Every now and then, you run into someone who jogs your memory back to a simpler time. I encountered one of those old friends recently, (let's call him “Mark Skates,” since that is his real name).
We saw one another at (let's say “church,” although that is not where it was), and since he was my American Legion baseball coach in 1973 and a softball coach/teammate years later, we commonly talk sports.
After Mark pointed out how ridiculous my hair looked, I realized he regularly reads my column. But then he asked an intriguing question. “So how come you write about the old baseball days, but never about the softball years?”
I pondered, then said, “Ya know, Coach, you're not the first one who's asked me that. And as God is my designated hitter, you shall see a softball column soon.”
Today, I keep that vow to Mark, and to Sen. Hank Coe, who had asked me that same question several years ago at a local spot that also wasn't church.
Throughout my 20s and early 30s, Cody Men's Softball League was a bastion of male revelry. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times ... actually, there wasn't anything “worst” about it; I was young, quick, had long, thick hair, and I could run the bases without carrying an inhaler.
My first year after Legion baseball was dedicated to a team with my two brothers and our elder statesman/coach/pitcher, Irv Gerber, called the “Men's Christians.” Opposing us with mocking, maddening glee, in that league of about a dozen teams, was a team officially called “Chief Service.” But my brother Jess and I both recall they derisively referred to themselves as “The Heathens.”
Oh, Mark Skates and his merry men weren't a bunch of atheists or anything; I'm sure most of them were church-going young men who took communion and went to confession. But their confessions were probably a lot more fun to listen to than ours.
Since I was no altar boy myself at 20, I secretly hung around after the games to drink beer with the Heathens in the shadows. It was dubious, I guess, but I never saw it as a betrayal of Judas' proportions or anything.
So here's Skates, Jerry Skar, little George Francis, John Wiley and an entire family of “Ballingers” going against us Christians. Oh, and did I mention Bill “Blackie” Blake, often wearing some kind of fake, obscene nose, passing around a bottle of tequila between innings? How was our sincere, pre-game prayer gonna compete with THAT?
We had our big orange cooler of ice water and paper cups, versus their beer and tequila. Heck, occasionally they'd even carry their beers along while running the bases. That really got our goat, not to mention our oxen.
We chattered desperate clichés like, “Hey batter; hey batter … swing, batter!” They guffawed things like, “Hey, Francis popped up; guess who's buying the beer next game?” They they'd convulse in laughter, as we'd roll our eyes and try to turn the other cheek.
Oh, but how we Christians came to hate those Heathens. Our legendary games always ended 8-7, or 5-4, or 12-11 … always in their favor. As Skates reminded me the other night, “I remember one game, you guys were up 5-0 in the bottom of the ninth … we came back and beat you 6-5.” I said to Mark, “You're a dear to remember!”
We played a season or two at those old, short fields, with an over-sized ball we called “Melon Ball.” Coe hit home runs with irritating regularity, Loren Grosskopf once hit five in one game, and soon the league expanded to new, longer fields on Blackburn Avenue.
By that time, the rapture had taken place for the Men's Christian team and I had taken my under-rated skills to free agency. I played a few years for “Hidden Valley Ranch” with the Poulsen brothers, Alan Richardson and big Marv Nelson among other notables. Then for the bulk of my softball career, I found myself on “Jack Sports”… which was the Heathens under a new name. Suddenly, Blackie Blake, “the legend,” seemed almost mortal.
Oh, I joined in with their jokes about always beating our Men's Christian team, and my new, heathenistic teammates laughed like drunken hyenas. A piece of my heart, though, remained with that disbanded gaggle of second-place warriors that were heckled during team prayers.
And it begs the theological question, “Did God abandon the Men's Christians during those losses?” Certainly not, but he only helps those who help themselves. He wasn't the one over-throwing first base and misjudging fly balls during all those late-inning chokes.