On my bike rides this spring, I pedaled past Mitchell Field and Riverside Park. At Mitchell, four of the six softball fields I played on for years with the Observer’s O Team have been plowed under. At Riverside, where I first played softball after moving from Detroit to Ann Arbor in 1993, the outfield is now patrolled mainly by geese. One day, I was momentarily excited to see a half-dozen young men and women on the diamond there–until I realized they were playing kickball. To a softball player, that’s like using the DIA to display crayon art.
At Mitchell, no softball is being played this summer at all. U-M is building a storage and restroom facility there, along with a new artificial turf field for flag football and soccer and ultimate and rugby and who knows what else they play these days.
I wonder where they put all the blood Jeff Holden left on the infields. Jeff, the O Team’s star shortstop, is a prodigious hitter and reckless base runner who ranges all over the field on defense. He doesn’t consider it a real evening of softball unless his legs are bleeding after the game due to diving for grounders or sliding into bases.
Jeff’s fifty-four now and still plays on his men’s slow-pitch team, but this year he couldn’t find more than one woman willing to commit to playing along with the remaining geriatric men on the O Team. His characteristically succinct explanation: “No one under forty plays ball anymore.”
And so, four years after my last season, the O Team is gone, just like the fields we played on. But we had a nice run. Certainly we had the best writers in the league–and could have won annually if they gave out trophies for spelling and grammar. But some years we played ball surprisingly well too. Ami Walsh, a fine author and former tennis pro, swung the bat like a racket and excelled at placing shots down either baseline. Novelist Valerie Laken played second base with almost as much verve and gutsy determination as her paragraphs. Science writer Ken Garber demonstrated the chemistry of a sweet left-handed stroke. Observer proofreader Bob Wischmeyer batted over .500 well into his seventies. And editor John Hilton contributed his catchy cheer: “Excellent fielding, excellent prose!”
One magical summer we were a juggernaut, undefeated despite several wrenched backs, bum legs, and one player, Observer contributor Mary Jean Babic, who lugged a fetus around the bases. On the ball the team members autographed at the end of the year and gave to their manager (me), she memorably wrote: “Old, injured, pregnant–and 10-0.”
These days, ball diamonds sit empty most of the summer. Try to find a playground now where neighborhood kids are bringing their mitts and bats to play ball. At parks that used to host frequent softball games, like Allmendinger and Virginia, it’s rare to see anyone swinging a bat anymore.
When Ann Arbor first organized a slow-pitch league in 1969, it was “a happening,” recalls Rec & Ed honcho Larry Dishman, who umpired games that year. The sport embodied the zeitgeist of the counterculture, expropriating the National Pastime from the elite few and making it a dusty ragtag democracy.
Slow-pitch was a rebellion of sorts against the difficult game popular on diamonds in the Fifties: fast-pitch softball (which my dad and brother-in-law both played). By comparison, virtually anyone could hit a huge ball thrown in a lazy arc. Even stoners could play–or at least have a lot of laughs trying.
Nearly waist-length hair under my baseball cap, I organized the “People’s Softball League” in Detroit. For years I played on the Rainbows and wore their uniform of tie-dye shirts. Our league was part ball, part child care collective, part traveling potluck. Often, when it was a player’s turn to bat, we had to wait until he or she ran in from kid-watching duty on the playground.
As kids ourselves we’d played pickup games on sandlots or streets. For us, slow-pitch was yet another way to reconnect with our Inner Child, even after we had our own Outer Children. Not that we really needed another excuse not to grow up.
The Baby Boom reached its demographic acme in 1957. Slow-pitch peaked in Ann Arbor in 1985, when the average Boomer was approaching thirty. That year, Rec & Ed counted 450 slow-pitch teams and 6,300 players. Just about every other able-bodied adult in Ann Arbor must have played softball that summer. Then, like us Boomers, the game began a long, steady decline.
This year there are only sixteen teams in the Michigan Classics league, exiled from Mitchell to Elbel Field. Co-director AJ Haduch says he expects other teams to return next year to the remaining pair of diamonds at Mitchell–but even that would be a far cry from a decade ago, when those diamonds hosted up to twelve games a night, five nights a week.
Yet slow-pitch hasn’t entirely died; geez, the Rolling Stones are still playing, aren’t they? You just stop sliding once you reach fifty: way too painful, and a good way to get a hip replacement. You can ask for a “designated runner” if you show your AARP card–but you’d better have someone on the bench who’s not a senior citizen.
Jeff Holden was exaggerating a little: a few folks under forty play slow-pitch. The U-M, Haduch says, had eighty intramural softball teams this year. But that’s just a fraction of the 330 teams playing flag football–and probably another few thousand who like the popular new “extreme” sport of walking or bicycling while texting.
Dishman is proud Ann Arbor still has slow-pitch, even though Rec & Ed is down to 140 or so teams, about a third of its 1985 peak. (Ypsilanti Township, he notes, no longer has any softball at all.) He thinks that’s because Ann Arbor has remained true to the original slow-pitch spirit. When in recent years the American Softball Association instituted rules to make the game more athletic–adding five feet to the distance between bases, going to three balls for walks and two strikes for strikeouts, using a livelier ball, and even allowing base stealing (!)–Rec & Ed players voted them down. You can see pro softball on TV now, but we Boomers want to keep it a game for anyone who can still–wince! grunt!–swing a bat and hobble around the bases.
Bob Dylan wished we could stay forever young. Those geezers still playing softball are trying their best to do that. A heart attack trying to stretch a single into a double is not the worst way to go.