Arline Altee is not a great player but she owns a lawn chair, a glove and a pair of teardrop sunglasses. When Karen Rodgers, manager of the Federal Highway Administration Hot Mix, ordered softball jerseys, Arline didn't figure her number would be under her arm.
Karen believes the jerseys give the team order and a sense of purpose. Arline just likes the way the jerseys look. Although she sometimes forgets which hand to wear her glove on, Arline knew linseed oil would make it soft, so she smeared some all over the pocket. Reggie Jackson's autograph runs up and down the little finger of the glove. But she never bothered to wonder who he was; she owns the glove, he doesn't.
Sort of like the way many of her teammates catch line drives bare-handed, Arline catches rays from her lawn chair, soaking up summer with the tail of her new shirt pulled out of her jeans, her glove leaking oil, her glasses reflecting the pigeons eating popcorn in center field.
The FHWA Hot Mix, one of hundreds of softball teams to play each week on the Mall, there in the shadows of monuments built to last forever, looks more goofy than worried, stumbling over ice chests deep in brewski and sweet wine.
When Karen moved to Washington from Denver, her marriage of 10 years over, she shared an apartment with a woman who watched too much TV, never drank beer after work and didn't play ball. "I hated it here," she admits. "There was nothing to do."
She had a fair arm and a pretty good idea how to run down the first base line and make the dip before heading to second. When she heard about the team, she decided it was time to change her life. So she signed up with the Hot Mix. "Softball changed my life," she says, sipping on a can of Bud. "It really did."
Like the other bumblers on the Hot Mix ("Nobody knows how many we are--sometimes we're 20, sometimes we're 10, sometimes we're . . . ") Karen Rodgers is thirtyish, aware that there is no tomorrow in organized sports, aware (for the most part) that there was no yesterday. For the players on this team, it is one last chance to sweat and groan while hitching at a fat pitch, to rub their fists into the oily pockets of gloves for which they paid nearly half a week's rent, to wail and rage and burn strawberries into their tender hides, to come up shouting, cussing, bucking, hell-bent and glorious.
Just one day each week, dead muscle finds sudden new life, nerves are pinched and plucked into ridiculous frenzies and all those clogged vessels given up to age and easy-living chase hot blood into and out of the little red machine that is the heart.
Office rank notwithstanding, they play this game with the intensity characteristic of those soldiers of pool hall wars and roller derby rinks and roughneck liquor stores on Saturday night. They want to win; they want to bruise and be bruised when the game's on the line and Arline Altee's swinging a stick at the plate. For this is a team, the Team, united muscle against the shackles that bind them to the machinery of government, playing good country ball.
All but anyfielder Jim Wright's little boy, Ian, who can't stand alone. He's too young. His legs look like bent and dimpled raw biscuit rolls. You just want to squeeze him. His mother, Liz, one of only two fans to show for the big game, holds him in her arms and bounces him up and down. Big Jim stuffs a Little Slugger baseball cap on his son's head and gets Liz to stick him back in the stroller. The game starts and the beer's all gone. The kid's sleeping in the shade and somebody wants to know where's the bathroom. (Sorry, Smithsonian closes at 5.)
But the question they need answered is: who are they playing? Nobody knows for sure, except J.B. Weilepp, a tall man with a beard and floppy rain hat who appears to be the manager of the enemy squad. He says they are a collection of "items" from the Smithsonian--bookstore clerks, secretaries, custodians. "Our distinction is that we do not know who we are," he says. "We have no identity, we have no name."
The only recognizable face on the nameless squad wore a cast last game and hit a homer. The cast covered her entire foot and reached right below the knee. She is Laura Melton, has red hair and freckles and plays third base.
"She's got some kind of arm," Pat Mahon, who insists he almost named his son Wolf.
"I know we're just getting started," Margaret Lewis says. "But I know we're gonna lose." Margaret pitches, wears glasses with fancy designer rims and smokes a lot of filter cigarettes. She keeps her hair pinned in a ponytail so it won't dip down into her eyes when pitching from the mound that isn't a mound, but a dusty scratch on the crust of the earth.
A group of nine tourists, all of them with expensive cameras hanging from their necks and wearing Mickey Mouse and George Washington T-shirts, are now on the field. The visitors pose with the great white Capitol looming on the horizon and shoot Junior and Daughter in front of yet another big stone building.
As though so ordered, pigeons lift in swarms, dip and swoon in the sweltering distance. Certainly, the scene is heartwarming--the happy tourists, the deep plots of summer clover, birds screaming home the dusk--but the game, the game. The Mixers applaud when the family finally crosses the field and moves on to another, suspending that game while taking more pictures of the big building down the lawn. "Glad we didn't cause a scandal," one of the Hot Mixers says. "Us being a federal agency and all."
It is not important who wins the game; the Hot Mix lose, 10-9, after Greg Hughes, a.k.a. Chico, slams one over the right field fence and hits a popcorn truck. "I can't put it into words," he says in a postgame interview. "I just can't begin to tell you how wonderful this feels."
Now, it's 10 minutes later, and the exodus of Hot Mix foreign jobs and pickups ends at the sailing marina near National Airport. Mark Kromer's sitting on a red pine bench eating a steak sandwich and toasting Karen and the anniversary of her former marriage. He lifts his mug high, prompting his teammates to do the same, and they join drinks under the darkening skies. "Here's to the losers," they revel. "Here's to all the happy losers."
A dog barks. A plane leaves the ground. And Arline's hungry for a bag of barbecue potato chips.