Slave of Softball
The day a sportswriter snapped
by Jeff Mortimer
Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear--well, one of them, anyway--when smoke-filled rooms and hot lead were the stuff of which newspapers were made ...
For a couple of summers in the early 1970s I was the softball guy at the Ann Arbor News. This didn't entail going to any games, of which there were dozens every night, but arriving at the building at midnight, collecting the score sheets that had been stuffed through the mail slot--they usually overflowed the receptacle and drifted down the basement stairs like a summer snowstorm--and trudging up to my desk on the third floor to organize them by leagues, record the results, update the standings, and write a roundup for each league, so they would be ready to go when the copy editor arrived at 6:30 a.m.
The routine varied little from one night to the next, except when a glorious soaking rain wiped out the schedule and I could spend my shift reading and listening to the radio. It would have been a tedious task even under ideal conditions, and these were anything but. A significant percentage of the score sheets reeked of beer, or didn't identify the league or the teams, or had no first names or (even worse) only nicknames, or were rendered illegible from being used, apparently, as coasters.
I didn't understand any of this. I didn't drink much myself in those days, and I had yet to become a participant in the sport, which sometimes seemed to me to be little more than a prelude to celebratory or consolatory post-game group rehydration with adult beverages.
I'm not sure what pushed me over the edge that night. Maybe the stench finally got to me. Maybe it was one of the scrawled comments excoriating me for my inability to get all the scores right or the standings correct. I had answered a call at home earlier that evening from some indignant and well-lubricated coach wanting to know if
I were the clearly prejudiced, transparently incompetent so-and-so that the newspaper had inflicted on the softball community.
Whatever the specific provocation, the consequence was that I burned the score sheets, every last one of them, and flushed the ashes down the toilet in the men's room. I dispatched them individually, savoring the sight of the consuming flame like a religious ritual, until it got so close to my fingers that I had to drop the page into my ashtray. I even dried out the wet ones to prepare them for their fate.
What amazes me, in retrospect, is that no one else showed up during this process. Even at that hour, the newsroom was rarely empty, and there was also a cheerful and rather loquacious fellow named Bill who cleaned the building overnight. Perhaps he was working a different floor, or had stopped by his locker to partake of the refreshments he stored there, which were arguably the source of his perky disposition.
But no one saw me. I finished my work and left a note for Wayne DeNeff, the sports editor, saying that--mysteriously, unfathomably, and to my considerable bewilderment--not a single score sheet had been dropped off that night. It wasn't much of an explanation, but it was all I could think of.
Among his many virtues, Wayne was a devout man, so maybe he thought it was some kind of miracle. The fact that he bought my story, to my enormous relief, certainly was.
[Originally published in June, 2013.]