Nothing Up My Sleeve
The Knoxville Angels
I’ve written in the past couple weeks about what it was like to umpire softball games in the city of Galesburg. Those who knew me in high school and my first couple years of college might have been surprised to read that I was an umpire. See, I used to hate umpires.
Back in the middle part of the 70’s, Orange Chapel, a small rural church south of Knoxville, boasted a softball team that took on any and all comers. They went to church together, lived relatively close to each other, and played together almost every Sunday, so they were pretty good. They put out a challenge to all other churches in the area to put together softball teams to challenge them.
Thus was born the Knoxville Church League.
I was a member of the United Methodist Church in Knoxville and we put together a rag tag team of misfits that would have given the Bad News Bears a run for their money as the worst team ever assembled. Orange Chapel kicked our butts every time we played them.
It was the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school that I really became interested in playing softball. Back then, Knoxville High School didn’t have a baseball program, and to play hardball in the Galesburg Leagues, you had to have a certain name (and Gallagher wasn’t one of them). Fast pitch softball, therefore, was the closest thing we could find.
That summer, I started asking about the church softball team. No one seemed to know anything about it, one of the Litchfield boys (I don’t remember which one) was supposed to be the manager. I sought him out and asked him and he told me that he really didn’t want to be the manager, then asked if I’d be interested in managing since I was so interested in playing.
That’s how I became the manager of our church softball team.
The next Sunday, during announcements during the church service, I stood and announced that we’d hold our first practice that afternoon in preparation of our first game which was two weeks away.
Three people showed up for practice. We were in trouble.
There was no rule that said that players had to be a member of the church, so I went about recruiting my friends to play.
Steve Hickerson, Bob Borden, Doug Albright, and Jeff Ring all showed up for our next practice. Before long, Bob had recruited a couple of guys he met at a summer college camp. Junior Marquith and Rick Carlson came along and before long, we had a real team.
We didn’t have uniforms or anything, but by golly we had a team.
The league itself had four teams during out first year: Orange Chapel, us, Williamsfield, and Corpus Christi (or Costa as most people called them) from Galesburg. Before the demise of the league we would add teams from Fairview and Peoria.
Corpus Christi was the most fun to play. They were very good and had a pitcher, Gene Sullivan, who was the only pitcher in the league who could actually throw like he was supposed to (with a windmill windup). Jim Glasnovich was their manager and Galesburg attorney Bill Butts played first base for them most of the time. Dean Betts is the other name I remember, but only because it seemed like he hit a home run off of me any time I pitched.
Williamsfield was sometimes good, sometimes not. Bobby Anderson, who was a longtime high school coach in town, may have been their manager. He played for the team, but I don’t remember if he was the guy in charge or not. All I know is that when he was behind the plate, you did NOT attempt to steal second base.
Orange Chapel was our biggest rival, mainly because they lived so close to us. Ray Nelson was their manager, and they had a lot of Knoxville people on their team as well. Joe Markley was their best hitter and his father, Turner Markley, was their best pitcher (and always had a smile on his face).
By the time the second year of the league rolled around, our team bore little resemblance to our church at all. Most of the players were either friends or friends of friends. We called ourselves the Knoxville Angels because of the Church League affliation. We played our home games in the corner of the PE field at the high school, a section we affectionately named “Heaven – Home of the Angels.”
Steve Hickerson’s grandfather was Gale Ward, who ran the biggest sporting goods store in the area, so he managed to get us a good deal on light blue uniforms with red lettering. We were set.
Steve did most of our catching. Third base was manned by Junior Marquith. Our shortstop was Doug Albright and his partner at second base was usually Rick Carlson. Bob Borden played first base. In the outfield, Harold Saline (who had been my coach in little league) was an absolutely crazy player who caught anything hit within a hundred yards of him. Jeff Ring patrolled centerfield and whoever we could find would play right field. Sometimes it was Marcos Ferrer, sometimes Randy Kniss, Mark Duckwiler, or Randy Hauer, and sometimes it was actually someone who went to our church. I would pitch one game and trade places with someone else on the team who would pitch the second game.
Every Sunday we’d play a double header against another team in the league. We were good enough to challenge for the league championship each year (usually Corpus Christi would win it). At the end of the season, we’d have a double elimination tournament and two years in a row, we took second place (after having to play three or four games in a row in one day).
We all loved playing softball so much that we’d go out of our way to find other teams to play. The Salvation Army in Galesburg had a team and we’d play them every once in a while. Abingdon and Lewistown both had fast pitch teams and a couple times a season, we’d play them as well. Heck, there was once we played a girls’ team from a church in Galesburg just for fun (we won).
There was just one incident that marred our success. As I mentioned, we had trouble finding players when we first started, so I began recruiting anywhere and everywhere I could. There were a couple of guys who were attending classes at Knox during the summer who were interested in playing and we were glad to have them. The only thing was (and it didn’t matter one iota to any of us on the team), they were black.
Word got around Knoxville that we had black players on our team and the mayor of Knoxville actually showed up on my doorstep to tell me that “we don’t want no n*****s wearin’ Knoxville uniforms!”
He never explained who “we” were so I suggested that His Honor take a flying leap. The two guys I recruited stayed.
One of the teams from Peoria was sponsored by S&K Chevrolet. They had a revolving door for players and we never knew who they were going to bring to town, but we knew they’d probably be really good.
On one trip to Knoxville, they brought a pitcher who threw the ball faster than anyone we’d ever seen. He was left handed and he cranked that ball underhanded as fast as what most of us could throw overhanded. Harold Saline was the only hitter we had that could hope to get a hit off of him.
I think I struck out my on my first trip to the plate. I was a decent hitter, but there was no way I could get around on this guy. My second at bat, I batted left handed. I figured if nothing else, I’d drag bunt and have a chance at getting on.
I figured right. I bunted, he fielded the ball, then threw it over the fence trying to get me at first. I signaled for the next batter to bunt as well. This time the pitcher didn’t field the ball cleanly and I went to third. The next batter also bunted and the pitcher made his third error in as many plays. He could throw the ball underhand, but he didn’t have a prayer of fielding the ball or throwing someone out at first.
I kept signaling for the bunt and our batters kept bunting the ball right back to him. He kept trying to field the ball and screwing it up. Even when their first and third basemen came in and played almost right next to the pitcher, trying to field for him, he’d bump into them or they wouldn’t be able to field the ball either. We scored a bunch of runs without ever hitting the ball out of the infield.
Other than the time I spent with certain girls in high school and college, I don’t think that I can find any memories that are more precious to me than those spent playing softball.
Nothing Up My Sleeve
Too Old, huh?
Last week I wrote about playing softball in high school and college. I was a pretty decent player and took every opportunity I could to remind those around me that I had once been good.
Then about ten years ago, a friend of mine recruited me to play slow pitch softball in the Galesburg Fall League.
I should have realized at the time that more than twenty years had passed between the last time I had picked up a softball and this time. But as a male member of our species, I have a chemical imbalance in my brain that makes males think that at age 42, you can still do the same things you did at 22 and be no worse the wear.
By the time you get to 52, where I am now, your brain is able to override these silly thoughts, not so much because of logic, but more or less because of self preservation. Thank God for that.
Since the chemical imbalance was doing its thing and shutting off all the parts of the brain that were shouting “NO!!!!” I agreed to play for the team sponsored by Pizza Hut.
This was a little weird because I was working as a part time delivery driver for Papa John’s at the time (I was teaching full time). I had worked for Pizza Hut for five years and was still friends with everyone there, so I donned my Pizza Hut shirt, my Papa John’s hat, and headed for the diamond.
Our team was a ragtag bunch of over the hill guys, all suffering from the same chemical imbalance that was negating the electrical synapses in our brains that were pleading with us, “DON’T DO THIS!”
My first real indication that I should rethink the decision to play was when I pulled out my old softball glove. It was an Andre Dawson model. Andre had already been retired for two years by this time, but the chemical imbalance worked overtime to block any rational thoughts regarding the age of my glove.
As we warmed up playing catch on the sidelines, my glove, which had already emitted a mushroom cloud of dust that was 20 years old the first time the ball hit it, exploded. All those little leather strips that held it together just disintegrated like something from The Mummy.
While my real brain was yelling, “That could be your body!!!” the chemical imbalance told me to go borrow someone else’s glove.
Talk about foreshadowing!
The manager of our team asked me what position I wanted to play. I’d always pitched, so that’s what I told him. I figured somewhere in the back of my mind that it would be a safe position where I wouldn’t have to do a lot of running or catching.
As a team, I don’t think we had a real concept of what softball was supposed to be about. Most of my teammates didn’t realize that if you caught the ball on the fly, and you did that three times, not even in a row, you could go sit down for a while on the nice little benches over on the side of the field. Most of my fielders would let the ball drop because it was easier to go over and pick it up when it stopped rolling than it was to catch it while it was still moving.
We finally got to bat, but that didn’t last very long since the other team knew about that three out thing.
I found out that if I wanted to go sit down, I better learn how to strike out batters. Unfortunately, that’s not as easy as it sounds since you’re lobbing the ball at the plate on a 12 foot arch.
The second inning didn’t last as long as the first because some merciful soul put in a rule in Fall League baseball that said that after a team had hit three homeruns, any other homeruns would count as outs.
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
It finally got my turn to bat. I was already winded from having to throw so damn many pitches, but I grabbed a bat and headed for the plate. I’d always played fast pitch softball and had never tried to hit one of those arching pitches.
Let me tell you…. That ball looks like it’s a DeSoto coming in so slow. I swung at the first pitch, dislocated at least four vertebrae, and missed. I’m not sure how I missed something that size, but then again, the chemical imbalance was working its magic.
I slammed the second pitch. I sent a scorching ground ball down to the third baseman. That ball must have bounced 34 or 35 times getting down to him.
Meanwhile, the chemical imbalance told me to run. I had to go to first base.
And that’s the first time that the real part of my brain shouted loud enough for me to hear. “ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?” it was asking.
Meanwhile, the third baseman was busy trying to pick up the ball. He picked it up, dropped it, picked it up again, dropped it again, then kicked it as he went after it. The shortstop then went to help, kicked it back to the third baseman who then picked it up and fired it to first to nip me by about twenty feet.
Half way down to first, my legs and knees staged a total revolt and refused to participate further in this silly experiment. Somehow, they knew what my brain was refusing to recognize, mainly the fact that I was WAY over the hill.
My second at bat of the night went a little better. I guess “better” is a relative term depending on how you’re looking at it. I hit the ball again and this time, it made it to the outfield. I jogged to first, proud of myself that I’d gotten a base hit.
It was right about that moment that my real brain kicked in again to remind me that I now had to run the bases.
The next batter hit the ball to the shortstop who made a nice play on it. I was running (or what could almost pass as running) to second when he turned to fire the ball to the second baseman. Suddenly I realized that they were going to throw me out at second!
Enter Mr. Chemical Imbalance again. I started running harder, anticipating the need to slide. I could hear my third base coach yelling, “NO! DON’T SLIDE!” but by now, my real brain had given up completely on trying to control my body.
The ball went over the second baseman’s head.
I did a pop-up slide.
For those of you who don’t know what a pop up slide is, let me explain. When you start to slide into a base, the right leg extends straight while the left leg curls under you with the shin acting as sort of a brake. As soon as the right foot comes in contact with something solid like a base, the left leg pushes up and in one smooth motion you pop up to a standing position. Done right, it’s a thing of beauty.
I did it right. I’m not sure how, but I did the most beautiful popup slide of my life. I did, however, know why I had done it. Since the ball had been thrown into right field, I needed to be on my way to third base. Therefore, a popup slide would have put me back on my feet so I could start heading that way. It was just good baseball instincts.
Three steps into my trek to third base, my entire body just gave out. Just stopped, all at once. There was no warning, no signs, no nothing. I just fell, face first, into the dirt between second and third.
This meant that I was not on a base and I could be tagged out. Those stupid instincts kicked in again, and I scrambled on my belly back to second base.
At second base, I came face to feet with the guy who had hit the ball. He’d seen the ball go over the second baseman’s head, seen me start off for third, so he headed for second which was where he was now perched.
Something in my brain seemed to remember a rule against two people from the same batting team standing on the same base. Technically, I wasn’t standing, but I didn’t think that the umpire would cut me a lot of slack for this small detail, so I got up and urged myself to third.
Just as I got to third, the ball sailed over the third baseman’s head, but by this time, I wasn’t going anywhere. If the next batter hit a homerun, either they were going to have to wait for a long time for me to catch my breath, or they were going to have to load me onto someone’s shoulders to be carried home.
I didn’t bat anymore during that game. The mercy rule finally kicked in because we were getting the holy snot kicked out of us. I drove home a very tired semi-young man.
Somebody should have warned me about the next morning.
When I woke up, nothing worked. My legs wouldn’t move, my arms were in extreme pain, my back was on fire…. Heck even my eyelashes were hurting.
Somehow I managed to get out of bed, grab a long hot shower and head for school. It was a 45 minute trip to school so my muscles had plenty of time to atrophy. My students that day didn’t know why their teacher was acting like he’d just been run over by a train, and I wasn’t going to tell them either.
My real brain kept going, “Tsk, tsk. I told you so!” Mr. Chemical Imbalance was hiding somewhere in the recesses of my brain, not saying a word.
Of course, the following week when it was time to play ball again, Mr. Chemical Imbalance was right back at the forefront of my brain, urging me on for another week. And the week after. And the week after that.
When the next year rolled around, my real brain was able to make itself heard when they called to see if I wanted to play in Fall League again.
If it hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t have been around still to write this column.