What Happens When You Step Onto the Softball Field Again After 15 Years?
The pitch came in much flatter than I was used to. The minute I swung I knew I had made good contact, and the softball headed for short left field over the shortstop’s head. I “broke” for first.
This was the first time I had tried to put a metal bat on a softball in probably 15 years. I played regularly through my 20s, 30s, and most of my 40s for recreational teams in Madison or Eau Claire. I played at least once a week and loved every minute of it.
I first sent back a “tentative” reply, wondering whether it really was a good idea to step back on the diamond, given that I was now nearly eligible for Medicare, with all the physical changes and challenges that implies.
I love the sound of the ball hitting the leather glove. I love the feel of the bat when it makes contact with the ball. I love the feel of my foot hitting first just ahead of the ball reaching the base. I love leveling out the dirt in the batter’s box before I get ready to accept the first pitch. I love positioning myself in the field, usually at first base, as the pitcher delivers to the plate. I love the chatter between fielders as we communicate what we will do if the ball is hit. I love the sense of accomplishment when I scoop a ball out of the dirt to secure an out at first (and I even appreciate the disappointment when I let a throw from the shortstop skitter away).
As I approached 50, however, circumstances ended my softball career in Eau Claire, and, frankly, I had lost my zeal for the game. It takes up most of an evening, which wasn’t an issue when I was single, but with a family, each evening is precious.
So I quit recreational softball, with my softball gear remaining in the basement for the last decade and a half. I still had the big glove, the batter’s gloves, the balls, and the bat. I even had the blue Easton bag I carried everything in. I also kept the old T-shirts uniforms for the teams I played on.
Then an interesting invitation arrived in my work email. A co-worker at UW-Stout was organizing a pickup game on a Monday night and sent out a blanket invitation. I first sent back a “tentative” reply, wondering whether it really was a good idea to step back on the diamond, given that I was now nearly eligible for Medicare, with all the physical changes and challenges that implies.
But the sport pulled me back in. I dug out all the gear and even found my old jerseys, including the red “Pizza Hut” shirt I wore for many years in Eau Claire. I changed my invitation response to “accept.”
The weather the evening of the event was not promising; it had rained hard before the scheduled start, and I debated whether to just go home. But a few cars were at the small field in Menomonie, so I stopped. There were nine of us, barely enough for one team, so the organizers split us into three teams of three: with three people batting, six would be in the field. It worked.
Amazingly, even though it had been some 15 years, it all came back – the throwing, the fielding, even the way I position myself in the batter’s box. I couldn’t wait to put on the batting gloves, to swing the bat, to catch the ball.
We had a great time. I had a few hits, made a couple of plays at first and even pitched a little. Inevitably, I pulled a hamstring running to first base about a half hour into our game, which slowed me down even more on the base paths.
Even after the injury, though, I couldn’t help grinning the whole time. I had proved to myself that I wasn’t too old, yet, to play a kid’s game. I got to relive the real games I played in, games for league championships, games filled with exhilaration and heartache and frustration. I got dirty, sweaty, and tired. It was fantastic.
Then it was over; I said my goodbyes to my teammates, gathered my gear, and hobbled to the car. The gear is going back down to the basement. For good? Who knows? A week later, the hamstring had healed.
Doug Mell is the executive director of Communications and External Relations at UW-Stout in Menomonie. He lives in Eau Claire.