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  • My softball team is going through a transitional year. We have players coming and players going, new blood mixing in with the old blood, team chemistry shifting; so we're not putting up the wins like we'd gotten used to. After a really good spring for me, personally, in which I hit as well as I have hit since I started playing again nine years ago, even I seem to have hit a slight lull in my "plate efficiency", going a pedestrian (for softball) 3 for 6 the other night. I still hit the ball hard, but too much in the air, and with a wind blowing in from the outfield, those long flyballs fell easily into outfielders' gloves for outs. I know I'll snap out of it soon enough and get back to hitting the hard line drives to the gaps that I'm used to hitting, but it will probably take the team a little more time to come around. Don't get me wrong, though - win or lose, I still love to play the game, and it's still fun either way. But I have to admit - it is a lot more fun when you win!

    I'm reminded of how it was when I first got back into playing competitively. I'd been looking forward to it for so many years. I hadn't played any organized ball since my mid-20's, for a number of reasons, really. Back then, I lived my life a lot differently than I do now. I was still trying to figure it all out, how to balance responsibilities with recreational activities, while trying to overcome addiction and wrestling with my diagnosed manic depression. There was a lot to sort out.

    The problem with manic depression was, when I was in a manic phase, I overdid everything. That sort of goes with the territory. I just happened to be going through one of those manic phases at the time that I got an organized softball team going at the place where I was working at the time, and I went a little crazy on the field in a game. I was out to prove something, and it was all about me, and I wound up unwisely trying to stretch a triple into an inside-the-park homerun, had a great collision with the catcher - craziness, really, for what should have been a friendly but competitive match. I hurt my knee, and eventually lost the job because of the problems the hurt knee led to. After that, I was reluctant to get back into competitive sports at all, as I realized how crazy I could get in the heat of the competition, and simply didn't trust myself to not screw everything up for the sake of a silly game. It was one of those hard life lessons that I had to live with for years.
  • I eventually found stability on the job front, found recovery from addiction, and the manic depression just went away as I moved into recovery. However, my priorities had shifted considerably, and the most important things became my relationship, recovery, and raising a family. Those things came first, as they should have, and I never gave a second thought to playing competitive sports for a good long while. I needed to work to earn a living to raise my family, and when I wasn't working, I was working on the house, which required a lot of work, itself, just to keep from falling apart. We had a real "handyman special".

    But through the years, I really missed the sports. I would yearn to play competitively again, and wish that I could somehow do that, and do everything else that life required of me. When we moved to Virginia in the mid-90's, I would see notices in the town newsletter about the 50 and older softball league that was always recruiting for players, and determined that when I turned 50, I would return to playing competitive ball. As things turned out, the year I turned 50 we'd joined a church, that had a softball team that was looking for players. This team played in a Masters League, a men's league for 35 year-olds and older players. I wasn't sure I could make the team, playing with all those younger guys, but I went out and played my ass off in the practices, and became the team's regular left-fielder.

    I had a lot to learn about playing competitive softball. That first year or two, I was out there trying to show that I still had game, and I did, but I still hadn't learned the art of playing smart ball. I was all over the place, playing hard, but I soon realized there was a lot more to the game than just playing hard. Especially, when you're older and more prone to injuries. I wasn't 25 anymore. I had to learn how to play smart. I eventually did, and I slowly became a better ballplayer.

    My second year playing, I became the team's manager, so I had to learn all about effective ways to manage a team. I slowly got the hang of that, too, and each season, the team made incremental improvements. My first season managing, we only won one game out of twenty. Then we won three, then four, then five, each season getting a little better. We started playing in an all-ages league, and I discovered that I could still compete with the younger guys on the field, especially as I learned to play smarter. For a lot of the young guys, they, like I did when I was younger, rely more on their athleticism, and less on playing smart, and the smart guys often outplay the young and stupid ones. The young, more athletic players make some splashy plays, but they also make stupid plays, that can cost their team runs, and eventually, the game.
  • As I improved as a player, I was also improving as a manager, and my teams finally began to be competitive by my 4th season managing. After a couple of second place finishes, we started the spring season in 2010 on a tear, and were running away with our division. Towards the end of the season, we cooled off a little, and one of the other teams in the division got hot, and began closing the gap as the end of the season loomed just ahead. It all came down to the last doubleheader of the year, which of course was against the team that was closing in on us. We went into it with a 15-3 record, while the other team was 14-4. All we had to do was win one of the games, and the division championship was ours. Up to that point, I had never played on a championship team, ever, in any sport. I had no idea what it felt like to win a championship.

    They soundly beat us in the first game, as we came out flat and they pounced on us right from the start, and while we made a spirited attempt to come back, we lost that game. So now, both teams were 15-4, and it all came down to the very last game. It was a winner-take-all game. All the chips were on the line. We came out swinging, mounting an early lead, but they were still just as fired up, and they came back to tie it up, then we took the lead again, but they tied it up again. Finally, we had a huge inning in the top half of the last inning, and we seized an 8-run lead. Since they were the home team in the game, they got last "ups". They weren't going down easily, and they roared right back with six runs, and had two runners on base, with two outs, and one of their biggest hitters came up to bat. I was playing right field, and was playing deep, as this guy could really hammer the ball. He represented the winning run - if he could manage to hit the ball past me, and go all the way around the bases, his team would win, and we would lose the championship. If we could get this out, the championship was ours. It all came down to this play.

    Sure enough, he swung, and sent the ball in my direction. Only, he didn't hit it deep, where I was playing, he hit a little sinking line drive fly ball, that was falling fast. I was the only one who could make the play. I had two choices - I could play it safe, and come in easy and play the ball on a bounce, which would allow him to get on base, one or both of the runners to score, and then we'd have to see what the next batter did. Or, I could risk it all, try to run all the way in and make the catch on the fly, game over, championship ours. If I tried this and failed, the ball would get past me, and by the time I got back to get the ball, and throw it in to the infield, he would probably have made it all the way around the bases, game over, championship theirs.
  • I had a split second to decide which way I would play it. I threw caution to the wind, and went for broke. I ran as hard as I knew how, and tried to kick in a little extra, as I charged in from deep right field to try to reach that ball before it hit the ground. I didn't think I could do it, but I had to try. As the ball started falling fast, I kept running, reached out my glove, hoped to God I didn't stumble and fall before I got there, and just before it hit the ground, it found the webbing in my glove, and as my momentum kept carrying me forward, towards the infield, I brought the glove up, made sure the ball was still in the webbing of it, brought my other hand in to secure it, and was ready to pull the ball out to throw it in to the infield, when I realized, "That's it! Game over! You won! You are a champion!" I believe, for a moment, or maybe five minutes, I'm not sure, I just completely lost my mind. I looked around, and the rest of the team was converging on me, and we all went a little crazy, especially the guys who'd been with those teams that only won one or two games out of twenty, just a few years before. That's when I finally knew what if felt like to be a champion.

    I've played on several other teams that have won championships, and I've managed my team to another championship since that one, last spring. But none of them will ever be quite as satisfying as that first one was. That was the best feeling ever.

    It is fun to play, win or lose - but it's a hell of a lot more fun to win!

    (Photos: (1) Last year's championship squad; (2) One of my childhood heroes, Pete Rose, diving in headfirst; (3) Taking a cut, (4) My biggest childhood hero, Roberto Clemente, making a great catch in Right Field).
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