WARREN DUSTIN, a.k.a. Charlie Brown, stood on the mound and watched as the softly-hit ball trickled between the second baseman and shortstop and rolled into the outfield, where he left centerfield overran it and the right centerfielder, backing the play, stepped on it and went sprawling.
The batter, puffing and blowing, was schlepping around third base before anyone got a hand on the ball; the throw home went wide of the backstopand into the parking lot, where it was seized and borne off by a small boy.
Dustin looked into a the sky. As though on cue, a spatter of rain fell. He shrugged.
"It's going to be a long season," he said.
"It will be if you're gonna pitch," third baseman Danny Downs retorted, and the chorus of hoots and jeers drove Dustin from the mound in mock despair.
"They don't give me no respect," Dustin said. "The only thing that keeps me coming back every year to manage this team is the girls." The qualifications to play for the Dusters are that you gotta to be able to pop a pull tab without cutting yourself wife or girl friend.
He nodded toward a reasonable facsimile of Farrah Fawcett-Majors, who was trying to persuade the small boy to give back the ball.
"That's Sue Dearstine. She's the ugliest one on our roster. I'm going to have to cut Johnny unless she shapes up."
A bystander watching the Dusters work out at the Burtonsville Recreation Center could get the idea from the way the players joke and clown around that they do not take the game seriously. Not the case. The Dusters are former champions and perennial contenders in the Montgomery County A league, and they hurl their aging bodies around with the abandon of teenagers. The schedule runs to 30 games, and tournaments and challenge matches bring the total to around 75 games a season, played from Frederick to Richmond and sandlots in between.
"Anybody who thinks this is an old man's game should try it," said Rich Hepner, 29, a pitcher-outfielder. "In slow-pitch everybody hits, and there's going to be action at every position almost every inning. You're got to get to the ball fast and move it around fast, and erros are usually what decides a game."
The game will be even faster this year because the sky ball has been ruled out. No pitch may rise more than 12 feet above the ground on its way to the plate, which means the hurler must hang it out there like a grapefruit on a branch. A softball, larger and less dense than a baseball, is more strongly affected by wind and irregularities of the playing surface. A good hitter can overcut a pitch so that the ball corkscrews through the infield and then dies equidistant from all defensemen.
"You've got to use more skill than power," Dustin said. "A fly ball is almost always an out in this game, because there are four outfielders. The fence at Olney Manor, where all the league games are played, is 12 feet high and 285 feet away. It takes a hell of a hit and usually a little wind to put the ball out."
Saturday was just the second work out, but the Dusters' roster is pretty well set. Over half the players are charter members from the days when they took on all comers in beer games (losers buy). The league limit is a 20-man roster, but Dustin normally carries only 15 "because I don't want a bunch of guys suiting up to sit on the bench. I want to play and so does everybody else, and anybody who can't make it with us can pick up with another team, even if he might have to drop down to B or C Division."
There are a dozen leagues and several hundred softball teams in Washington and its suburbs, ranging from loose groups of good-time Charlies to sandbagging semipros keeping loose in case they should get a call from the new pro league.
"The game is fun, but you have to know what you're doing to play with us," said Johnny Dearstine, 24, a postal worker and the acknowledged heavy hitter of the Dusters. "I don't mind not winning them all, but we don't want to drop down. Tough competition is what keeps it interesting."
And hazardous, as the support bandage on Dearstine's knee shows. Injuries have hurt the Dusters for six straight seasons, and Dustin's brother Billy is doubtful this year after knee surgery.
Most members of the team are in their mid-20s to late 30s, that dozen years between the exuberance of youth and the onset of the aches that never quite go away.Common sense tells them to take up golf, but the crocus tells them it's time to get out the old glove and the oil and work the webbing until the ball pops in the pocket the way it should. Nothing sounds as right as leather thwacking leather, and the chirp of a cunningly struck ball coming off an aluminum bat drowns out the creaking of the joints.
"Every fall I say I'm going to quit," said Dustin, 36. "And every spring I come back. I think I would die if I couldn't play this game."