the consternation of the trainer. Aching but smiling.
This scenario can and does transpire all across the athletic map, year in and year out. What made this story unique was the way the leading actors and supporting characters included me in the unfolding. As the season ended, Mark and his teammates welcomed me as an adjunct professor among an academy of lovable oddballs. Practice. Outings to Park Club (at least another post unto itself). The last two games: Codogno at Bollate.
I rode the bus with the team. I helped with outfield practice. I sat the bench and ate sunflower seeds. I warmed up the left fielder before the start of each defensive half-inning. I rode the wave of energy through highs and lows; I was in the wave of energy cheering the guys on and berating the ump in English baseball chatter, much to everyone’s entertainment.
As I’ve mentioned, I stopped playing organized baseball at 13, when pitchers threw only fastballs and changeups and there were not always outfield fences to aim over. I have had the pleasure over the years to see Mark continue to play baseball at many levels, in diverse places – for our high school, on Cape Cod, in college, around Boston, and now Italy. He is good and many of the “skilled practitioner practicing his art” clichés apply: the way he gathers a ground ball during infield practice; the momentum-building leg kick that repeats and repeats with each pitch; the slow pendulum of his bat as he sets himself in the batter’s box.
Against Bollate, the last game of the season, losing 5-0 with the opposing pitcher, a Venezuelan fireballer, working on a no-hitter through five innings, the manager called on Mark. They walked slowly together to the mound, Mark’s stage.
I wish I could say that Mark shut down the vaunted offense of Bollate, striking out 15 batters over 4 2/3 innings. I cannot. Or I could, but I would be lying (and as many will remember, if you tell one lie, it leads to another; you tell two lies and, whoa, you’re in trouble, brother). In this case, the truth is not far from the fiction. Mark threw peas; the team’s bats came alive; and Codogno stormed back to win. Mark gritted through a Rolaids bottom of the ninth, getting a final ground-ball out with the go-ahead run left stranded on second base. In the excitement of the moment, I carried myself away and walked down the line with the team, shaking hands with the Bollate players. Good game.
As so often has been the case, I have been lucky to end up among such people as the Codogno Jaguars. People honk and wave at me as they drive by; others insist on buying me a drink. Players share inside jokes. The groundskeeper knows my name and thinks I’m a great softball player (of which fiction I will not be dissuading him). It is nice to be included. Warm up the stove.