I'm staring out the window of the Van Nuys FlyAway Bus that will take me on a flight to Austin to see Jerry for maybe the last time. Jerry had just finished telling me he was to sick to make the drive and that Joe will be be picking me up by himself.
Memories start flooding in about a game Joe and I played several years ago. In a life of having played over 500 softball games this one sticks with me while many of the others have melted away from my memory. If you are lucky, as you go through life you have memories like this to help you build that ladder with the rungs you will need to move above the tough times. I don't have any heroic memories, simple things are all I have. Sometimes that is enough, sometimes it isn't.
Joe picked me up and for the first time I was carpooling to my softball game. Joe expressed his worry over haven't not played for several months but he was excited to be playing again. For years now Joe and I have talked about our softball exploits but we had never played together due to geographic limitations. That was going to change tonight. He had moved his business from Palm Springs to Chatsworth and I'd asked him to play on my Santa Monica team.
This was our 1st game of the season and many changes had been made. As with any team in softball some people just don't show up and rarely do you know about it until game time. This game was no different, our 12 expected players dwindled to 10 by game time, and we had no SS. I put Joe in LF, confident in his abilities but worried about SS. I looked around at the team and realized I'd have to play a position I hadn't played in 5 years, and even then I wasn't very good at it. At 45 my arm was shot and over the last few years I just stuck myself at whatever position was vacate due to a non - show. It had been years since I'd done anything real noteworthy in the field. So with trepidation I took some infield ball and prepared for the worse.
The game didn't start out well. Joe misplayed two fairly easy plays in the field but we got of out the jam easily enough when I made one of better plays of my career. With 2nd and 3rd and two out a ball was hit deep in the hole that just eluded our 3rd baseman. I was force to bare hand deep in the hole and throw to 1st. Instead of my normal lofting throw that Mike Scoscia could have beaten out, this throw knifed through the heavy Santa Monica air like a MAC MTH-80 knife cutting a potato and nailed the runner by a 80 year old eyelash.
Still the team was uneasy with Joe's play in LF and several members asked me to move him to C. I resisted, because he was a friend, and I truly believed he was just rusty. When he slammed into a double play I winced and headed back to the outfield. The game went back and forth, I was playing the game of my life at SS while Joe kept making miscues in LF. After each inning my best friend Byron looks at me like I'm crazy for continuing to let Joe play LF. He shouldn't have had those thoughts, the same thing happened with him when he joined the team 15 years before and hadn't played for a while. Rust is a tough thing to shed in one game, especially when you are over 40. By the 6th inning we had a one run lead when we ran into big trouble.
We were staring at the base loaded with two out and their best hitter up. Knowing I could get a force at 2nd or 3rd I played as deep as I could. The batter hits a rocket that looks like it is headed for left field. At that point I didn't think I had a chance but I lept anyway and it might have been the best vertical I've ever pulled. While at full extension of my 5'8 frame my short left arm lifted to the sky with the glove playing loose in my hand the line drive was snagged. By the time I touched down I felt like I had conquered all evil in the land. I've played league softball for 25 years and that play, is the play I'll always remember.
By this time Joe had had a tough game all around. Several errors, several double plays, and was feeling miserable. I gave him some encouragement because I thought I could see some of the rust melting away but it may have simply been hopeful thinking.
Bottom of the 7th inning came and we still only had that one run lead. Two men on, two out. My stomach is turning, saying please don't hit it to Joe. And of course they do, a sinking line drive that was begging to drop and skip into the gap. Joe sprints for the ball, with each step his rusty armor falls about him until he looks like Jolting Joe and closes the gap just in time to snag the line drive about shin level. As he looks up, he continues to run into the infield with the game ball secured in his glove and the grin he wears would make Smiling Sammy Saito proud. Game Over