Dames at Bat

Dames at Bat

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BY MARY MCFADDEN | This essay was selected as the 1st-Place Winner in the adult category of the Awesome Sports Writing Contest. 

My pal, Marlene, called me. “You like baseball, so I signed you up for a softball team.”

“What?”

“Vince enrolled in the City League. We’re the lowest class available; I think it’s DD; maybe DD- minus. We have a week to get a full roster of at least fifteen women. Counting you, we have ten.”

“What?”

“We need five more. Meet me at the bar and we’ll sign up some more. Oh, and we need a coach.”

I don’t know why Vince, the owner of The Dubliner, decided to sponsor a team. It may have been on a bet with another San Francisco bar. It may have been to capitalize on the post game drinking, or maybe he just thought it was a good idea because he’d accidentally paid the enrollment fee thinking he was getting a new tree in front the building.

Before you get your hopes up and think this is a story about a scrappy bunch of women who find their inner warrior princesses, I should let you know that the Dubliner Dames were a terrible softball team. We won one game and that was because the opposing team went to the wrong field, so forfeited. 

Maybe we were terrible because only four of the fifteen players had ever heard of baseball. It may have been because only two of the fifteen players had played softball. It may have been because the team coaches, Mark and his pal, Dwight, had to be bribed by the bar that sponsored the team. The bribe was beer, so fitness wasn’t part of the plan.

“The bribe was beer, so fitness wasn’t part of the plan.”

But you can’t plan for things you don’t expect to happen.

The Dames were four American women, one of whom had been raised in Ethiopia, and the rest were recent immigrants from Ireland and England. The Irish and English referred to practice as “rehearsal” and to the ball field as “the pitch.” They called the pitcher a “bowler” if they were being nice, a “tosser” when they weren’t.  Our manager and coach, Mark and Dwight, were called by their first names, although often their names came after an obscene adjective usually reserved for umpires.

The basics of softball were explained to everyone at the first “rehearsal.” The concept of wearing a mitt on your non-dominant hand flummoxed them because they saw it as protection, not a hybrid vessel/net. Several women asked to play outfield. They thought it would be a great place to smoke between turns at bat.

It wasn’t that they didn’t get the idea of catching the ball; it was that the idea that someone with a stick could hit a ball thrown at them at all. Even more astonishingly, that the ball would traverse the distance between home plate and the outfield 

Fungo demonstrated how such a thing could happen. It also revealed that some of the women were natural athletes.

Even with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth Siobhan could leap from a crouch at shortstop sideways toward second to snag a would-be-single out of the air. Paula and Maggie in left and right field could spot the ball, go from a dead stop to a run in a spilt second. Unfortunately, they would get under the ball, realize they were afraid of it, close their eyes and miss it, drop it, or get hit on the head.

Coleen played second base. She’d played a lot of soccer, so had to be trained to not stop grounders with her feet. She is the only person I’ve ever seen guide a ball up her leg into a mitt.

“You’re slowing down the ball!” coach Dwight would yell at her. “You gotta’ grab it while it’s moving then throw to first or tag the runner.”

“No one’s running!”

“They will be during a game!”

When Dwight demonstrated, Coleen tripped him. “Slowed you down, then, didn’t I?” 

“You can’t do that!” 

“This game as too many goddam rules.”

“Even with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth Siobhan could leap from a crouch at shortstop sideways toward second to snag a would-be-single out of the air.”

Deidre, Roxy, and Maureen were utility players. Each one of them could hit, and all of them could catch a high fly. None of them could deal with grounders. It seemed as if every ball rolling on the grass toward them became a slightly sentient being, an animal trying to avoid capture. 

In the middle of a recently sodded field, a softball lolling toward Roxy would vanish into a drain like a mole finding its hole home. Bouncing along the edge of left field, the ball would veer away from Deirdre and head off into the woods.  Once during practice, a ball came moving so fast it seemed to be sliding toward Maureen in right field when it suddenly leapt upward, hit her in the chin, then bounded out of the park, down the hill, and disappeared.

Cathy I, one of the Americans, had played volleyball in college.  She could hit for power, and, because it took forever to get anyone to throw to her rather than at the runner, became adept at a bending reach to grab the ball before it knocked someone unconscious. Those Irish girls could throw. 

Linda, Aisling, and Kathy II could aim a softball so that it came within the vicinity of the strike zone about 30% of the time. They gave up a lot of walks. But, because they had no idea of the right way to pitch, when they did get into the strike zone, they added a peculiar wobble that made the ball un-hittable.

Aisling could throw heat. She was our strikeout leader. Admittedly, that’s not saying much, given our poor record, but when the light was right she could fan the top of the order. But the light had to be right because Aisling didn’t like wearing her glasses because they made her nervous. She couldn’t see without them, so pitching without her glasses made her nervous.

Eventually Maureen started playing first base. She’d hidden the fact that she was left-handed because she didn’t know there was such a thing as a right handed mitt. She got very good at the yelling at the other players, part of being at first.  

Spring, the most gorgeous and graceful woman in the world, played center field. She would float toward the outfield like a ballerina in cleats. When she turned toward the diamond, everyone in the park breathed in her radiant smile. Raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopa , on an archeological site, she had no clue about sports. I imagine kicking or throwing things is frowned upon at fragile digs.

Hilda played catcher. Hilda’s father was a barkeep and steel worker. A loyal Giants fan, Hilda had on and off crushes on ballplayers not because they were handsome, although that helped, but because they made terrific plays. Stop hitting; you were off the list. Bonehead play; get a warning mark in Hilda’s mind. Hilda had bad knees. Not ideal for anyone, especially bad for a catcher.  

I played utility infield and catcher. Also scorekeeper. Also equipment manager. Also scheduler, transportation manager, and takeaway car keys from Dwight and Mark at the end of the night manager.

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Our practices were a mixture of explaining the game and figuring out who could do what when. Mark began by demonstrating various techniques: scooping up a grounder, capturing a fly ball in the pocket, taking a lead from the base. The women would watch and smoke, nod and smoke, cough and smoke.  

Mark would mildly reprimand the smokers. “You should stop smoking. You can’t smoke at the games, and it’s bad for you.”

“But we’re outside where there’s load of air!” said Siobhan. ‘When we breathe in we’re getting cleaner air than we would smoking inside.”

“That’s not how it works. You’re inhaling smoke!”

“Just teasin’ ya, ya bloody health nut. What are ya’ goin’ to make us do next? Become fekkin’ vegetarian?”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”

By the end of the second week smoking during practice had stopped. Marlene, the boyfriends and husbands had given up smoking in solidarity – at least when they came to rehearsals. Counting the team and the team supporters, only six of us had ever seen a softball game. So we went to a professional ballgame.

We settled into our seats with beers, hot dogs, peanuts, and all manner of home made snacks. For the first three innings the primary activity was eating. Hilda yelled at the players. “I love you!” was followed by “I hate you!” One by one the women started shushing their companions. They began asking about plays. 

“Barry Bonds plays my position!” screamed Maggie.

“Why is the second baseman way over there?” asked Colleen. “Oh, a shift to anticipate where the ball might go….hmm. Honey, get me another beer, would ya?” 

Aisling and Linda concentrated on trying to see what the pitch was throwing. Aisling was wearing her glasses. “I can’t see a thing. The fekkin’ ball is moving too fast!”

“Watch the batter and the catcher,” instructed Mark. “They’re watching the ball. It looks different when you’re staring right at it.”

The next practice was the first practice when no one lit up. The women had collected some of the vocabulary and were distributing it freely, sometimes appropriately.

When Linda tossed the ball wide to first, Mark yelled. “Don’t throw a curve to first. What am I saying? You don’t know how to throw a curve. Wait, you can throw a curve?!” 

“I threw a curve? Remind me what a curve is.” 

There’s no point in going over our entire season. It was, like the practices, ridiculous.

At our second to the last game an easy fly out to center turned into a four run, ten minute gag reel. I was keeping score. I think the correct scoring is E-8, E-7, E-9, E-3, E-1, E-5, E-4.  There were 4 unearned runs, 9 injuries.

Spring leapt to grab the fly ball; Paula came in from left as back up. Spring tipped the ball as she went into a cartwheel, kicking Paula in the face. Paula staggered into Maggie who was coming from left toward the calamity.

The ball rolled at a furious speed toward the left foul line. Since the batter had already run past her, Maureen left first to grab the ball, knowing that it should remain on the field. As she executed a near perfect pick up, her body turning toward third, her right foot slipped on a candy wrapper. The ball went up in the air, bounced off a railing back into the infield, where Aisling, Kathy II, and Siobhan all tried to catch it, but ran into each other. The ball bounced off Kathy II’s head and hit Cathy I, who was standing, mesmerized, at third, right in the nose. 

When Hilda got up from her crouch, her knee had given way, so she was sitting on the dirt holding her leg and cursing.

The umpire called the mercy rule. Marlene called Vince at the bar to tell him to pull out the first aid kit and tell him he was paying for drinks.

We had one game to go. Everyone - players, players’ lovers and families, bar patrons, local homeless people, the police - showed up. Bandaged, limping, and utterly exhausted, but knowing we had nothing to lose, we put on our Dubliner Dames t-shirts, started warming up, kept warming up.

The umpire recognized us from earlier games. Our reputation as the worst playing, but most amusing team had become legend. After half an hour, he called the forfeit. We, the accident prone, won by accident.

We piled back into our cars, tumbled out of them into the Dubliner. Vince pulled out ziplock bags filled with ice and the bartender pulled band-aids from the rusty first aid kit, we celebrated our lack of permanent bodily damage.

Over the three-month season we had acquired a camaraderie we hadn’t had before, a sense of responsibility for one another.  As relationships and families grew, some women kept in touch. It was as if we’d attended school together, learned something, we’re not sure what, exactly, but we had learned.

“Our reputation as the worst playing, but most amusing team had become legend.”

The Irish and English obscenities came to be pronounced in the American fashion and appropriately applied during Giants’ broadcasts at the bar. We had taught and learned alternative use of “bum” to mean the body part of umpire or the umpire himself.  We had learned the distinction between sausages and hot dogs.

Most of us were from the same neighborhood, so we were likely to see each other anyway, so none of that is terribly unusual. Here’s the thing no one expected to happen: although only I had any regular workout, each and every one of the women on that team got involved and has stayed involved with some kind of physical activity. Many have coached their children in sports they knew nothing about before the season began. Some of them have won games by playing them rather than by accidental forfeit.

Paula and Maggie play competitive amateur tennis. Cathy I and Kathy II are both physical therapists, trainers, and runners. Spring teaches yoga. Siobhan and Maureen got into hiking; Linda got into hiking and backpacking. Colleen is a soccer coach and plays in local leagues. Aisling, Deirdre, and Roxy dance. Hilda still has a bad knee, but walks everywhere. I still work out and keep score at ballgames.  

Mark and Dwight stopped drinking. Mark rows and runs. Dwight took up the samba.

No one smokes. No one is a fekkin’ vegetarian.

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