The Church League

It occurs to me that this post has nothing to do with the ostensible subject of this blog apart from being part of The 1976 Project. So it goes. Click through to read it if you want, or not. Up to you.

It’s a Friday night in the month of June in the year 1976. It’s one of those humid evenings that come in early summer, warm enough so that the air feels heavy, but not so hot that it won’t get clammy later. The sun is beginning to sink behind the barn, which is still abuzz with the sounds of milking cows, and Dad’s radio. Mother is guiding the riding lawn mower around, hoping to get done before the mosquitoes come out. I have just emerged from the house into this evening tableau, but I am not sticking around long. For it’s a Friday night in the month of June in the year 1976, and I am going to play softball.

I played organized baseball from the time I was nine years old. I persevered for five summers before deciding that my record of unbroken failure was telling me something.

Later, I played in the Church League. Games were on Friday nights, and it was all pretty informal: although somebody at the park-and-rec department made up the schedule, there were no officials present, and games were umpired by mutual agreement. Players could be of either gender and any age. There was no requirement that team members actually belong to the church for which they played, although the majority of players had some connection. And as you didn’t need any talent to play, I fit right in.

You might expect that a league made up of teams representing churches would be genteel, but you would be wrong. Church League games were hard-fought, and not always fought cleanly. The lack of impartial umpires led to some spectacular rhubarbs, which led to unchristian language, which led to hard feelings, which led to even dirtier rematches later in the summer. Although no game I played in ever degenerated into a brawl, it got close a couple of times.

My team won a few games and lost a few. One memorable night I got two hits in three at-bats, including a solid double over the shortstop’s head, which was the single greatest athletic accomplishment of my life. (Hitting the ball square and hard came as a complete shock to me; I had to remind myself to run to first.)

Listen: It’s a Friday night in the month of June in the year 1976. Less than 10 minutes from the farm, I tool into the lot at Twining Park, past the retired Korean War bomber that sits on a hill overlooking the ball diamonds and the tennis courts. In the far distance is a bandshell. Beyond the diamonds is a grassy playground with swingsets and monkey bars and such. A creek flows beyond the playground.

Our team is assembling behind the bleachers. Who plays where depends on who shows up. Because we have enough decent players on this particular night, I head out to right field, the traditional position of the not-very-good.

The lights on the field aren’t all that bright. They illuminate the dirt infield, mostly, and the outfield is bathed in shadow. And so the game is a stage play I watch from a darkened theater, a pool of light in the nighttime. I thump my hand into my glove and yell encouragement, which is all I can do to help the team. The chorus of chirruping insects from the creek bank behind is about as loud as the game chatter in front of me. The weight of the clammy night air grows. Summer is everywhere around me.

Outwardly I am focused on the game, but however dimly I could understand such a thing at the age of 16, inside I feel that I am where I should be and doing what I should be doing. The winning and losing will seem important in the moment. Only later will I realize that the outcome of the games is far down the list of reasons why they matter.

Games are limited to an hour, and the park closes right after ours is done, so there’s no lingering to savor the win or lament the loss. Instead, it’s back up to my car for the ride home. I start it up and turn on the radio, two actions but one motion, just as it will be many years into the future, far removed from a Friday night in the month of June in the year 1976.

One response

  1. These are my favorite stories. Makes me feel like I was there.

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