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  • My softball teams are an interesting study in group dynamics. When I first took over the Diamond Flames, they didn’t even have a name, yet. They’d been together for 6 or 7 years as a Men’s Masters Team (Men 35 years old and older) representing the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax (UUCF). They didn’t play in a church league, but in a regular adult softball league with participants from all walks of life.

    We had just started going to UUCF, mainly because we liked their youth program for J.B. It did turn out to be a great place for him to have an anchor through his high school years. I’ve always thought It provided the support and encouragement he needed when he made a very courageous decision in his Junior year to stand up and be who he is, consequences be damned. It also provided him with a lot of opportunities to exercise leadership, which he stepped up and into.

    The first service we attended, Richard’s (the Interim Minister) talk centered on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I thought, “Now, this is different!”, and was all ears. Richard had some annoying quirks when he talked – a funny way of laughing that was off-putting at first, but you soon didn’t even notice that. The content of his message was compelling. During coffee/fellowship time after the service, folks were quick to tell us, “It isn’t usually like this – hope you come back next week.” We did.

    The next service, Richard talked about Kerouc’s “On the Road”. At that point, I was really hoping J.B. liked the Youth Program here, because I knew this place had piqued my interest. During coffee/fellowship afterwards, several more regulars were quick to point out, “It usually isn’t like this, here – hope you come back next week.” I was hoping they were wrong. I liked it like this. We stayed, and each week was different. We’d found a spiritual home after a long fruitless search.

    In a publication about different groups and opportunities within the congregation that one might find interest in, I read about the softball team. At the time the publication went to print, the manager was proud to say that the team had just hit its high water point in 7 years of play, 6 wins, and were 6-6 on the season. I soon learned that they lost their next 8 games, finishing 6-14 on the season.

    But that didn’t matter to me. I’d been saying for a number of years that when I turned 50, I wanted to start playing ball again. I hadn’t played since my mid-20’s. My priorities from then until now were my relationship, and raising J.B. That’s where I spent my time and my focus. We believed in intentional parenting, and that was our primary focus. I’d do it exactly the same way, given the opportunity to go back.

    But by age 50, I figured I would be able to carve out some time to pursue that which I most loved to do in life. Play ball! The year we joined UUCF just happened to be the year I turned 50, so the timing was right. I worked hard that winter getting myself back into shape. I went out and played my ass off, and earned the starting Left Field job on the team. They only managed to win one game on the field out of 20, along with 2 by forfeit of the other team. 3-17. But, there was great comeraderie and it was fun to play.

    The manager quit after that season because of a foot injury, and asked if I’d take the team over. I only did it so I would still have a team to play on. They went 1-19 my first year managing. But I noticed something. We were losing many games by 1 run. Talent-wise, we were nearly as good as the teams we were losing to – they all just seemed to have something that we didn’t. Confidence. They didn’t make as many stupid plays. They played more like a team and less like a collection of players, each trying to play well, but not doing the little things that make a team a team. I figured, “we just need to play more games each year”. So, we joined the Fall League as well. It was an all-ages league, so I recruited some younger players. We won 3 games that fall, out of 14. That was progress.

    I also enrolled us in the Spring league, to add another 20 games to our schedule. Now we were playing 60 games a year. More opportunities to become a team. We won 4 out of 20 that Spring. O.K., that’s progress, at least in numbers of victories. I guess it’s like this, sometimes – slow and steady. As long as we still have fun, let’s keep playing. That summer we won 5 games, but we did something we’d never done at the end of the season. We came in second place in the end-of-season tournament. We’d earned a team trophy! This was a first! That Fall, we won 6 games out of 14, 6-8.

    We now had guys in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s – all ages. Characters like you wouldn’t believe. But the team itself was developing its own character. Word was spreading around the league that this was a fun team to play on. A core of players who stayed with the team year in and year out became the heart and soul of the team.

    But, it was the year that I finally got a Coed team going that I realized what our men’s teams were missing. We were still trying too hard. Too competitive for our own good. The Coed team just relaxed, had fun, and won. Almost effortlessly. Somehow, bringing this knowledge and awareness over to the Men’s team wound up making the difference, there. I took what I learned from the Coeds, and just tried to set a similar tone on the Men’s team. It worked. We finally won a championship. Every year, we go out expecting to win, and usually do.

    The other thing that the Coed team brought was an identity. Some of the women asked what the team name was. Team Name? We’re just the “UUCF Softball team” – always have been. Seriously? Come on, you need a name. The UUCF symbol is a chalice with a flame in the middle, and I had played a couple seasons on a seniors team called the Diamond Fever, so I suggested Diamond Flames, and everyone liked that. I designed the T-Shirt to show a softall with flames shooting out of it, and we now had an identity, and an attitude to go with it.

    Which brings me to the current group dynamics. My new team, the Diamond Dogs, has a some really good players on it. Last night, we hit 5 homeruns in one game. I’ve only had one other team do that, ever. It’s playing better than it did in the first 10 games. But it still seems to find ways to lose. We blew leads of 9-5 in the first game, and 14-8 in the second game, allowing the other team to tie us up in both games, sending the games to extra innings, where we lost both games. The other team was playing with the minimum of 8 players. We had 10. We just couldn’t seem to play well enough to win. We still had a good time, still had fun. But still trying too hard.

    When the Diamond Flames Men got down, 9-0 on Sunday night, nobody got down, nobody started to press, we knew we could come back, and we did, the very next inning. We had this group memory. Twice, we’ve come back from 16-2 deficits to prevail in games.

    My favorite was the famous “mush-ball” rally. We still talk about it years later. You have to use the same ball you start an inning out with, until and unless it gets fouled out of play or over the fence as a homerun. So, we’re down 16-2, and the first two batters make outs. The next batter fouls a ball out of play, and someone throws in a replacement ball. It turned out to be a real dud of a ball. A “mush” ball. You hit it hard and it just kind of flops out there with a thud, and doesn’t go very far. “Damnit, I hope someone fouls that one out of play.”

    They didn’t – but the hits started to come. Flukey hits. Strange mush ball hits. Guys who usually send the ball to the fence were just clearing the infield, but the outfielders were playing them deep, so the balls kept falling in. Everyone hated that ball – but it kept producing hits, and runs, and we just kept hitting, and by the end of the inning, in which no one fouled another one out of play so we were “stuck” with that mush ball, we had a 19-16 lead, and went on to win the game, 21-18. That was the year we won the championship, going 16-4.

    This year’s Diamond Flames is on the verge of adding to the trophy case. We’ve won 11 of our last 12, and just seem to find ways to win. Both teams are fun, but I will have to admit – winning is more fun than losing.

    (Photo of Diamond Flames team jersey with logos)
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