Sunday, May 01, 2005

Play Ball !

Spring is a wonderful time of year. The flowers are blooming, the sun is shining, and it's time for the San Francisco Giants and the new season of recreational softball. What more could one ask for ?

Throughout my ballplaying career, stretching back 17 years now (dang I feel old), I've played a large spectrum of leagues, from the recreational fun types to the more competitive school-based organizations. Each league, and each team, has its own attitude and personality, from laid-back and fun-loving to competitive and driven. My team's opponents this past Wednesday were definitely the former.

The opposing team was a new addition to the league, having never played together before. They had some great talent, some average players, and some who were just out to have a good time (and hopefully hit the ball if they got lucky). But what struck me was their attitude. They cheered each other on, chanted, high-fived, joked and laughed - both with us and with each other, throughout the entire game. It didn't matter to them that we were whooping their butts, and that the game ended in the fifth inning on the 'slaughter rule'. (Game ends after 5 innings if one team is ahead by more than 10 runs.) They seemed not to care about the score, and were having a lively party throughout the game.

That's the kind of team I absolutely love playing for and against.

I've played for championship teams with superb talent and winning ways, that were so focused, so bent on beating the other team, that they forgot to have fun. Although I basked the delicious glow of victory after the championship was won, there was something missing. Something intangible, unexplainable, yet impossible to ignore.

Of course, winning games is nice. I'm not saying I want to lose. I've played for teams that have lost by up to 20 runs in one game and made more errors than outs. These were special teams, made up of exceptional people, who were having the time of their lives, even when the scoreboard was not in their favor.

When the game is over, and handshakes are done, the score is no longer important. What really matters is how much we enjoyed ourselves.

I'd much rather play for the fun-loving losers than the hard-nosed champions.

Am I competitive ? Absolutely - but mostly within myself. I put forth 110% effort, all game, every game. I rarely look at the score, and often don't know if we're winning or losing. Either way, I am out there giving it my all - diving, sliding, running, doing everything in my power to catch the ball, hit the ball, and get my hiney on base. When I am granted a walk at the plate, I don't just walk to first base. I run. Full-tilt.

My philosophy:

If I'm not dirty, bruised or bleeding, then I haven't played hard enough.

You laugh, but this is only partly in jest. Rarely does a game go by where not one of the above conditions are met. Yes, I'm proud of it, and will happily show the permanent sliding scars on my knees to anyone who asks.

Playing softball is not just about the sport. Perhaps even more importantly, it is about the social interaction, the friendships and the camaraderie. I have met some of my very best friends through this game, relationships that have sustained the test of time and distance. Two of my closest friends and I all met each other playing softball - and now, several years later, they are married to each other and have a beautiful daughter. The 'Walking Wounded', the old Toronto team, are still great friends, even though playing Sunday Night Baseball is a distant memory. Through our weekly forays onto the field, and subsequent trips to the bar, our friendships have grown and flourished, enduring life changes, long distances, and trying times.

Softball isn't just a game. It is a way of life, a stepping stone, to teamwork, self-improvement and long-lasting relationships with like-minded people.

When the umpire yells "Play Ball !", it's not just the start of the game. It is the start of something much more special, intangible yet cherished, that lasts infinitely longer than 7 innings and a pizza.


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