From Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul

Home Free!

You are never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream.

Les Brown

I hadn’t played softball in five years. My career had ended abruptly back in 1990 when I collided with Paul McLaughlin, a 6-foot 2-inch, two hundred-sixty-pound heating and air-conditioning contractor. That was at West ways on the shores of Lake Kezar, where some local guys meet every Thursday night during the summer for a pickup game. I was playing left. Paul was at short. We both were going for a little Texas leaguer. Paul caught the ball and me all in one motion. I was knocked cold. When I came to, I picked up my glove, straightened my glasses and saw that it was time for me to hang up my cleats. At forty-five, I was through.

Then this past summer my wife, Ruth, planted a bug in my ear. “It’s Thursday,” she said. “Why don’t you go up and play softball?”

“I beg your pardon,” I said, putting down my book and looking out at the lake. It had been raining all week, but the late afternoon sun had finally broken through.

Sunbeams were dancing on the water. It was going to be a nice evening.

“I said, ‘Why don’t you go play softball,’” Ruth said much louder.

“Are you kidding? I’m too old to play softball. I’ve got bursitis and I can’t see anything with these new bifocals.”

“Plus you don’t hear half the time,” she added gratuitously.

That wasn’t true. After twenty-five years of marriage, I’ve just become more selective in my hearing, but I wasn’t going to tell that to Ruth.

“My hearing has nothing to do with my softball,” I said, “but I don’t know. I haven’t played in five years. Most of the old guys are probably gone and I don’t know any of these new kids.”

“With all this rain, they might need an extra man and if you don’t like it, you can always come home.”

Ruth knew how much I loved Thursday night softball. All through the eighties, it was one of my greatest joys. I played every week. I was one of the guys. Outsiders are always welcome at Westways, but Stephen King and I were the only summer folk ever asked on a regular basis.

I could feel the old juices starting to stir. It would be good for me to get out. With all the rain, I was suffering from a slight case of cabin fever and Ruth was right, if I didn’t like it, I didn’t have to stay. I rocked out of my chair, pulled my Playmate cooler from under the porch, tossed in a six-pack of Moosehead, dug out my glove, boxed my hat and strapped on my bifocals. I was ready. “I’ll drop by and see what’s happening,” I said to Ruth. “If some of the old guys are still there, I might stick around for a couple of innings.”

I’d forgotten just how special the little diamond at Westways is, how it glows in the evening sunlight, how it’s nestled among the towering pines, how it looks out over Kezar Lake into the White Mountains.

I pulled in next to a row of battered pickups and marveled at the green of the grass, the blue of the lake and the purple of the mountains. The sound of balls slapping against leather and the ping of a metal bat said that it was Thursday night. I grabbed my Playmate, straightened my hat, spit in my glove and headed for the field. I was back.

Ruth was right. Normally, there’d be fifteen to twenty guys warming up. Tonight, there were barely a dozen, most of them familiar faces. John Bliss, the local surveyor, was busy laying out the bases. Tom McLaughlin, the former first selectman, was playing catch with Eddy Nista, the current chairman of the board of appeals. Angelo Campo, a dead ringer for a short, husky Fidel Castro, was hitting fungoes to Bob Drew, the plumber who first introduced me to Thursday night softball.

Bob Aiken, the manager of the K-Mart over in North Conway, was raking away the puddles around home plate with Mark Tripp, the caretaker at Westways. A ball went streaking over their heads and banged off the top of the backstop. Sure enough, there was Steven Bennett in deep center field loosening up his powerful but ever erratic arm. On the bench drinking a beer was Hopie, Lovell’s oldest and best hippie. “Hey, look what the cat dragged in,” Hopie said as I approached the bench.

“Well, with all this the rain, I thought you might need an extra glove.”

“Damn straight,” Hopie said. “It takes a few innings for these new kids to show up. No dedication. Lousy values.”

“Stephen King still come?” I said, trying to give myself some credibility.

“Naw, Steve’s too old, but his kid plays every now and then.”

So much for my credibility.

When we got to sixteen players, John Bliss and Eddy Nista quietly stepped aside to pick the teams. I always liked the way the teams were chosen. Nobody ever knew when they were selected. I used to fancy myself as a top pick. Now, I was just happy to be drafted.

“Dave, we’re in the field,” John Bliss said to me when they were done. “Where do you want to play?”

“I’ll take right,” I said. “That way, maybe I can stay out of trouble.”

“Okay, but try not to run into anyone, haw, haw.”

My first at bat came at the bottom of the second. There were two outs and men on first and second. Steven Bennett was on the mound. Even with slow pitch, Steven was having trouble finding the strike zone. “Come on, Dave, there’s two ducks on the pond,” John Bliss said as I picked up one of the new aluminum bats and stepped into the box. “All we need is a little bingo.”

A little bingo, my eye. I was going for the woods. I was going to reintroduce myself with a three-run blast. I went right after the first pitch. It was a just above the letters, but any decent ball player should have been able to reach up and get it.

Thanks to my new bifocals, I reached too high and topped the ball. It dribbled toward third. I chugged toward first. Tom McLaughlin, who usually has a vacuum cleaner for a glove, slipped on the wet grass and bobbled the ball. There was no play at third or second, so he rifled a shot to first. Mark Tripp gave it one of his classic stretches and even with Tom’s bobble, I was out by a yard.

“Gee, Dave, looks like you’ve lost a step or two, or three, or four,” Hopie said as I hobbled back to the bench.

My next two at bats were equally disappointing. A little pop to short, followed by a soft liner to second, all with ‘ducks on the pond,’ all snuffing out a potential rally. Thanks in large part to my anemic performance, we were down by eight runs going into the bottom of the seventh. I was tempted to call it quits, especially when a couple of pickups pulled in and a bunch of young bucks piled out. True to Thursday night softball, they immediately worked their way into the line-up. The best ended up on our side and their powerful bats quickly whittled away at the eight-run lead. Steven Bennett shook his head in disgust as shot after shot sailed into the woods. Going into the bottom of the ninth, we were down by just one.

Like all good athletes, Steven and his side began to bear down. Our first batter sent a scorcher down the third-base line, but Tom McLaughlin looked like a young Brooks Robinson as he neatly backhanded the ball and fired to first. Our kid was fast, but not fast enough. Mark Tripp gave it his best stretch and Hopie, the catcher, called him out.

The next kid launched a rocket to center. It had extra bases written all over it, but the young buck playing center sprinted back and made a Willie Mays over-the-shoulder catch. It was unbelievable. As I popped my last Moosehead, I was glad the game was almost over. These new kids were way out of my league.

Angelo waddled to the plate. He was our last chance. He gave his Fidel Castro beard a tug and cracked the first pitch deep, deep to left. The ball bounced off a big pine and rolled into the woods. It would have been a homer for almost anyone, but Angelo was lucky to make third. He fell on the bag huffing and puffing. Now the tying run was just sixty feet from the plate.

“Atta boy, Angie!” John Bliss said. “Who’s up?”

One of our kids hopped to his feet, his muscles swelling under a “Maine Coon” T-shirt. “Must be me,” he said.

“Whoa, wait a minute,” Hopie said from behind the plate. “Dave’s up.”

A dejected look swept down our bench. Hopie was right. I was up. What a terrible way to end a great game. We almost had come back. Fortunately, even the young guys were too polite to say anything. I chugged what was left of my beer and trudged over to the bat box. The heck with these new light metal sticks, I needed some real timber. I rummaged around until I found my old bat, the Ball Buster. It was my favorite when I was a legitimate threat. Now I hardly recognized it. The Ball Buster’s bright red gloss had been bleached white, its lettering barely discernible. We were a good match. A couple of relics trying to recapture the past. I took a couple of practice swings and stepped into the box.

“Hey, Dave,” Hopie said from under his mask, “here’s your big chance. Hit one into the woods and you’ll be a hero.” Hopie’s voice dripped with sarcasm. Gone was the sincerity of the sixties.

I didn’t say a thing. I was too busy looking for some hole in the defense. Tom McLaughlin, knowing my power was gone, had everyone playing in tight. Bob, the manager at K-Mart, was the only one out of position. Bob was playing right and seeing that I was a righty, he’d shaded me too far to the left. My only hope was to try to punch one down the right-field line. To do that, I’d need an outside pitch. No more swinging at anything close. I was going to have to wait Steven out.

Steven’s powerful arm still couldn’t find the plate. His first three offerings were high, low and inside. With a 3–0 count, a new strategy emerged. I could go for a walk. No decent ball player ever walked at Thursday night softball. Anyone with three balls and anything less than two strikes automatically took a mock swing at ball four. Not me. Not anymore. I wasn’t going to lose this game. I was too old to be humiliated. I’d take a free pass if Steven offered it.

“Come on, Steve,” Hopie yelled from behind me. “Pitch to this guy. Make him hit.”

Steve’s next pitch came floating over the outside corner of the plate. It would have been a ball, but instinct took over. The Ball Buster reached out and smacked it. It was a beautiful shot, perfect in every way. Mark Tripp leaped into the air, but he didn’t have enough spring. The ball zoomed six inches over his outstretched glove.

I raced to first, my old legs churning like a teenager’s. I watched the ball bounce just inside of the big birch that marks the right-field line and dug deeper as it skipped into the woods. Bob was running after it. One of the young guys was moving over to take the cutoff, but it was going to take them awhile to catch up with that shot. Angelo was home.

This game was tied and I was going for two, maybe more.

As I motored toward second, I could hear a chorus of rich Maine accents yelling from our bench, “Home free! Home free!” As I rounded second, the cry got louder. “Home free! Home free!” I couldn’t believe it. They were telling me to go for home. I was going to score. I was going to win this freakin’ game.

I could see the amazed look on Tom McLaughlin’s face as I streaked around third. Base coaches are far too formal for Thursday night softball, but who needed a third-base coach? The cries I heard coming from the bench were now almost hysterical. “Home free! Home free!”

Hopie was standing at the plate. He discarded his mask and pounded his glove obviously trying to deke me out. What did he think I was, some rookie? Couldn’t he hear the screams. I was going “Home free!”

I was about twenty feet from the plate when Hopie casually caught the ball. There was no chance of me stopping and trying to scramble back to third. I had too much momentum. I was like a supertanker heading for an iceberg. “Too bad,” Hopie said as he tagged me out.

John Bliss caught me just before I collapsed. “Jeez, Dave,” he said, “why’d you keep running?” It was the question everybody was asking.

“I heard you all yelling, ‘Home free! Home free!’ I thought I had it,” I gasped.

“Home free?” John said. “We were yelling ‘Hold three, Hold three.’ A triple would have been plenty from you.”

That was it. The game was over. The sun had long set behind the Presidential Range. Evening’s shadows crept over the field. Nobody cared about the tie. A tie was fine for Thursday night softball.

“Not too bad for an old man,” Hopie said as I was getting into my car. “Only next week, take the potatoes out of your ears.”

I wasn’t sure there’d be a next week. Already I could feel my body stiffening. I’d be sore all over in the morning. Still, it was worth it. Seeing that ball bounce into the woods, running the bases, hearing the cheers. I couldn’t wait to get back and tell Ruth. I just wouldn’t mention the part about “Home free!”

David E. Morine

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