They come out of
the night, a weird migratory species, wherever there is a fast-pitch softball
tournament. In station wagons that remember the rock "n" roll era,
mufflers low slung, metal rot crumbling off when the broken shocks hit. You can
tell they are pitchers. The spiked-shoe tip is eaten away; one foot drags,
drags in a fast-pitch delivery. Some wear steel plates over the toe. They are
not a winsome group; fast pitch seems to be bad for the teeth. Flesh on their
kidneys is toneless. They tend to have awkward bellies, navels peering down,
Cyclopean, over belt buckles. Joyce Brothers looks somewhat more athletic. They
have become highly specialized, the body's diverse business reduced to a huge,
explosive arc of the arm, thigh and knee ducking aside nervously just in time.
They throw with terrific velocity, terrific cunning. And they are in demand,
popular as bachelors at a borsch circuit singles weekend.
Most are paid to
be amateurs. Everyone knows it, from the league presidents on down. Superstars
can ask three or four hundred in "expenses" for a regional tournament;
make that five or six hundred, real cash. Somehow such items don't get
mentioned on a 1040 form. Journeymen have to settle for 10 bucks and a six-pack
of Schaefer. Marginal profit, but one pitcher told me he threw 164 games in
four months. Just multiply it out. Pitch at 10 a.m. Sunday morning, get in a
station wagon, pitch again at one p.m., at 4 p.m., then two games under the
lights in another county. One tough negotiator held out for five bucks an
inning. The game was scoreless after a regulation seven, so he walked off the
mound: his sponsor couldn't come up with time and a half for overtime. They can
pitch 800 innings-plus per season into their mid-40s because the human arm is
built to go that way. It's a natural motion. You don't get the hacksaw
attrition or the elbow-breaking shocks of an overhand fastball.
They go on and
on. Civil servants don't have better job security. And it could be they're
murdering the game. In tournaments, where a single team may play six times in
48 hours, the rosters have to be expanded; each team can pick up one or two
pitchers. You see the same faces, the same arms, the same 1964 Plymouth wagons.
There is no mechanism for breaking in young pitchers. In most regions you get
the same mercenary troops, condottieri of the diamond. In one summer they
change uniforms more often than your kid's G.I. Joe doll.
N.Y., at a place called Fancher Davidge Park, they play a marvelous brand of
softball. It's a trim, very professional ball field, maintained at city
expense. Box office consists of one man with a child's red sand pail, fishing
for quarters. The stands seat a thousand or so; there are dugouts, fences, an
electric scoreboard, fair to good lighting and a dirt infield that gives one
true hop in four, about 10 times more dependable than most softball diamonds.
For its coat of arms Fancher could use two bottle bats crossed on a field of
rubber pacifiers. The foul lines form half a baby's crib. Children swarm. The
men who play fast pitch at Fancher play five, six nights a week. Their wives
learn to love the sport or they divorce and marry someone who can't hit his
I.Q. Nine, ten, eleven o'clock at night, moths flurry around the lights.
Infants are put to sleep by the ugly boink of aluminum bats. Pregnant wives hug
themselves. The prenatal influence must be potent. A rightfielder claims that
his son was born with one fist closed, thumb up. Out! They root before birth.
Born, they seem to cry Bronx cheers.
I've seen some 40
contests at Fancher and at Spratt Park in Poughkeepsie. A revelation. I don't
care what you say; it's a better game—more exciting, more exacting—than major
league baseball. Bud Harrelson can play jacks with a grounder and still his
sharp arm will save him. Not in softball with those 60-foot base lines. Three
hops to the shortstop and you can give a left-handed batter 50-50 odds, even
with a clean pickup. The seven-inning games last about 90 minutes, a delightful
length. At its best the pitching ranks with major league pitching at its
best—everyone knows how Eddie Feigner has embarrassed All-Star baseball
players. Drops, rises, curves; insane, nameless balls that spin-slap off the
pitcher's hip as he follows through. Only thing you can't throw is a spitball:
wet does nothing. From 45 feet a changeup can double your vision and make your
bat jerk like an XKE gearshift.
And it's a
different game. The bunt devastates. First and third basemen play halfway. In
baseball your shortstop keys the infield. In fast pitch the second baseman
covers first nearly as often as the first baseman—plus regular duties. With the
drawn-up infield, Baltimore chops account for a good third of the hits; both
second and short shade deep to protect the first and third basemen. Players
seem like thyroid giants on the tiny infield. Tic-long hesitation means a base
hit. It's like playing four-wall handball in your bathroom.
A team called
Carpet Mart plays at Fancher Davidge. Yes, Carpet Mart. You'll just have to put
up with the names: Bay Drug, Clara's Inn, Cherry Bros., Glen Volkswagen.
There's one team apparently named after an O'Hara short story collection:
Farmer's Hotel. And ex-hortatory names: Drink Milk, for God's sake. That
doesn't exactly reek of machismo. Can you hit the bag, spikes honed and high,
with Drink Milk on your chest? Frankly, the game itself suffers from
nomenclature problems. Softball. Soft: it has a faggy ring to it. Another
name—superball, bigger ball, EXXON ball-might have made the sport a regular on
Monday night TV. Instead, it's just the most played team game in America. But
don't let names put you off. Carpet Mart. for instance, is the best at Fancher
Davidge. Carpet Mart has been New York State fast-pitch champ since 1971.
The players look
good. The red-and-white uniforms are faded, but they have a svelte, double-knit
tightness. Other teams manage to be somewhat baggy around the butt, reminding
me of a North African nomad tribe that wore huge, droopy pants seats. They
believed their Messiah would be born to a male, very suddenly. Carpet Mart has
class. Their teeth are pretty much in place. Their mouths haven't been reshaped
by pop-top beer cans. Around the Middletown League you see a lot of players who
are thin in the jowls, as if shortstop were a wasting disease. Carpet Mart
nicknames are lettered behind the left shoulder: Roadrunner, The Greek, Nipper,
Stick. Vern Darmstadter, the third baseman, turned down minor league contracts
from the Phils and the Indians. Dick O'Neill, the first baseman, a reachy
6'7", was small-college All-America in basketball at Western Kentucky. They
are close. The nucleus has played together six or seven years. They speed-read
each other's moves. Against tough pitching, Carpet Mart has batters who have
hit .450, .475, .525. Incredible. I don't get a fork in my mouth 45% of the
But this is an
article about love, not athletic prowess. Love of a game, love that enforces a
perverse, rigorous lifestyle. And requited in its fashion. Carpet Mart is
telephone linemen, construction workers, electricians. Five p.m.: hit the time
clock, forget a cranky foreman and the implacable arithmetic of your take-home
pay deductions. It's enough to pull one stirrup on over white sanitary hose.
That useless thin strip of cloth down the ankle bone is an American sign. It
makes you longer in the leg. It means. I am a ballplayer. Listen to spikes
grate on pavement, then spindle dirt. Your name over the P.A.; abbreviated
crazily in a paper's box score, D'rmst'r. Choke in the clutch some nights, but
at least there's a clutch. The game has uncertainty and excitement. Hope.
Things perhaps gone now, going, from life.
They are mostly
late middle age in the chronology of athletes—34, 37. It costs them plenty to
play. Gas and rubber and blown valves: some travel 40, 50 miles to Fancher
Davidge. They throw a quarter into the red sand pail every night. There's no
workmen's compensation for a fractured ankle or arm. And add the overtime, the
second summer job they can't fit in.