Nothing soft about it

(Illustration by Rick Holland)

(Illustration by Rick Holland)

In Queens, the Mets have been rained out. High school athletic competition around the Hudson Valley has been postponed because of the rain and chill. It’s coming down hard enough to turn the diamond the shade of brown that all hardball players know is hell on spikes and knees. There shouldn’t be any baseball or softball on June 6. Who’s still playing?

The Saugerties Athletic Association Softball League. Specifically, the teams Coors Light and Overlook Mt. Labradors are playing ball in the impending dark, swinging lumber – well, aluminum – like it’s the last time they ever will. Early on, the chatter consists entirely of calm and chortling jokes from the outfield and emotional support of the pitcher from the infield, but in an “offensive game,” according to Coors Light’s skipper David Moorhus, where leads get big fast, things can heat up quickly. Especially when it seems like the world is telling you not to play.

Things are not looking good early on for Overlook Mt. Labradors. About half of them have blue jerseys and baseball pants, and the other half are in their street clothes. In this situation, they are very much the Bad News Bears, because in the other dugout sits a troupe of high-powered softball mercenaries. Coors Light has it together. Moorhus says that he doesn’t stack the team with ringers, but admits, “There’s no point in bringing on players who suck.” They all have baseball pants and they all have matching, immaculate white jerseys, save for the cool, refreshing Coors Light logo on their chests. Labradors manager Vic Bennett is having trouble finding the strike zone, and is enjoying a cigarette in the bottom of the first to take the edge off. The scene hearkened back to the good ol’ days, when you were a wuss if you didn’t enjoy the wholesome taste of a Marlboro during a game. “Pitcher’s not my usual position,” says Bennett “I’m normally a catcher.”

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He has trouble lobbing pitches in. Unless you know how to pitch a softball with the actual, official underhand-windmill style, or unless you’ve developed a style of your own, softball pitching is a gambit. The untrained pitcher has very little control, and the pitch normally goes one of two ways: the well-intentioned heater flies a foot above the catcher’s head, or the placement-pitch starts well but ends up squarely in the batter’s box with a 50/50 chance of going yard. Bennett doesn’t curse or carry on when one of his pitches is lifted, aside from an occasional “C’mon” or “Dammit,” but the opposing pitcher can burn it down the middle like he’s attended softball camp for the past decade and is a little hammier when one of the Labradors pings a pitch into fair territory. He punches his glove toward the end of his game when he lays one too high for what would have been the inning-killing out, and he lets out a half-incensed “Ahhhhh” once or twice when a Labrador picks up a pitch.

Chris Rocco is playing third base for the Labradors. He’s a big guy, and like a noticeable number of his teammates, his uniform is not coordinated. It’s not actually a uniform until the third inning. It’s a flat brimmed black hat that looks like it’s from out of Hot Topic, with a heavy black sweatshirt until the third, when he pulls it off to reveal his Labradors jersey. He hovers over third, bending over and not bending his knees, looking exactly like the kind of guy that the Labradors called before the game, desperate for someone to stand in at third.

But he’s batting like it’s his job and fielding like Ichiro, going three-for-three and nabbing two line drives that would have beaned a slower man. The best part is that he talks like Yogi Berra and has a way of lightening the mood for the Labradors, who by the fifth inning are dangerously close to getting mercy-ruled by Coors Light. When Rocco dirties up his clothes sliding late in the game, an outfielder asks how long it’ll take to wash his clothes; his response is, “I don’t wash my clothes. When they get dirty I just get new ones. You should see my damn room.” After he picks up a hard hop coming toward third at rocket speed and tags a runner, he turns around and declares, triumphantly, “Now that’s what you call eyeballs.”

Bennett says, early in the game, that men’s league softball stays cordial, and that people don’t get really frustrated or fly off the handle if things get out of hand. It was either a lie or a game-flattering platitude, because by about 9 o’clock, after two hours of play and the complete drenching of every man who came out to play ball at the West Field at Cantine Park, things are being done and said that you really only see during gym softball or very intense Little League games.

When the ball is popped up to shallow right, someone on the Labradors’ bench can be heard loudly saying, ‘HE WON’T GET IT, HE LOST IT, HE DOESN’T HAVE IT.’ And when, under the glisten of the raindrops and the obnoxious shine of ballpark lights, the outfielder drops it – aside from the rain and the lights it’s not really his fault, he’s wearing a baseball glove and is trying to catch a very slick softball – the same voice can be heard yelling ‘I KNEW IT, I CALLED IT.’

Rocco himself isn’t above a little gamesmanship. When a smaller bat comes to the plate, he curls his hand into a heavy-metal devil sign and waves it back and forth to signal the field to walk in — which is strange, considering that they’re playing on a small softball field and even the smallest bat can do plenty of damage with a wall a little more than 200 feet away.

And if one is to watch closely, one can convince himself that Coors Light’s pitcher is pitching high and tight to clear the batter off the plate.

Overlook Mt. Labradors fall to their foes, 16-9. By the end of seven they are wiped, exhausted, dirty, somewhat bitter, and under all of it jovial – after all, they just to got to play seven innings when just about no one else in the American northeast would.