For all those employees who ever walked by a pinned photocopy invitation to play company softball, then smirked thinking, “Oh please! Softball isn’t a real sport like hardball,” they’d be sorely mistaken.
When that ball is launched from a scientifically engineered state of the art aluminum bat, and it bounces through a mind field of rocks on a poorly maintained municipal field, on its way to either the pocket of your glove or your eyeliner eyeball, you definitely aren’t thinking, “It’s ok…it’s just a softball.” There isn’t anything soft about it. Plus, it’s twice the size of a baseball.
What…you’re confused about the eyeliner reference? Did I mention it’s a coed softball league? And the requirement is to have at least one female player on the field the entire game.
We had two girls on our team, both starters and full time combatants. And they were pivotal to the success of softball’s version of The Steel Curtain.
You’ve never heard of The Steel Curtain? Well, it’s a complimentary title designated to a particular ensemble of amazing NFL players from the Pittsburgh Steelers, defensive linemen to be precise. The nickname, lasting throughout the 70’s, inferred that they created a barrier, a steel curtain, that no ball carrier could penetrate. And four of the more popular lineman to earn the distinction were Hall of Famers – Jack Lambert, “Mean” Joe Greene, Jack Ham, and Mel Blount.
So there you have it. My best buddy Jack played first base. Then there was Jack, real name Jackie, at second. And by the way, she was my girlfriend at the time. Next was me, Joe the shortstop. And lastly we had Melanie playing third, appropriately dubbed “Amazing Mel on The Hot Corner.”
And if you also need an explanation of the reference to temperature and location, imagine how close the third baseman stands in proximity to muscle bound hitters who crush the ball with all their might. The projectile gets there in the blink of an eye. Only the quickest reactions can extinguish the hopes of a softball sneaking through and rattling around in the deep corner of a field.
To sum it up, we were that good, The Steel Curtain of work league softball.
The Big Game
A hard fought regular season was in the books. And it was time for the playoffs. This was the third year our core group of starters had remained in tact. Often a player left the company and was no longer eligible. But fortunately, our steel curtain foursome consisted of satisfied employees who were solid in the office and great at time management. That meant we were always focused on softball when the umpire called for the first pitch. And that level of commitment was reflected in the win column. We breezed through the entire bracket and were two outs away from our first championship.
But we were in a bit of trouble.
It was the bottom of the last inning, and we were nursing a one run lead. The home team had runners on both second and third base with only one out. A single in the outfield or a ground ball through the infield would likely score both players, and it would be lights out for us.
Often when it comes to sports, there’s someone on the field who “quarterbacks” the situation. Basically it refers to calling the shots, the formation, the plays, the approach, etc. And I was that guy for our softball team. My teammates trusted my judgment, and I took their allegiance seriously. I never wanted to let them down.
Like I said, there was a guy on third, their speediest runner. I knew he’d be off like a bullet on contact. If we kept our infield back at regular depth, we would concede that run, hold the runner at second, and make the safe play to first base for an out. Then hopefully, we’d get a third out before another run scored. That would send us into extra innings, tie score, where it would be anyone’s game.
But…I wasn’t thinking to play it safe. I didn’t want to allow any runs to score. And I didn’t want to bank on our chances in the extra session. My eye was on the prize, a well deserved softball championship trophy.
I instructed, “Infield in…nothing gets by The Steel Curtain!”
I remember looking around at Jack then Jackie and finally Melanie. Keep in mind, Mel was possibly the best third baseman in the league. She never shied away from a challenge. And that’s exactly what we were facing, especially in her direction.
At the plate was the largest, most imposing player in the league. He was Big Ronnie from Ron’s Roofing Company. His arms were like tree trunks, and he loved to pull the ball right down the third base line. However, he had been struggling to get a hit the whole game, swinging too hard likely, resulting in routine ground balls that Mel gobbled up easily.
So when I looked over at Mel, she was all set, crouched in her ready position and ten feet closer to home plate. I called, “You good Mel?” Before every batter, she lowered the brim of her cap just above her eyes, sort of making tunnel vision of the task at hand. She didn’t reply. A slight head nod and a fist pound in the palm of her worn leather glove was my confirmation.
Our pitcher set himself on the rubber, gave a final glance around the infield, then released the pitch high in the air. This was an unlimited arc league, meaning pitchers could toss the softball as high they wanted, hoping to slip it through the strike zone untouched. And our pitcher had his good stuff that night.
But not good enough.
It was eerie. Everything slowed, clicking like frames in the Zapruder film. The pitch disappeared in the waning sunlight and dropped straight down like it had rolled off the edge of a cliff.
Then came two almost simultaneous “cracks,” first from the Goliath’s weapon and next from Melanie’s face. She had no time to react.
The following moments are a complete blur.
Jackie said I made what sounded like a primitive guttural roar, “No-o-o!” Then I darted over. I was oblivious to everyone and everything. The look on my face was one of crazed determination. In a flash I scooped up her limp body, blood gushing from her nose and filling her eyes, and ran to my car.
I don’t recall the ride or how I could have possibly obeyed the rules of traffic. The only thing I remember was sitting in the waiting room of the nearby hospital, covered in red and Jackie holding my hand, “Joe…Joe…Honey…she’s gonna be ok…you did good.”
Melanie had to undergo surgery to repair damage to her nose and orbital bone. The next two months would be spent recovering in her apartment. And practically everyday I stopped by after work to keep her company.
Needless to say, she wasn’t in the best of spirits. There was a lot of pain and discomfort. And for the first few weeks, I sensed the very sight of me was actually annoying her. But I felt guilty for putting her in the line of fire, and I needed to do my penance.
Then something happened. It was week 4, and she blurted, “If you’re gonna sit on my couch to ease your conscience, and you don’t have any juicy office gossip to share, then you’d better tell me something entertaining about yourself, something personal that I haven’t heard a hundred times over beers after the game.”
I thought for a moment, then began “My dad had an affair with his chiropractor. My mom found them in our jacuzzi doing some weird water Kama Sutra. He claimed she was a good listener.”
Melanie giggled a little, “I guess she fixed his back.” Then we both laughed.
The next month was spent exchanging deeply emotional stories from our past, a recounting that sometimes led to hugs and tears. I was starting to feel like her recovery had become my therapy, especially when it came to my parents’ divorce. We were building a genuine friendship.
A Callemonit is justified
Jump to three years later, Jackie and I had gotten engaged and were married. At my request, Melanie was in the Bridal Party. Our friendship was still going strong.
But Jackie and I were having difficulties in our marriage. We could turn anything into an argument. “What do you mean you forgot to buy bacon?…I’ll help you with the cleaning after the game…But I like a lot of salt in the mashed potatoes…You told me you had quarters for the washing machine in your car…My mom’s stopping by for a bit…Why am I always tripping over shoes on the floor?”
And true to form, I would have the same knee jerk reaction. Cut the argument short, and in another room I would call or text Melanie and look for sympathy…until one day the “s” hit the fan.
Jackie: “Did you notice we’re late on the car payment?”
Me: “Oh crap, I forgot.”
Jackie: “What do you mean you forgot?”
Me: “I don’t know…I just forgot.”
Jackie: “How are we ever supposed to establish good credit and get our own house when you don’t take things seriously?”
Me: “Seriously…what the heck does that mean?”
Jackie: “Well, it’s important that we show responsibility.”
Me: “Oh, like when you promised to call the cable company, and I missed the game?”
Jackie: “Hun, we talked about that already…it was months ago, and I apologized…and you forgave me…and I thought we ended on a good note…remember going to the movies and Chinese?”
Me: “Still…you made a mistake.”
Jackie: “I agree, but what I’m trying to say is…”
Me: “Ahh, don’t bother…I’m outa here.”
Jackie: “What…where you going?…Oh wait…I know…gonna sit in the kitchen and text Melanie…or better yet…you’re gonna go over to her place and cry on her shoulder about what a lousy wife I am and how mean I treat you… is she a good listener…does she have a hot tub?”
Me: “Oh stop…now you sound crazy…it’s not like that…she’s like my sister…and I would never cheat on you.”
Jackie: “How do I know that…how do I know anything…all I do know is my husband thinks divorce every time we get in an argument and then runs to his girlfriend.”
Jackie raises her voice.
Jackie: “And you know what else…I…I feel like…you know…how would you feel if after an argument, you walked by me, and I was smiling and texting some guy…makes me feel like the butt of some cruel joke.”
Me: “I don’t know why…it’s all I know how…I run…I run because I don’t want to end up like my parents.”
Jackie takes a breath and speaks softly.
Jackie: “Joe, Honey, you got it all mixed up…these arguments aren’t arguments…we’re talking like all married couples do…and so what we raise our voices a little…I love you…you love me…talking things out instead of vanishing is exactly how you won’t end up like your parents.”
What is the rest of Jackie’s Callemonit? Do you think it’s proper that Joe continues such a close friendship with Melanie, even though he claims it’s not physical? Should Jackie explain how she needs to be the only one Joe runs to.
Marriages can be fragile. Is it unfair to expect Jackie to simply accept a third wheel, so to speak? Have you ever come across this situation in your relationship? What was your Callemonit?