Friday, November 20, 2009

Mr. Mid-November


“That’ll be $8.42.  Credit or Debit?”

In a world of steroids and supplements, the needle, The Cream and The Clear, aren’t you surprised and relieved to know that some finely tuned athletes can prepare themselves to tackle greatness for less than a ten spot?

A six-pack of Coors Light and a bag of ice.  That’s all I need.

It’s the next-to-last game of the 2009 Fall Softball Season at Interstate Park in Little Rock, Arkansas, and my team, Team Oinkx, is scheduled to play at 8:30 against a team of youngsters named Give It a Yankee.  That might be a clever name in a kickball league, but in lower level softball, it just makes them seem like a bunch of tools. 

Anyway, Give It a Yankee is undefeated, untied, and untested.  They have demolished every single team they have played this year, including Team Oinkx in two previous meetings.  15-0 and 19-2.  There is a run-rule in effect for this league, and Give It a Yankee has run-ruled their opponent in nearly every game this season.  And looked good doing it.  They are the sharpest outfitted team out there.  Old (but not too old) high school baseball pants.  Old (but not too old) Legion pants.  Old (or, more aptly, out of eligibility) Razorback red pinstripe pants. 

Yes, you read that correctly.  Give It a Yankee boasts a former Hog.  Very newly former, I might add.  College World Series in June.  Bottom level beer league softball in September.  Dave Van Horn would certainly well up with pride at the news.

Anyway, it’s 8:30.  And it’s cold.  There had been talk of simply not showing up to play.  The last team to play Give It a Yankee had walked off the field in the middle of an inning, trailing by more than three touchdowns.  The fate of Team Oinkx isn’t any more promising, and Hooters is warm and has cold beer and hot wings.  And other things. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I voted for Hooters, by the way. 

I am voted down.  Team Oinkx will honorably fall on its sword.  Walk into the Coliseum with head held high.  But at least we’ll do it with a buzz. 


Warming up for me is a pretty simple process.  The way I see it, at 28 and unathletic, my joints and muscles are roughly 1/3 through a collision course with rigor mortis that no amount of stretching can derail.  If injury is in my future tonight, stretching will not prevent it, but I at least need to get the blood pumping.  I stretch my quads.  My hamstrings.  Then run high knees to the fence,  and butt-kicks back. 

Our coach is out of town on business, so we don’t even have balls to warm up with.  We have two game balls, and two bats.   After somebody fetches a couple of spare softballs from their car, I toss a little with Terry, our left fielder and one of our best athletes.  Once our arms are warm, we head to the dugout for a pregame beer to discuss strategy. 

The goal tonight is simple:  limit their extra bases due to throwing errors.  Out opponents  are easily the fastest team in the league, and run the bases aggressively.  Consecutives base hits up the middle for Team Oinkx will typically result in runners on first and second.  Those same hits for Give It a Yankee can easily end up as a run scored and a runner on second due to their speed and aggressive baserunning.  We must get the ball in quickly and refuse to engage in futile efforts to gun their runners down. 

The umpire comes over and explains to us that the batter gets one bat and the player on-deck gets two bats, and only those three bats may be outside the dugout.  He says this very sternly, as if he is somehow privy to our plans to gallivant around the infield with multiple bats in each hand.  Nobody bothers to tell him we have only two bats.  It would have ruined his impassioned explanation of a critical rule. 

8:30.  Finally.  Batter up.  Let’s get this debacle over with.


The game starts off slow, and Team Oinkx actually leads after one inning, 1-0.   There is no excitement.  Encouragement, yes, but certainly no hope.  We led after the first inning in our last meeting as well, and that one ended badly.  All there is to do is to keep swinging on offense and keep catching the ball on defense. 

My first at bat is a weak line drive to shortstop off the handle of the bat.  I hate this pitcher.  He throws high and inside, and I am not a pull hitter.  Not pleased. 

Give It a Yankee take the lead over the next couple of innings, but do not take control of the game.  There are no dropped balls in the outfield enabling them to clear the bases.  Our right fielder Jeremy catches numerous balls that would drop against any other team, including a spectacular diving catch that turns a two-run inside-the-park-home run into an out.  The infield is playing solid, too.  No booted balls.  No errant or unnecessary throws. 

We keep catching the ball, but Team Oinkx just cannot seem to score.  Getting runners on is easy enough, but getting them across the plate is exceedingly difficult.  We hit into no fewer than three double plays, and their shortstop gobbles up everything in sight. 

Finally, in the top half of the sixth inning, after clawing to within one run at 6-5, the Oinkx bats wake up for good.  Rex, our EH, blisters a ball right down the line.  Steve, our left-centerfielder places a ball with precision in a soft part of their defense.  And  I finally get a hit, a well-hit single up the middle, but nothing to write home about. 

As I’m standing on first, I notice that the umpire is looking at the bat.  I am befuddled.  Did I sling it?  I don’t think so.  Is there even a rule against that anyway?  What is going on?  Finally, I realize that the catcher has asked the umpire to check the bat TO MAKE SURE IT’S LEGAL.  Really? Not sure what was so impressive about my routine single up the middle, but I’ll take it as a compliment. 

The ump determines my bat is legal, and suddenly we are excited and encouraged and just plain pissed off.  I make it to second on a hit, and after another hit, I am running full steam for third base.  My buddy Marc, the acting third base coach, is waving me home. 

“Go four!  Go four!  But you damn well better GO if you’re going!”

I hit the bag at third and start to turn for home, but momentum and inertia and every other law of physics apparently dictate at this point that my turn be a little wider than normal.  Like, honestly, probably the widest turn anybody has ever made rounding third base.  So wide, in fact, that I run into Marc.  I feel like one of the outer planets at the far end of their orbit, and when my legs are finally completely back under me I am halfway to home plate and easily fifteen feet off the base path.  I beat the throw, however, and when we get our third out, we have put five runs up and lead 10-6. 

Give It a Yankee get two in the bottom half of the sixth, and with one inning to go we hold a 10-8 lead.  We are guaranteed not to get run-ruled.  We are guaranteed to get our complete hour in.  But now we are concerned with winning.  Our opponents are visibly tense.  They haven’t trailed this late in a game all season.  Their voices strain as they shout encouragement to each other.  They never should have had the umpire check that bat.  They might as well have held up a sign reading “Rattled”. 

Amazingly, Team Oinkx has another monster inning in the top of the seventh.  We get men on base early, before registering outs, and the pressure that this puts on their defense is palpable.  I get my best hit of the season after I finally figure out how to wait for their pitcher to throw a pitch outside.  I get the fat part of the bat squarely on the ball, and experience that “hum” of catching one flush.  It rockets off the barrel, and out of the corner of my eye I can see the left fielder sprinting backwards as I run to first.  A stand up double for a slow fellow like me feels great.  Our right-centerfielder Dillon follows me up with another shot and I get to cross the plate once more.  After the dust settles, we have put five more runs up and lead 15-8 going into the last half of the final inning.  Could this really be happening?

Give It a Yankee are not going down without a fight, and unleash a barrage of hard-hit balls back up the middle in their last half inning.  We only need three outs, though.  There’s a fly ball to right.   One down.  Who cares if a runner advances.  No bad throws!

More balls up the middle.  They are moving station to station now.  Scoring when it’s available, but running the bases cautiously.  Keeping them full and awaiting a big hit.  There’s another fly ball.  Two out.  We just need one more. 

With the meat of their order coming up, one of their players hits a shot into left field and instinctively goes for two.  Terry, in left field, makes a break on it and cuts it off efficiently, getting it to Marc, the cutoff man, who is preparing to throw in front of the lead runner.  Standing on second, I see the batter round second, and inexplicably keep going.  He let himself get way too far off the bag.  I yell to Marc “TWO! TWO!” and he wheels around to find the runner dead-to-rights. 

Marc plays the situation perfectly and charges the frozen runner, forcing him to commit to a base.  He chooses to dive back toward second base and Marc fires a perfect throw to me.  I catch it cleanly and snap my glove down in front of the base just as the Yankee’s head slides into it.  The leather of my mitt right on the button of his ballcap.  There is little doubt about this one, but just to make sure, I inform him.  “You’re OUT!”

We’ve done it.  15-11.  There is little celebration.  Even less trash talking.  The “good game line” after the game is brief, but extremely satisfying.  We beat an undefeated team.  A team that managed to ooze arrogance and inject tension into a league designed for recreation.  After embarrassing every team out there, Give It a Yankee finally gets a taste of what it’s been dishing out, and my team facilitated it.  What an incredibly great feeling.

All of that for $8.42.  What a return on investment.


Friday, November 6, 2009

Play’s at first, infield.

I feel good about this one.

Arkansas hosts the South Carolina Gamecocks Saturday, and though it happens rarely, I already have a feeling how this one is going to go.  South Carolina is beaten up, coming off a loss, and are facing their second consecutive road game against an SEC opponent in a “must-win” game scenario. 

Arkansas found itself in this exact scenario when it traveled to Oxford to play Ole Miss, and we all know how that worked out. 

If things play out the way I think they should, Arkansas will take advantage of the suspension of FS Chris Culliver and pick on whoever is playing in his place.  If Mallett is able to get the ball to Joe Adams over the middle of the field, and Michael Smith can get going early, either Greg Childs or Jarius Wright could have a field day on deep passes out of play action.

In every game played at Razorback Stadium this season, the Hogs have played well to start the game.  Even in the loss to Georgia, Arkansas blazed to an early 21-10 lead in the first quarter.  If the Razorbacks play well early on Saturday, it will be interesting to see just how much fight South Carolina has.  Beat up, on the road, and with an offense that has struggled to score points, I could see the Gamecocks folding if things go south for them early in the game. 


In other football news, the Battle of the Ravine will also be played on Saturday between the Tigers of Ouachita Baptist University  (B.A. ‘03) and the Reddies of Henderson State University.  One of the most unique rivalries in college football, and one I’ve had the pleasure of attending several times.

There may be another rivalry in which the visiting team’s empty stadium is visible from the attendants of the game, but I’m unaware of one. 

There may be another rivalry where going “on the road” to face an opponent is actually done after dressing for the game,  but I’m not aware of one.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Battle of the Ravine, Ouachita Baptist and Henderson State are two small universities located in small Arkadelphia, Arkansas (population 10,000).  The schools are separated by a small ravine, a narrow state highway, and the chasm of state funding.  They don’t always hold true to form, but the stereotypes you might draw upon are there.  Ouachita Baptist is smaller, private, and for its part plays well the role of snooty elitist.  To an extent.  Henderson State is larger, public, and seems to naturally play the role of Joe Sixpack in contrast to OBU’s Bible Thumpers.  To an extent.  The difference is that in a town of 10,000, you’re forced to share things with each other.  Like Wal-Mart.  And Brookshire’s.  And even church.  USC and UCLA this is not.  There’s just not enough room for hate.

Anyway, if you ever find yourself in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, do yourself a favor and drive through both campuses.  It won’t take long, as they are across the street from each other.  Tour Henderson first, and then make your way over to Ouachita.  You might think both schools seem exactly the same.  You might think they seem totally different.  And what’s unique about Arkadelphia, and Ouachita and Henderson, is that you’re absolutely right either way. 


Hopefully next week I’ll have the time to write a nice, well reasoned piece about SEC football, with abundant research and thoroughly fleshed out theories and zany, entertaining opinions.  That’s what I was shooting for this week, but four softball games in four days was just too much.  After four consecutive days of “Where do I throw it if it comes to me?”, all creative energy is shot. 

Paid off, too.  I never threw it to the wrong person.

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