It was one of those hot and sticky summer nights where your clothes cling to your body and your face has the same dull shine as when you step out of the shower. Not sweaty, but sticky. But I’m not complaining. I’m really not. There was no better place to be on these nights than the shoddily built ballfield in Ruben Mohr’s cow pasture.
Our team’s a bunch of regular Joes, a mishmash of riff raff, but when we’re on the ballfield we’re Murderer’s Row, or at least we like to pretend to be for a few hours. Our regular lineup consists of three dairy farmers Herm and Crank and Pat; the two Olafson brothers who run a small construction company, Whip and Teddy; Raymond is a bricklayer; we have two Charlies, one is a factory worker and one is a pig farmer, and me, well, I’m a milk truck driver, I drive the tanker from family farm to family farm into every ridge and hollow from Eastman to Boscobel picking up the farmers’ milk. But each Tuesday night from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and then again most weekends, we’re simply the Wauzeka Feed Mill’s fastpitch softball team.
Guys like us don’t get to win much in life, so we have a gas just competing on the ballfield. We hang with most teams and make a game of it, you know, we win our share of games, we lose our share too. And we usually don’t win tournaments. So all the guys were all abuzz right now, you know, being up by two runs in the bottom of the seventh and all. And the Schlitz too I guess.
So we’re up by two. The bases were loaded in the bottom of the seventh. We just needed one more out to advance to the championship game. Of course the other team’s best hitter, Dell Slayman, was coming up to bat. Ole Dell held his bat the way a caveman held his club, you know, with his elbows sticking out to the side like his chest was so big he was having trouble bringing his hands together. Some guys hit home runs because they have a smooth swing and the right flick of the wrist and can just sort of stroke the ball over the fence and they have this smooth follow through. Not Ole Dell. He’d mash the softball like he was trying to hurt it and the brute force of his bat colliding with the ball would create this sort of “thud” like he’d hit a watermelon with an axe handle. But man oh man would that ball fly. Ole Dell actually hit a homerun back in the first inning that lit half way up the light pole in center field. He spanked that ball so hard that I actually felt sorry for it.
So Ole Dell was in the on-deck circle, he held three of these waterlogged wooden bats with his caveman grip and he’d swing them like a fistful of toothpicks, like they were nothing but feathers, to try and show everybody how tough he was. You know, the opposing pitcher or some guy’s girlfriend was supposed to be impressed or something. I suppose I’d do the same thing if I could. Anyways, he was taking rips with three bats at a time and flexing his muscles and I could feel the breeze coming off Ole Dell’s fistful of bats.
You see, this was the third year for the Bush Ballpark Labor Day tournament. It was the last tournament of the year too, which meant that everybody sort of treated it like the championship, not just of the tournament, but of the whole summer. And nobody, not even us, expected us to make it this far. If we won tonight, then we would play in the championship game tomorrow at noon. And if we won that, well, then we would all have a sweet memory to savor all winter long. You see, we won a nice game on Friday night against Lem’s Bar when Raymond scored the winning run on a passed ball in the seventh inning, we easily won yesterday afternoon against some team from Woodman that nobody had heard of made up of a bunch of players nobody knew, and then we won a 14-inning marathon against Morey construction that didn’t finish until almost midnight last night when good Ole Herm lifted a hanging junk ball over the short fence in right field and into the cow pasture beyond the reach of the lights. And then of course we sat around the park until our Schlitz was all gone for a few more hours after that. Ole Raymond slept in his car at the ballfield last night and said there he was awoken by a few kids looking for Ole Herm’s home run ball this morning. They never did find it.
Anyways, Ole Dell dropped two of his bats into the dirt of the on-deck circle, which kicked up this nice cloud of dust like an asteroid struck the earth and he stared me down, or so it seemed, as he plodded towards the batter’s box. He had this hungry caveman look like the ball was made of mastodon meat and he wanted to club it to death and eat it. Hell, he even walked like a caveman, dragging his bat behind him and having a slight slouch and all.
Anyways, I usually play right field, but tonight I am playing left. You see, Crank Hayden fell off his hay wagon a few weeks ago and hurt his shoulder. Banged it up real good. Now he sits on the bench and guards our cooler full of Schlitz rather than playing first base. It’s this aluminum red cooler that smells like catfish no matter how many times we’ve washed it. That’s all good and well, you know, Ole Crank sitting on the bench, because he’s more of a coach anyways, even before he hurt his shoulder. He’s always yelling at the younger kids about how they don’t make ball players like they used to. And he gets all riled up when he yells too. He has this thing where he points at stuff with a bat like he’s trying to reach out and poke it. Like if he is telling one of the young guys to hit the cutoff man, Crank can’t just tell the poor kid where to throw it, he has to wave around his bat and jab it in the air at the direction of where he is talking about. And everybody learns right away to keep your distance because he’ll be yelling and pointing and forget where the end of his bat is and if you’re not paying attention he’ll smack you in the side of the head with the barrel of his bat. But Ole Crank’s the only man on our team who remembers to pay our team’s entrance fees for the tournament. And all the guys from the other team respect him because he’s a bit older than most of the ball players and all. Besides, the young guys do learn a lot from him even if they never say it.
I guess he was quite the ballplayer back in the day, Crank that is. All the young ball players got called up to the war back in ‘42 or ‘43, including his older brother Jerry, which meant that he got to start playing fastpitch with the men, well, what men were still left behind in the states, when he was only 14. But this is 1968, so that would be like 25 years ago. Now ole Crank’s got his old-man gut and he plays first base, when he’s not hurt of course, because he’s got a bum knee and doesn’t get around like he used to.
Anyways, Crank had been out with a bum shoulder since his accident. That means that Herm moved from third base to first, which means that Buck had to move from left field to play third base, which meant that I had to move from right field to left. The past few weeks of league play we’ve had Joe Stittle from the feed mill play right field to take my old spot. Ole Joe was a real nice guy but a lousy ballplayer. You’d think he’d be strong and coordinated from throwing feed sacks all day and working around all that equipment, but he was always dropping stuff on accident like his ball glove or a bat or, God forbid, a half-full bottle of Schlitz. All the guys teased him about it too. We’d say things like “you’re gonna lose a hand one of these days,” talking about all the pulleys and belts that are all around the feed mill. We were only half joking though, he was gonna lose one of his hands someday being so clumsy and all. The only reason we asked old Joe to step in and play was because his father, Wilbur, owned the feed mill that sponsored our team and Crank and Wilbur had a bond like brothers.
You see, Wilbur was in the war with Crank’s older brother. They were in the same battleship in the Pacific and everything. Imagine that, two boys from the same ridge in southwest Wisconsin made it all the way around the world together to sit on the same battleship in the South China Sea. Every day they’d look out at the ocean around them and joke about how it was too bad they didn’t have a couple of cane poles and a coffee can full of worms. So when Crank’s older brother died from strafe from a Japanese dive bomber, I guess Wilbur sort of took over and became Crank’s new older brother. Anyways, Joe’s younger brother, that would be Wilbur’s youngest son, just got sent to Vietnam and that really got Wilbur feeling blue all summer. I guess Wilbur had in his head that wars were where young men go to die in some far off place. So all the farmers that came into the mill would take extra time to talk to Ole Wilbur to cheer him up and pat him on the back and all. So Ole Crank asked Joe to play ball to sort of cheer up Wilbur and because we needed a right fielder. But Joe’s baby sister Minnie, that would be Wilbur’s youngest daughter, was getting married to this fella from somewhere in Minnesota this weekend. They actually had to shut down the feed mill for a few days around the wedding on account of all the employees being related and all. I guess that’s the first time the feed mill has been closed other than Sundays since Wilbur’s grandpappy opened the mill in the spring of 1911. Anyways, we’ve had Crank’s son, Little Crank, step in to play right field for the tournament this weekend. He was a good little ballplayer for only being a sophomore in high school.
Anyways, that’s a long way of saying that in a small town that all our lives sort of overlap in all sorts of ways. But on the ballfield we’re just a team. Nobody owes anybody money. Nobody is still holding a grudge about a flip comment that was made after one-too-many beers earlier this summer. There’s sort of this rule that you don’t talk about any of those things during the game. It helps us escape from the drudgery of our working lives for a few hours. And there’s sort of this understanding that you never talk about Crank’s older brother who died in the Pacific and you never talk about Wilbur’s youngest son who just got sent to Vietnam. Never, ever. Not even off the field.
Ole Crank must have seen something about how Dell Slayman’s veiny forearms stuck out from his one-size-too-small t-shirt and the way he tightened his grip on the bat like he was trying to strangle a snake. I could see Ole Crank got up from the red cooler and was hopping around the dugout trying to get my attention. He was whistling at me and waiving his bat like he was trying to land a plane. My cleats clickety-clacked on the asphalt as I took two steps towards center field. Ole Crank must’ve been happy with that because he stopped yelling and he stopped waving his bat.
The funny thing about this field is that left field is on Bush Hollow Road. Seriously, Ole Ruben put up a backstop in his cow pasture eight summers ago, you know, just for a few kids to hit some balls around. And then they needed bases to make a diamond and so they put those up. And then they needed a fence around the outfield. And by the time he laid out the whole ballfield it ended up where the road cut right through where the left fielder stood. Anyways, the backstop was in place by the time anyone realized the left fielder would have to stand on the road and nobody wanted to take the time to move it. They thought about shortening the field, or at least that’s what Crank told me once, to sort of make the road the left field fence, but that would end up being too short of a field and there’d be too many home runs. Anyways, after they started playing games here, well, the road sort of became the signature of the ballfield. Not everybody knew Bush Hollow Road, but everybody for three counties knew the ballfield where the road went through it. It’s a real skill to play left field too because there’s a steep bank that goes from where the left fielder stands all the way down to just behind the shortstop.
Anyways, all the hitters try to lift a ball out to left field when they play at Bush Ballpark because there’s no such thing as a routine flyball when it’s hit out here. I’ve seen good ballplayers look like fools if they’d never played here before. This is especially true when there’s a new left fielder out here like me. The neat thing about having the road go through the field was that an average left fielder could be really good here at Bush Ballpark if they knew what they were doing. You can tell the guys who have played out here a lot. They know how to slide down the bank from the road down to shallow left field. And they know where to stand so the bank of the road sort of pops up the ground balls into the air and into their glove. And all the people in the crowd wanted to either see a home run or a short flyball to left field where the left fielder had to slide down the bank. I guess that’s what I wanted to see too when I was watching a game too. I was sort of in between I guess. I hadn’t played out here in left field too much, but I was getting the hang of it.
Anyways, the reason we’re any good at all is that we got the Olafson brothers, Whip and Teddy. Whip is the pitcher and has this smooth, long pitching style and has the meanest rise ball in the county. He just throws rise ball after rise ball after rise ball. And just when batter’s get a good timing on the rise ball he throws this drop ball that is like half the speed of his regular pitch and it always catches the batter’s off guard and they swing and looks silly because they don’t hit nothing but air. Lots of batters spin themselves right into the ground chasing his drop ball. And they harumph as they brush the dirt off and hang their head on the way back to the dugout. Ole Whip smacks his hand against his thigh when he throws it. And by the end of a long tournament he has this purple welt on his thigh from smacking his hand there. He’s always dropping his pants to show everyone too, like he’s proud of the purple welt from throwing his drop ball or something. And Teddy plays shortstop like a jackrabbit running around and gobbling up anything hit to the whole left side of the infield. And he has a cannon for an arm too. He actually makes Crank mad sometimes when he really let’s it rip on these routine grounders. I think he throws it so hard all the time is that he’s trying to impress other guys’ girlfriends. Anyways, if you had those two on your team you could hang with just about anybody. They were, as Crank would say, ballplayers.
Anyways, Ole Whip had been pitching all weekend and his arm was getting raggety. His rise ball wasn’t rising and there wasn’t much difference in speed between his fastball and change-up. So he was just laboring to keep getting the ball across the plate and then maybe put a little spin on it just so it wasn’t batting practice. The whole team was hoping he had enough junk to get us one more out. So Ole Dell stepped up to the plate and stared at Whip and Ole Whip stared back at Dell.
Ole Whip wound up and let out this grunt as he muscled out the junkiest junk ball of the weekend. A big ole fat meatball floating towards the plate. All the runners started running, you know, there being two outs and all. And Ole Dell did his caveman swing and smacked the ball straight up into the air. The bat made the “thud” sound as it hit the ball and Ole Dell let out a “dammit” in frustration because the ball just went straight up into the air. At first I thought the ball wasn’t leaving the infield but it just kept going up and up. The ball actually went above the lights and into the night sky and hung in the air like the moon for what seemed like an hour.
The pop up floated over Ole Teddy at shortstop and kept drifting out to me. Can of corn. My cleats made the clackety sound as I tried to get traction on the road. But I kinda slipped like I hit an ice patch and tried to regain my balance as I scampered towards the side of the road. I hit the gravel at the side of the road, but by that time it was too late. I tumbled down the bank into shallow left field. The ball bounced in the grass somewhere between my body lying on the ground and Ole Teddy who started running from shortstop when he’d seen me fall. I stared at that scuffed up softball laying in the grass as three runs–three!–came across the plate on my error.
And that’s how our season ended.
We all sat in the dugout til midnight again. By the end of our case of Schlitz the hurt of losing the game had already worn off and we were all laughing. Ole Whip had his pants around his knees showing everybody the purple welt on his thigh and I was reenacting my tumble into left field. The only thing that made me sad was that it was nine more months until Memorial Day when a fresh season would start.