Moose is on the mound this midsummer night, poised to launch a softball so white it could be lit from within. Vitrob's starting 10 crouch at their stations in the clover-strewn field. Kids and wives are looking on and the umpire leans in like an orphan peering at a party through a fence.
Moose swings his arm, and the game's first pitch floats toward home, marking the start of another Vitrob battle in the Montgomery County B league wars. But this is one pitch that has as much to do with happenings before the game as the game itself.
In these recreational leagues, the first pitch of the game is the one that delivers each player from the Muzak and venetian blinds of the workplace to a diamond-shaped realm where the preoccupations of summer's reigning sport replace the worries of the one workday. Such a pitch is a strike no matter where it lands.
But the ump, of course, is blind. "Outside!" he growls, and the contest begins.
Softball as it is waged each night on Montgomery's fenced and well-kept fields, or onthe no-carat diamonds improvised from city sandlots and rocky country pastures, is a game that seems almost synonymous with summer. Softball distills the essence of the season. From the raw material of a summer night -- oiled mitts, a set of friends, fans in beery bunches, a dog that sits on second base and an evening sky -- something pure and meaningful is refined.
This is especially true for the crew who makes up Vitrob, a blue and gold-shirted team whose dozenplayers all work at Vitro Laboratories, the largest private employer in Montgomery County. Their ages range from 24 to 43, but in their spikes and caps and calf-high socks they all seem one boyish age. Their duties vary from combing expense accounts to developing guidance systems for nuclear missiles, but inside the diamond, rank and hierarchies are out of play. By day they work in separate branches of Vitro's sprawling complex, but by night they come together on a grassy field, bound up in the lore and high times of a team.
One recent night, Moose scribbled down the starting lineup for a game with the wilting Metro Plants. His coworkers in Accounting know the stout, good-natured, bubble gum-chewing pitcher and team coach as 27-year-old Steve Hollis, who devotes a whole drawer inhis green metal desk to his softball files.
Few things mean more to Moose than the game, which he has beenplaying with his herd for five years. He met his wife Alura through Softball, though they waited until after the season to wed. And, softball remains his mistress. The Hollises plan vacations in the fall so Moose won't be away for the May to August season.
"The can't remember to bring home milk," Laura Hollis sighs, "but they can remember something that happened inthe bottom of the fifth 10 years ago."
Time has seasoned the team, which is still middling but much improved from its first year when it recorded 4 wins and 24 losses. The team originally was supposed to be named Vitro, followed by a capital B to denote the league, but there was a misunderstanding withthe uniform company and Vitrob was born.
Off the field, some of Vitrob's achievements approach the sublime lime absurdity of their first season. First Baseman Dann (Zonk) Miller for instance, a 35-year-old wide-bodied, beer-loving bon vivant and cutup. Not too long ago he drove a golf cart into a lake. He keeps plastic vomit in his desk, eats cigarettes and crushes aluminum empties against his forehead at the Sole D'Italia Pizza restaurant where the team repairs for post-game analysis.
The others bring different characters into play. Richie (Stony) Stonesifer, the 33-year-old no-nonsense team catcher and firebranc, was an outfield start at Wheaton High School in 1962. "In my 20s, I really pondered over mistakes, more than I do now," he says. "I took it hard that I let my team down, that I could have done better."
Now he processes modifications in test procedures for Navy submarines in front of a row of files marked unclassified. But he is still tough on himself. He does not lightly suffer 0 for 4 at bat. Nor does his wife Cathy, who mends his batting gloves and can tell when he has been snake-bit at the plate by the way the door shuts and Stony goes glumly to the shower.
And Ron Horn, a 36-year-old project manager in Vitro's Cruise Missile Department, who supervises dozens of people but tonight rides the bench and wryly annotates the play. Perhaps it's just as well he's not starting because his softball resume includes three broken fingers, a broker wrist, a broken leg and unnumerable rips, ruptures and sprains. Whether Horn starts or not, softball is important because it has the kind of definition absent in his long and sometimes vexatious work days "interfacing" with weapons contractors and government agencies.
"It's nice to go out and do something where you know exactly what your job is," says Horn, who plays second base when he's not mulling "interdependency charts" at Vitro. "When the ball's hit, you know where your guys are. You don't have to write a memo."
And then there is Jim Michael in left, at 43 the oldest player and the team's only natural, a trim, sharp-faced sandy-haired contracts administrator who once was a cocky pitching prospect spurning offers from major league scouts because the moneydidn't match his ego. No dream dies in quite the same way as a ballplayer's. After two decades of diamnds from semipro hardball to B league softball, the kid from West Virginia is a grown man who says, "Looking back on those offers now, I would have taken anything."
Whether they flirted with the big time or merely reveled inthe high school limelight, their paths led to various jobs at the same company, and onto the same team. So game days, Mondays and Thursdays, are somehow more agreeable than the rest of the working week. Moose has called around to make sure he can field a starting nine. Stony frets about the weather, if rain is in the offing. The others have a sense of anticipation that mounts through the afternoon until quitting time when they strip off suits and pull on uniforms, ace bandages and batting gloves in the large bathroom in Vitro's Personnel Department and then set out to one of a half-dozen fields in Wheaton and Silver Spring where their games are scheduled.
When Moose reads the lineup and the players trot out to filltheir positions in the field, everything seems in its place and right with the world. Like a picture of the way life is supposed to be, they are the brightest figures in a summer tableau. In lesser roles there is the inevitable mutt, the enemy team, the lonesone ump and the Vitrob partisans scattered on the sidelines amid an array of coolers, blankets and bassinets.
For the spectators, the game is a smuch the simple matter of a summer night as a question of victory and defeat. The sip wine and lemonade, dine on chicken and shout encouragement. The game they savor is the fan's game of nuance and interlude, in which the way the shortstop inspects the ball each time it is fetched from the outfield after a fly, pleases no less than the big hit and dramatic play.
On this recent Monday, Vitrob was on its way to a 13 to 4 pruning Cathy, Stony was having a good night too, walloping line drives every time he was up. He slid at the plate on one play. As the dust wafted up, the ump barked "Safe!" and a chorus of "Way to go, babe!" filled the air. All grins, Stony strutted a gauntlent of palm-slappers and fanny-patters to Cathy who brushed the dust off his back -- sweet dust that nothing more than an umpire's decree could have made bitter.
Thursday's game against K & M Mechanical was another waltz, and the visions of trophies danced in the eyes of the play-off bound team. "This is our championship season," cried Gary Jackson, a 6-foot-5-inch, 270-pound pitcher and home run sultan.
No matter that the game started badly for him. Ill-advisedly trying to score from second on a sharp single to right, he came barreling around third base like a runaway beer truck and went down at the plate in a grisly slide. Out by a mile. He lumbered back to the bench in a foul humor, covered with dirt like a buffalo fresh out of a wallow.
But in the fifth same redemption, a mighty swing and a towering home run over the fence in left center, the longest "tater" of the day. This time he rounded third base with cries of "Way to be up there, babe!" chiming in his ears and all his teammates clustered at the plate.
Jim Michael caught the fly ball for the last out to seal the 20-11 win, a victory that would be replayed over beers later that night, and at the office tomorow. It was a tough catch as it was nearly dark, but if anyone was going to make the play it was Jim. None of his teammates could remember the last time he made an error. Just to see the way he cantered out to left each inning was a lesson in the game. There was something unperturbable in the way he ran, as if he were someone who could never stopping being a ballplayer.
The final enemy hitter's deep drive soared high in the last light of the day. It seemed almost suspended in the vault of the sky, until it began to die, tumbling to earth. Jim was gliding at full speed over the grass. He stretched his glove as far as he could, and that was the game.