Let me be frank: Ever since boyhood, softball has infested me with dread.
I do not believe that my meager physical gift, the unfortunate collaboration of far-flung appendages, has ever been the issue. Nor making a fool of myself -- which, in any case, I'm happy to do with alarming regularity.
I speak, friends, of humiliation , the Big H, that scourge on the dignity of man. It can strike at the drop of a ball, burn to the soul and linger in the belly like a worm.
Simple embrassment is a tolerable risk in the workday world. But the mortification that accompanies athletic competition is unendurable. The prospect of humilation, as inevitable as a beer-drinker's paunch, skulks under every base pad, behind every blade of grass, inside every dusty groove. Worse, it lurks in the eyes of your teammates and on the tips of their tongues.
We all like to think of ourselves as civilized people, even nice people, but the fragility of this notion can become all to plain in the heat of a game. With a tie and two outs at the bottom of the seventh, civilized people can resemble common cave-dwellers and nice people may do brutish things.
I'd say fist fights and other barbarities sometimes associated with softball -- spiking, savage insult and even cheating -- may have more than a little to do with people's universal chagrin at the baring of their squishy inner cores. The wild toss that loses the game -- your wild toss -- may pinpoint a character weakness that heretofore has been safely concealed. Against such exposure, fear, masked in anger, is the only appropriate response.
Recently, I happened on a game that seethed with what softball players like to call "intensity" -- which is to say, savage insults, at least the specter of cheating and a variety of brutish things. By the final out, more than a few souls had been seared.
The contest, held at a scraggly field in the heart of Shaw, pitted the White House against the office of Congressman John M. Murphy, the puissant New York Democrat who (as was darkly whispered down the White House bench) had been indicted the previous week in the Abscam scandal.
The match began at sunset -- after the White House showed up late, promptly shooing some Murphy staffers away from the first-base bench ("This is where the home team sits," Carla Reams, a White House pitcher, informed them), and both sides spent half an hour picking shads of broken bottles from the infield.
All this entertained a gaggle of giggling neighborhood kids, who later amused themselves by making off into the night with balls and bats, lighting firecrackers and tossing them into the infield, riding bicycles along the base lines during play and scaling the sleek Corvette owned by Murphy's chief of staff.
Against this background and the ever-dimming sky, the game was played out, becoming more and more "intense" with every inning. It was apparent early on that a developing relationship between Mark Greenspan, a legislative aide who coaches Murphy's Staten Island Ferries, and Doug Wachholz, a lawyer who plays for Jimmy Carter, would be the focus of most of the excitement. Greenspan and Wachholz took an instant disliking to each other, and by game's end, easily could have murdered each other.
Somewhere near the midpoint of this crescendo of hate, with a White House batter lining to right, Wachholz sprinted from first, rounded second and suddenly was rolling in the sod. Struggling to his feet, he raced the ball to third, only to be tagged by Greenspan. He stood fast at third, his eyes popping behind his wire-rimmed glasses with bewilderment and rage.
"You're out," Greenspan said coodly.
"But he knocked me down," Wahholz wailed, pointing a frenzied finger at the second baseman, the congressman's chief of staff.
"I don't care, you're out," Greenspan replied, this time matching Wahholz in volume -- and, a 6-foot-5 and 200-plus pounds, bettering him in height and girth.
"If I knocked you down, you never would've made third," the chief of staff put in.
He didn't knock you down," Greenspan taunted. "You fell down. Nobody knocked you down. You fell . You're out."
As the two started posturing like crazed bison, Jim Purks, a White House press officer who manages the team, interposed himself with a shy smile and rested a consoling hand on the back of Wachholz's neck. Thus Purks led him away.
Then came night.
In retrospect, everyone has agreed that the business of the broken light-switch box in the fifth inning was the turning point of the game. As Purks and his co-manager grappled for 20 minutes with the faulty lock, enlisting the expert help of some neighborhood kids to pry the door loose with a tire iron ("It's been jimmied," Carla Reams said, adding sharply, "That's just an expression"), tempers were allowed to cool and, as Greenspan points out, the momentum shifted to the Ferries, who at that point were six runs behind.
By the top of the ninth (the White House insists on nine innings instead of the usual softball seven) the score was tied 16-16, and with one out, Greenspan was the base-runner at second. As Greenspan watched, as if in a trance, the Ferries batter hit a line drive toward a gap in left field. Greenspan hesitated an instant, made toward third, cut the corner and headed for home.
Standing in the middle of the base line between third and home, the hint of a smile on his face, was Wachholz, holding the ball in his outstretched hand. Greenspan brooded a moment, then charged with the ferocity of a rhino.
They collided with a sickening thump. Watchholz' glasses spun away like a wayward planet and he and Greenspan locked themselves in a one-armed hug, their free arms working like jack-hammers amid grunts and oaths.
Purks was there first. Then came the others. Surrounded by wide-eyed children, they separated the aggressors and led them to their respective benches. It was over in half a second. The field cleared in silence.
As Wachholz staggered through the dirt, he held a hand to his mouth. He sat down and someone gave him an ice cube from the White House beer cooler. He pressed it to his swelling lip.
On the other side, Greenspan stood unscathed in a circle of teammates.
Eventually the game resumed, and the ferries beat the White House 17-16 as Wachholz miserably nursed his lip.
There, I thought, but for the grace of God, go I.