For better or worse, September ushers in the end of the regular baseball season. As the boys of summer begin wrapping it up and the ivy on the outfield walls goes from green to red, we anxiously anticipate playoff games, Pennant winners and the World Series.
I never impressed the girls by playing Little League or high school baseball so I never could place myself in the protagonist role of Bruce Springsteen’s Glory Days, a 1984 song in which the Boss used baseball as the basis for reminiscing and recapturing the spirit of his youth. In high school I’d chosen instead to play guitar and sing in a rock ‘n’ roll band, like Bruce, but without the baseball connection and with only a fraction of the talent.
Bruce Springsteen – Glory Days (1984)
It just might have been Glory Days that inspired me to buy a new baseball glove, oil it up and try out for the City of Janesville’s adult softball league. It was April 1985, a year after the release of the song and long past high school. I was director of the Janesville Public Library and had been invited to join the Tramps, a ragtag team comprising journalists from the local newspaper, some who covered the library beat, and a couple of city employees. It turned out to be the most fun I’d had in years.
Exhilarated by my successful debut on the diamond, I spent the winter months working out, even taking up jogging during the noon hour instead of eating sandwiches and potato chips. (I saved those for after jogging.) By the following spring, I was itching for softball to begin. Tuesday, April 1, 1986 marked the first scheduled day of softball practice beginning promptly at 4:30 p.m. in the open field between the library and Marshall Junior High School.
I was running late, finishing up a report for the library board. Closing the office door, I quickly changed into jeans and a sweatshirt, grabbed my glove, donned my cap and headed out the door. I slipped my cleats on before stepping out on to the soft, wet turf. The weather had been cloudy and misty all day. There was a chill in the air which made me grateful to have that sweatshirt.
The guys were already shagging fly balls as I trotted out to center field. Ironically, I was singing John Fogerty’s 1985 song Centerfield to myself on the way there. I turned to face the batter who was peppering the outfield with lines drives and grounders. Then came a fly ball heading just to my right. I took a few paces toward the spot, planted my right foot in the soft grass and turned.
A loud snap echoed off the building as I crumpled to the ground, shooting stars projected on the inside of my closed eyelids, pain coursing through my leg. When I finally opened my eyes, faces hovered over mine telling me to “just lie still,” and “the paramedics are on their way.” The medical crew asked permission to cut open my pant leg so they could examine me. I could barely speak, so I simply nodded.
I’d torn the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) inside my right knee along with the miniscus. Surgery, recovery and rehabilitation replaced softball that summer. I was, however, able to attend one last game in late July. It felt good just to sit on the bench with my teammates, even though my leg was immobilized and I still had crutches with me in case I needed them.
On the field, an argument with the home plate umpire resulted in one Tramp being ejected from the game. Down to a skeleton crew already, the roster now showed only eight Tramps for the bottom of the final inning. With the Tramps behind by only one run, the game would be forfeited if a ninth player wasn’t named. I was the only other guy on the bench. Coach Mike asked if I could just stand at the plate and swing at the ball. I said, “What the hell? OK.”
I was on deck when the batter ahead of me popped out. Hobbling to the batters box, I held a bat and stood there awkwardly for a minute, while the entire defense moved in closer, ready for the easy out. The pitcher must have felt sorry for me though. He tossed me a perfect pitch. Even as I swung gingerly to avoid twisting my knee, aluminum connected with leather in a line drive to the gap in right-center field. I took off hobbling toward first base where to everyone’s surprise, including my own, I was safe!
Now what do I do? The guy after me also hit a line drive. I hobbled toward second base, but before I’d taken five steps he was gaining fast and shouting, “Run! Run!” Well, I couldn’t run and he finally realized my predicament when the shortstop tagged second base and then tossed the ball to first where he was declared out. That was game. The Tramps lost by a run. I, on the other hand, recorded a single for my only at-bat that season.
At the fall team dinner, I was awarded a batting trophy, the only team member to have achieved a perfect season hitting record. “Oh, put me in, Coach. I’m ready to play, today…”