The weekend just kind of snuck up on me. We were supposed to be playing a one day tournament in Woodland on Saturday. I was bolstered for a long day in the sun with the dust blowing into my eyes in deep center. I’d wake up at the crack of dawn to make it there in time for another shitty draw. We’d play and play and play and then Sam and I would drive home at the end of a long day and go to bed.
Sunday would be mellow and predictable.
I was prepared for all of that. But it didn’t quite happen that way.
And here is the reminder that it is best to always try to roll with things. To float on top and run with the current. To be aware of your journey, conscious of your destination, but willing to make a few detours.
At the last minute the team decides to enter a tournament up in Forestville. It’s a two-day gig called the Rainbow Classic.
We’ve never done this tournament before but we wager that it must be better than the dustball known as Woodland. Gears are switched and entry fees are paid. We are going to the Rainbow Classic.
On Friday night I smash two homeruns in the first game of our double-header. My bat is slowly finding its way back to me. My legs are starting to know the baseline again. My stride is lengthening, my arms reaching. You can see it happen, they are telling me. You can see me becoming me again. Slowly.
The next thing I know I’m in the back of a Jeep headed to a slumber party in Oakland. We’ll sip Chilean whiskey until 1:00am and then hit the sack. I crash on a sofa and sleep like a rock. The morning comes early to the tune of 6:00am. We’re dressed and on the road by 6:30 – a cooler, three girls and a Jeep full of overnight bags.
The Fun Factor is instantly increased by the simple fact of riding in a Jeep. Let’s face it, a Jeep is a big, adult-sized toy. A Jeep with an open top only serves to up the ante. It’s cold as fuck in the backseat on the freeway but you’re huddled under a blanket, just close enough to the speakers to sing along. You’re headed to the gayest softball tournament you’ve ever played in and there is a tiny beach house waiting for you later in Bodega Bay.
One minute you’re thinking you’re going to be in deadwood dustbowl Woodland and the next minute you’re on a mini-roadtrip to some of the most beautiful country that the area has to offer.
The tournament itself comes to a rocky start.
When we get to the field I turn to G and say, “Dude. Where the fuck ARE we?”
Indeed. Grass and weeds grow high around the edges of the poorly kept softball fields. The infield is cement covered in dust that is both too fine and too thin. The outfield is an abomination of divots and bumps – an ankle injury just waiting to happen.
We are on field three. The left field line is flanked by a blackberry thicket filled with snakes and thorns. The right field line plunges out and then trips across the cement path, winding toward the parking lot. Anything to hit the cement, rolling or not, is a dead ball and a ground-rule double.
It’s 9am and getting hot. Our fans cling to the shade of trees and we begin to play. I’m eyeing the ground unsteadily as the first pitch goes up. I can see heat rising from the infield.
The rules are all different. The pitching is different and the umpires suck. With two strikes hitting a foul ball means that you’re out. There isn’t even one to give. The bases are not properly tied down – you dive into them and they skitter away from you, leaving you crawling on hands and knees to finally lunge for a corner (anything to keep you “safe”).
We battle through the first game and come out on top. The temperature rises.
It’s in the hundreds and we drench our jerseys, pour water down our backs, and drink like camels.
We split the next two games and finish the day 2-1. Every team in the tournament finishes with the same record so the whole thing will be determined on Sunday. The air around is thick and hazy but we have a cooler full of beers and a river called The Russian in our future. We are fully schooled in what it is to “beat the heat”.
In the parking lot we pick up stragglers. Most of the team is heading home for the night but we convince Goober, Lani and Duckie to hit the current with us before they hit the highway. We’re a caravan of dirty, sweaty, gnarly, dusty ball-players headed for the Mecca and G is in The Little Red Jeep leading the way while I sit in the back wearing a sports bra and holding my arms up in the warm breeze.
Over the river and through the woods and cue to The Scene of the Crime.
We pull up to a nearly empty spot on the river and spread out. Camping chairs and coolers. Swim trunks and bikinis.
The sun is still blazing and the beers are ice cold. I have a 6 pack of Hefeweizen with my name on it. 24 cans accompany my heffies in the cooler. Distribution and consumption begins and so turn the well-greased wheels of the River-Softball-Market-Economy. We take to the river in pack formation, dipping under the surface as we go.
I have not been on a river since I was 12 years old when I played in the curious clay that comprised the banks of the Cedar. Before that it was craw-daddy hunting with my bruiser-cousins on the White River. I had forgotten the feeling of smooth rocks underneath bare feet and that teetering feeling of navigating underwater obstacles. The musky smell of dirt and water and the wild feeling of bushes covering banks and hanging haphazardly into the water.
The Russian is a lazy river. Warm and slow. Kinder than the rivers of my childhood – the current hardly detectable and the temperature just perfect to take the hazy fog off of a triple digit day. We submerge our sticky skin and come up feeling clean, the days innings slipping downstream behind us.
In the heat of the afternoon the beers go down almost unnoticed. We bob methodically in waist-deep water, being sure to keep the bottleneck or can safely in the air. When they become empty we send a messenger to the cooler to retrieve replacements. I’m wet from head to toe and G feeds me tugs on her Bali Hai cloves until my hands are dry enough to hold my own.
Everywhere is this togetherness. The sharing of food and drinks and cigarettes and towels and chairs and coolers. With each beer comes a slow opening, a crack in the armor of our socially mandated privacy, a need to divulge and absorb.
Revelations are had unanimously. It is discovered that the great force that roped us all together onto what surely may be The Softball Team of our Dreams was not fate, but breakups.
Breakups all around. Wild, flailing breakups of 5 year relationships. Smaller, stinging breakups of 6 month relationships. Breakups, breakups and more breakups, all propelling us wildly in the direction of solace and “something new”. All landing us on a softball field somewhere in Walnut Creek earlier this spring.
True, I can stake no claim to this breakup theory. And there are other exceptions that should be noted. But it can be said with conviction that many of the “big links” were installed as the result of romantic anguish.
“Heartbreakers” someone says. “Just a bunch of Heartbreakers.”
And suddenly there is an urge for a new team name.
Draped across camping chairs and reclining in loungers we look skyward and talk into the air above us, a collective space where we meet. Sun dries river water from our skin and warmth settles in down to the bones.
It is not until we rise to leave that we realize we are 4 sheets to the wind. Stumbling up the sandy path back to the cars a wild and unpredictable series of negotiations takes place. G and I are pleading with Goober and Lani to come out to the ocean house with us. They’re stalling, unsure of whether its smart or even feasible. They don’t have clean clothes for tomorrow’s tournament and they still have to find a way to get Duck back so that she can go to work in the morning.
They decide to take Duck home and then drive back to meet us. Unconvinced that they’ll follow through, G and I demand collateral.
And when I say collateral I mean clothing.
Before we know what is happening I’m wearing Goober’s swim trunks and she has her arms around me, tying the bow on my blouse from behind. I’m wearing her lucky hat and G is busy convincing Lani that yes, there IS something in it for her – we promise her a wicked-good time if she comes back. I zig-zag over to her and beg her to give us the shorts.
In the end it’s G who gets them off of her.
I am holding all of our collateral as we pull out of the parking area. Goober has decided that shorts and hat are not enough and turns in her tank top. She is driving all the way home in a bra.
And it is not a sports bra.
And Goober has some knockers.
In a final act of solidarity, Duckie flags us down and makes us stop our car (we are leading the caravan out). She jumps out and runs to the back of the Jeep, handing over her black tank top. She looks contrite.
“They were pissed at me for not giving anything up!”
I add it to the pile as G steers us onto the highway in the direction of Bodega Bay. We wave as their car swings off in a graceful arc away from us at a fork in the road and then there are only three of us. We know better than to believe that they will actually come back but the beer-buzz allows us to hold out some hope.
The road rolls on. Trees give way to coastline and breakers. Curves and salt air.
Bodega Bay is a long inhale. A sobering calm. A silencing and simple beauty.
The place we have rented has just what we need – no more and no less. A woodstove, a futon, the coziest of lofts, and a deck built right up over the water and looking out across the bay. Harbor seals play out to the far left as pelicans try to land on their shiny, slippery heads. Gulls catch dinner and drag unfortunate sea life to the rocky shore, ripping them into pieces and shaking their little gull heads wildly as they go. A large ray swims by just underneath us and we watch it’s geometrical form pass under the surface of the water, graceful wings skimming slightly and leaving parallel wakes.
We sit back in deck chairs with our feet up on the railing and listen to the distant sounds of buoys and the clanking of rigging on masts. The day is still bright and clear. The sun is starting to dip.
It sinks completely as we eat in famished silence at a Fish and Chip shack down the road. We watch it fall behind a row of trees as we lick the last bits of calimari, fried fish, clam strips and french fries from our fingertips. The last gulp of beer is swilled and swallowed and firewood is obtained before our return home.
Over the next two hours a lime is murdered, oversized shots of Patron are consumed and a one log fire warms our toes and lends a glow to the main room. We all nod off according to our own personal public-sleeping protocol acknowledging, finally, that Goober and Lani are not destined to return tonight.
It is only later that we learn that Lani, suffering from “dehydration” yacked into their cooler halfway home and then quietly passed out. Goober would later report that she woke up at 11:00pm asking if they were still going to drive out to see us.
And that, my friends, is what you call a champ.
Regardless, we are still only three when Sunday morning rolls around. G and I secure provisions (coffee! give me coffee!) and our trio sets sail for another round of Sticksville softball.
There’s a fire lighting up the team. An intensity that bodes well. We demolish our first opponents and head for the championship game. We’re well matched against a team with a bulletproof batting order and relatively airtight defense. Head to head the battle rages and by the sixth we are locked up at 6 even.
I will always contend that softball is a psychological game. Sure. You’ve got to be able to hit. And you’ve got to have great fundamentals. And a little talent never hurt anybody.
But if you get inside someone’s head. Or a whole team of heads for that matter. Then I assure you, there is nothing that you can’t do.
This game is all about the momentum shift. And the momentum shift is a near-tangible thing. This moment where the magnetic pull of optimism shifts. Where sheer force of will takes center stage. A mini-mob feeds inwardly and surges.
You can feel it.
It’s a push.
And so it was when we had two outs and had given up an easily retrievable 2 runs that I felt that uneasy force. A foul tip went up – and easily had ball for the catcher. And she dances underneath it. All she has to do is squeeze it. All she has to do is somehow keep it from hitting the dirt. A little baby pop up. Almost straight to her.
And the ball drops.
You’re standing in centerfield (or on third, or in right) and you’re wondering what just happened. And then the ground shifts. And you tilt. You feel it and you want to deny it but its already too late.
With two outs they score four more.
We go into our final at-bat with 6 runs to make up. 7 to win.
We’ve done this before, I’m thinking. We’ve done this a million times. And by virtue of sheer physics, one is required to continue to believe that momentum can always shift again.
And so, even with two outs and none across, I still believe that there is a way. That I can be the way. That I can be the spark. That I can cause the shift.
This is a head game, I think. And I’m about to win it.
I’ve got runners on second and third and the first pitch that I see looks good enough to me. With a steady top hand through the ball and careful rotation of the wrists I open up my hips and grind my back toe into the ground.
The ball soars. But I have hit it directly at their left fielder, who is out of this world.
Her eyes go up and my legs are pumping. I shouldn’t be watching the ball but I am. My mother would kill me.
Her eyes go up and then her knees buckle – visibly. She stutters under the ball as it rises and rips toward her. She goes down and gets up. She goes down again. The ball freezes her and she’s toast.
Rounding first I pick up the base coach who tells me I’m going to third. I’m skeptical but he’s right. As I round second the third base coach is waving me on. Out of the corner of my eye I can see that this will be a close one. I turn on the juice and come in hard and low, easily skimming underneath the too-high tag.
The dugout is wild. And in a moment sound returns to my world and I can hear them. I realize that I’ve put two across the plate and even better? I’ve spread hope like wild fire.
They believe. And they can feel it.
Fran steps into the batter’s box.
This won’t end the way you think it will. It won’t end the way you want it to. This isn’t Disney and I’m not telling you stories.
This is real-life and this is truth.
And the truth is that Fran flies out.
And the game is over.
And that’s it.
And let me tell you that it feels exactly that way. That juxtaposition of tension and disappointment. That bold willingness to believe in what seems completely out of reach tempered by the cold reality that, this time anyway, your faith wasn’t enough and your hope couldn’t put the trophy on your table.
The 25 minutes time afterward that you spend muttering “goddamit” and “FUCK!” and thinking about that moment in the top of the sixth when that tiny little pop-up hit the dirt. You see it all for what it was and it replays for you a million times in a row.
And then you know what?
You go to the river. You throw a football with 5 women that you love. You lay in a lawn chair and relive moments. You close your eyes and recline. You dip your head underwater where it’s quiet and murky. You laugh with your mouth wide open because your heart is on your sleeve and you’re in love.
Not with a trophy. Not with a championship.
You’re in love with a gang of strong-armed women. You’re lashed securely to your crew and they bolster you.
You’re in love with ladies who value scars over pedicures and muscles over mascara. Women who know you. Women who love you big and whole.
You’re in love with what a team can be.
But more than anything, you’re in love with who they encourage you to be. You’re in love with who they allow you to become.
You’re in love with them, most of all, because they show you how to love yourself.