I looked up from under the rim of my Washington Nationals baseball cap, a cheaply made one with a flimsy brim and mesh skull. The ball fell to the dirt behind me. I’d hit a foul.
I hit another. Strike two.
Okay, deep breath. This was it. There were two runners on base, but this next hit mattered mostly because we were nearly halfway through the season and my own foot had yet to rest on one. The ball left the pitcher’s fingertips in that effortless-seeming, underhanded way softballs are thrown. It looked a little low.
I can swing at it if I just dip my knees a little lower, right? Should I swing?
Time and gravity soon made up my mind for me: the ball fell neatly into the catcher’s mitt.
“Striiiiike three,” the ump said.
I walked into the “dugout,” a bench behind a gated fence, with my head down. “Sorry, guys,” I told my team.
The most athletic guy on our team walked toward me. Uh-oh. I’m in trouble.
“Oh nah, that was a bullshit call,” he said.
I looked at him, with his Nike athletic shorts and knee-high socks and Mizuno cleats. He was handsome, in that generic way I’d conditioned myself not to be attracted to because guys like him never asked me out in high school. He was, quite simply, a bro. I had just struck out, and here he was, offering me the universal gesture of Bro-Ness: the fist bump. I did not know how to respond. He was not one of my people. I wasn’t one of his. Why was he talking to me? And actually being nice to me?
It started in elementary school.
I was a little Italian-American girl; they were the descendants of Vikings and Swedes. They were Johnsons, Nelsons, Olsons. My name was the only one on the roster that ended in a vowel. They were tall, blond, and fair-skinned. I was short and dark-haired. Whereas they had legs and muscles and chests, the only parts of me that had ventured into puberty were the dark hairs on my legs and face — serious, bushy Brooke Shields eyebrows that hadn’t yet met a tweezer or a stylist.
We played on an all-girls elementary and middle school softpitch softball team near the shores of Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota in the late ’90s. My teammates were all hitting line drives while I was striking out. When I got up to bat, the parents and coaches cheered just a little louder, a well-meaning gesture of support that smacked of passive condescension, even to a grade-schooler. When my bat did make contact, the ball was usually caught quickly; I didn’t have the strength or stature to hammer it home. I remember frustrated backyard games of catch with my dad, when I’d throw down my glove after I just couldn’t catch the ball for the twentieth time.
And the cutest boy in my fifth-grade class knew all about it. “Kasey tells me you can’t really hit the ball,” he said to me one day, over Dunkaroos and goldfish crackers at snack break. Kasey was his “girlfriend.” She was one of the popular girls, with a pretty, fair-skinned face, strawberry blonde hair, and shoulders like an amateur linebacker. She usually hit home runs.
I heard similar rumblings on the way to my locker, things I wasn’t meant to hear. “Amanda struck out like three times last night. I wish we had won that game.”
They say that participating in sports builds character, but all through elementary school, the softball team took a Louisville Slugger to mine. When I was eleven, I hung up my bat and glove – forever, I thought.
But, years later, I would wonder if it was possible to build that character back up.
At 27, I did what would have once been unthinkable to me: I joined a co-recreational adult softball team.
I wasn’t playing softball just anywhere, either. I was playing in Washington, D.C., where policy analysts and lawyers and journalists play the sport on the National Mall the way Wall Street tycoons and politicians take to the golf course and the yacht club. I’d heard stories of low-level staffers who could play great shortstop getting promotions, ingratiating themselves with coworkers and bosses who needed another strong glove to keep the firm’s softball team competitive. I knew that Capitol Hill and federal agency interns sometimes left the office in the afternoon once a weekday in the spring and summer, tasked with reserving prime real estate on the precious, National Park Service-managed grounds for their teams.
Scarred by my childhood softball failures, I had always viewed adult co-rec sports as a subculture of bros and blowhards. It was too late for me to join Kasey and the fifth-grade softball superstars, so I decided I’d be better than them. Better meant not caring. Competitive recreational sports were frivolities for the insecure, I’d thought, to be dismissed with eye rolls and pity for those who took them seriously. These softball teams that played on the Mall were for those people who’d never quite closed their high school yearbook, who’d never gotten over coach not picking them for the big game or never making varsity. I was sure these people were nothing like me. The people who became so obsessed with their Wednesday night softball league that they fought with less competitive teammates and schemed to cut back the weaker players’ (usually women’s) game time? Gross. The boys who needed to just “not talk to you” for awhile if their team lost? I didn’t get it.
But adult co-rec softball culture’s enthusiasts seemed to outnumber its detractors. It doesn’t have to be ultra-competitive, they told me. It depends on your team. You can make connections with young professionals you wouldn’t have otherwise met. They’re not all brotastic assholes. My then-boyfriend wasn’t — he played on a work softball team, and wanted to start a second one. These leagues typically have a requisite number of women. He didn’t need me to play, he had enough women players, but did I want to? Could I survive the ego-crushing coaching sessions on hitting, catching, and fielding grounders, not to mention the knuckleheads who trafficked in beer pong and “game faces” who would never want to see “Amanda who can’t hit the ball” on their team?
Just like a bro out to prove he should have made varsity all those years ago, I wanted to avenge my past with the sport. I wanted to boldly do something I wasn’t very good at in front of people who were, just to see if my pride could handle it. I wanted to put the runs on the board that I couldn’t as a kid. So I said yes.
He and I found a tiny patch of grass on the National Mall to call our own and practiced. In the hands of a patient mentor who knew my history with softball, perfectionism, and performance anxiety, I steadily improved – just like in the movies! After a few weeks, I was throwing the ball farther, catching it more consistently. I forgot that I used to love how it felt when my bat made contact, the satisfying smack and the feeling of vague recoil when I’d hit it, well, kind of far. After a few weeks, I was doing it more often.
“That would have been a line drive! I swear! That was great,” he told me after one particularly good hit.
I scurried off to retrieve the ball, but some hapless tourist tripped over it. It was a sign, I thought. While I enjoyed spending the afternoon tossing a ball around, I knew that once there was an umpire and a team and a crowd, the game would change. It always had when I’d competed, when I’d cared. I could hit the ball far out of our backyard practicing with my dad as a kid. It didn’t translate when it came to the big game. Later, when I swapped my cleats for figure skates, I choked in front of the judges, even when I’d landed all my jumps in practice. Somewhere along the line, I decided it was better to wrestle with cognitive dissonance than deal with my performance anxiety and objective lack of athletic talent: I decided I just wasn’t a “competitive person.” Because I’d been laughed at on the softball field, I would laugh at others who cared more than I could admit to caring — at the guy who’d walked out on an intense card game that one New Year’s Eve, at the sore loser during a tipsy game of Scrabble gone awry, at the person who had to leave the room when Penn State was beating my alma mater for one entire quarter. I even rolled my eyes at people who cared about things I was objectively good at: the class-rank zealots in high school and college, the friends I ran races with who were obsessed with their times. I often had the best time in our group, but I was the last to log on and check my “chip” time, if I did it at all. If I’m honest, I know I relished this, both the winning and the not-caring.
I wish I could tell you that the movie montage continued the way you’d expect: me striking out in the first game, the “back to the drawing board” practice sessions with Coach, a triumphant ninth-inning homer to clinch the big game, my teammates lifting me up on their shoulders as we celebrate to the theme from “Rocky,” or maybe “Eye of the Tiger.”
But just as life isn’t a romantic comedy, it isn’t Field of Dreams, either. On our last weekend out on the diamond, I was ready to finally hit that home run — or at least make it on base without striking out. We were up against the two-time champions of the league, and were no match for their Iron Curtain of a bullpen. With every home run and shortened inning I imagined them talking to their agents: the majors will be calling.
I stepped up to the plate for my last at-bat. The pitcher pitched, and I swung. Smack. That sound! It meant “baseball” just as surely as the smell of Hebrew National Franks and stale Bud Light. When I heard it, I knew I could talk all I wanted about not caring – it was all a lie. I ran to that bag like a fool, hoping to make it on base.
By the time I reached it, panting, the first baseman had already touched it and tossed my ball back to the pitcher. That had been my last chance to get on base all season, and I’d blown it. Worse, I cared.
Our first baseman stopped his practice swings in the hole to offer up a high five.
“’s alright, ‘s alright,” he said.
I just shook my head, and spent the rest of the game on the sidelines with my teammates, watching the other team score enough runs to hit the “mercy rule” of eight per inning. Our right fielder kept missing when the other team’s best player walloped the ball to the outfield. It turned out that watching my team lose was just as bad as failing in my quest to bury my childhood softball demons, all without a single fuck given. So I approached the coach.
“You need to take your right fielder out,” I told him. “Put her in the infield.”
“But who would I replace her with?”
“I don’t know, but you need to do something. Can you switch up your batting order, too? Take me out, take Jenny out and Stacy out. Now’s not the time to be nice.”
The sense of urgency, the strategizing about lineup changes and defensive strategy: this was the very attitude I’d not only failed to understand, but loathed and mocked.
We couldn’t change the lineup. The innings went on, each one more disastrous than the last. I sat on the bench next to The Bro. “Brutal,” he said, watching the grim tableau unfold.
Where there were once condescending cheers after I’d struck out, there was now camaraderie. Where there were once backhanded remarks about my role in bringing the team down, there was now mutual misery muttered between spit sunflower seeds.
My hopes of hitting a redemptive home run for “Amanda who can’t hit the ball” lived and died on that diamond, but so did the affectation of indifference, the hard, self-protecting baseball mitt I’d worn for so long that never fit me quite right. In the end, it was the “adult” part of “co-rec adult sports” that helped me reconcile with organized sports and give myself permission to care — time and age and maturity narrowed the gap between the jocks and the losers like me, creating a space for me. I still may not be able to score a run, but I can fist-bump with the best of ’em.
Amanda Palleschi is a writer living in Washington, DC. Her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Atlantic, The Washington Post and others. Follow her at @APalleschi.