Beers to You
Drink Me Out to the Ball Game
By Rob Bricken
With two strikes, he snarls defiantly at the pitcher. Sidling up to the plate with a menacing glare, he tips his hat as the ball soars toward him. There is a mighty swing - and strike three. He bellows in impotent rage, flinging his bat and shaking his fists at the gods.
Another guy, another ballpark: he too steps up to the plate, two strikes behind him. The ball arcs towards him and with a powerful swing, it's also strike three. He, in response, cracks open a Bud Light, which he drains, less in impotent rage than in total and blessed satisfaction.
Both of these guys are playing softball. Yet they are not playing the same game. For softball, as a sport, contains the entire range of competition, from those who devote their entire beings to crushing their opponents to others who devote themselves solely to staying just sober enough to hold onto the bat.
Softball. Beer. Beer and softball. Whether the softball in question is competitive or recreational in nature, beer has been there to celebrate this most American of pasttimes.
Which is a problem.
The predominant form of softball in Lexington, and the good ol' US of A, is governed by the Amateur Softball Association.
There are 2000 adult teams in Kentucky, with leagues ranging from the highly competitive league to the more recreational, with industrial and church leagues thrown into the mix. However, all these leagues are essentially competitive in that each has tournaments and are highly organized using ASA rules.
But ASA softball is played in public parks and the city's Department of Parks & Recreation says, unconditionally, no beer.
Softball without beer? Is such a thing possible? For some, no.
Besides clandestine coolers in the backs of trunks, some have created unofficial leagues, without ASA sanction, in order to carry their Coors into the dugout. (One such group is the "lawball" league, made up of Lexington law firms, enforcedly co-ed and liberally beverage-minded.)
Of course, they still play at public fields, but by hiring their own umpires and staying nominally under control, there has been no turmoil.
Competitive or recreational? Beer or no beer? Tastes great or less filling?
Is softball in the pressed uniform, $300 bat and pathological devotion of a lifelong softball jock? Or is it in the sagging beer gut, drunken swing and raucous cheers of good old boys?
What is softball?
I don't care if I ever get back
"It's only a game!" some cry. But is it? Is it really?
Examine this harrowing testimonial from Tim Marshall of the Fandangos. "It's addictive, I tell you what. Right before I got married, I told my wife, 'Hon, I don't have too many flaws, but one thing I'm going to do after we get married is play softball.'"
His brother and teammate, Tom, adds, "The pitcher on our team got in trouble because he was down here pitching on his anniversary. It was on a Wednesday. He told her they'd do something that Friday since it would be the weekend, and she agreed. Then the day before, he said, 'Oh! That's right! I've got a game tomorrow night.' So that Friday night, she gave him a haircut, since she's a hairdresser, and buzzed his hair all off. He came back and said it was his summer do. But she had told all our wives who had told us, and we just said, 'sure'"
The loss of hair is a minor concession for the hard-core softball player.
And marital problems are a common side effect of the sport. "Back in my heyday I played 400-500 games a year," says Tom. "Softball is so much a part of my life, my wedding was [scheduled for] October, after softball season's over."
The Marshalls excuse themselves to prepare for their game. The Fandangos, all in identical jerseys, pants, and hats, pitch the ball to each other, warming up the batters by having them hit a few on the Woodland Park ballfield for the 30 minutes prior to the game. There's not a lot of joking or fooling around - only focused intensity.
This is in stark contrast to their opponents, who, while waiting for their teammates, sit on the bleachers and spit. They have no uniforms, no matching pants, nor do they attempt to warm up. They merely watch the Fandangos as they call instructions and good-natured verbal abuse to each other,worrying that it might storm and they won't get to play.
The umpire eventually calls them together for the standard seven-inning softball game. As dusk settles, Lexington's muggy heat and the screams of children from the pool lend a certain somber mood. Tim calls his teammates together one last time.
"Put the pressure on. All seven innings, not only offensively but defensively. Make the smart plays and back each other up. We don't know what these guys are capable of."
What they are capable of is more spitting-their preferred activity while staring at the group huddle of the Fandangos from outside their dugout.
As any hard-core softball player will tell you, softball beats regular baseball hands down because of its speed. Baseball is tedious. Softball moves along. The pitch is slow, so there are a lot of hits, and people have to be ready to make a play. None of that standing around in the outfield scratching like the pros do. There's not a lot of waiting to see if the batter might hit a ball. To have three strikeouts a game is an unusual event, especially in the regular leagues. And there's always a one-hour time limit. And depending on the league level, there's a limit to how many home runs can be hit (to keep any game from being a blowout).
The game moves fast in the humid light of the setting sun. But it moves slower when the Fandangos are at bat. A few players grab a handful of dirt, spreading the field's earth on their hands, to best grip the bat. The spiritual harmony is apparent.
The other team scratches in that uniquely softball kinda way. A lot.
The umpire screams that the game's over in the fifth inning, and the teams begrudgingly shake hands and pat each other's posteriors. Why so soon?
Tim replies with the hint of a smile on his face that if one team is beating the other by 10 runs in the fifth inning, the game is called. But despite the other team's half-assed appearance, Tim was unwilling to dismiss them. Hesitantly he says, "We've come out in tournaments before to play against a team looking like that, and they came out and whupped our butt."
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks
However, sponsorship is usually a good indication of how competitive a team is.
The sponsor gets to advertise on the jersey backs, perhaps letting the team use some of its equipment, and the team gets money to travel, money to register (the cost to join the Lexington ASA league is $250), jerseys, etc. Getting a sponsor means a pretty firm commitment to softball and commitment to playing as well as one can. The Fandangos don't drink until after the game to keep in top shape.
As Tim talks, one can gaze over his shoulder to see a ballplayer take a furtive drink from a cooler in his trunk. Technically, drinking is not allowed and any umpire who sees it is supposed to eject the offenders. But when the drinks are kept in the parking lot, it's harder to intervene.
"As for the beer drinking, these guys just do it on their own," says umpire Greg Warren, watching the games as a backup umpire. Warren is a player as well, whose team didn't make it to the tournament. "We're not supposed to allow the drinking, but really, we can't stop them. But all these guys take the games real seriously. All the city leagues are full of real diehard players, [but] there are a few teams who are just out here to have fun." Especially in the tournament, alcohol isn't much of a problem, since the teams are competitive enough they don't want to risk losing over a Coors Light.
"These guys are paying good money to play and compete and get ranked. They want to play in the city tournament, and only the first place teams go. I'm pretty competitive myself. I get upset when my own players drink. But they're all grown men, and they paid their money. And that's why I'm sitting here now instead of playing," he smirks ruefully.
On the other hand... "There are teams in our league whose sole purpose is to come out here and drink beer and play," says Tim Marshall. He doesn't mind, except when it affects the game. "It gets frustrating when you're beating a team really bad. We scored 28 runs in the first inning against one team in our league. It's like, why do we even show up? These guys come out with eight players [you must have 10 to play] and end up forfeiting. You lose your time and the game."
Drinking has consequences of its own. "A lot of late night games, they've been drinking probably all day, and the late night games are the most intense, the games that mean something, and one little call sets them off," says Tom. "I've seen guys get in fights, I've seen guys pick up bats who wanted to actually attack someone."
The worst is the team that is highly competitive and guzzles beer, according to Warren, as they are the most likely to dispute calls and get into fights. "There's been a lot of times the cops have been called," says Tom.
When you're drunk out of your mind, it's hard to tell exactly how foul a ball might actually be. And if you are invested heavily in the game as well, your sodden mind will probably be tempted to argue the call - which leads to trouble, and someone savagely attacking someone else with a bat.
But for the most part, bat attacks are few and far between, and may be as likely to come from the sober, hard-core softball player as the softball sot.
Tom confesses, "I tried to play drunk, and I did all right for about 3 or 4 games, and then I ended up running into a wall and just about decapitating myself. I actually got a concussion and whiplash. I was going back for a long hit, and ran straight into the wall and knocked myself out. I still played the next day."
Beer doesn't provide any good anecdotes for Warren. "The stories aren't good. People getting in fights, running into the walls, getting hit with balls cause they're too drunk to notice. Not funny."
But Warren doesn't think the two are mutually exclusive: "People can drink beer and still have a good ball game... in moderation."
Dave Marcus, who umpired the Fandangos game, has been a softball umpire for 20 years. He disagrees with the concept of mixing softball and beer. "Not while they're playing ball. It's a fun sport, and beer takes the fun out of it."
Is beer destroying softball? Or worse yet, could softball be destroying beer? Lackluster performances by teams and grievous head wounds could indicate the former.
But the only place to turn for the real answers is, as in all things, the lawyers. Not for some legal mumbo-jumbo stating the right of every sort of person to consume X many cans of beer per inning. But because the local firms, in the spirit of fun and carnivorous, wolverine-type competition so particular to lawyers, started their own unofficial league, having nothing to do with the ASA, unofficially dubbed "lawball." Where the only thing more important than the beer is the game. But only because it lends a structure to the beer-drinking.
"It's all part of the program," says J.D. Kermode of Woodward, Hobson & Fulton. "You gotta have beer. Beer and softball go together. At least the times I've played. The more competitive teams drink after the game, but in the tournament the last place team has to supply the beer for the tournament."
Kermode's teammate and lawball coordinator, Andy Barr, agrees "it's kinda like a happy hour with something to do. But people keep it under control. One or two is pretty normal, no one's out to get wasted."
The rules are essentially the same, except no shoes with metal spikes for fear of injury. More atypical is their rule that there must be at least three female players on each team. Usually this task falls to wives and girlfriends, who made the mistake of attending the game and were forced into it so their significant others can play.
The games are held at Mary Todd Park, a quiet, picturesque slice of suburb. Despite the surreptitious and not-so-surreptitious imbibing, lawball is the kind of softball that you'd expect to be played there. The players mock each other's lack of abilities. Pitchers kindly ask the batters not to embarrass them. The umpire keeps asking people what the score is because he forgot.
Despite the low-key attitude, there is a sense of competition, as firms try to show one another up, especially former classmates and coworkers. No one slacks off during the Woodward, Hobson & Fulton game.
But it seems likely that if one of the lawyers gave themselves a concussion during the game, they would probably sit the rest of it out rather than risk further injury. And they'd probably sue.
Obviously, the primary goal of lawball is recreational and social. If beer is not the key ingredient in loosening up these lawyers, then it certainly is part of the celebration of softball. And it's hard to ignore the necessity of beer in lawball when the Greenbaum, Doll & McDonald's team cools down at their cooler before they warm up for the game with a few tosses. Put it down as softball equipment.
Why is beer such an integral part of softball, as opposed to most other sports? Looking into the sport's past may provide the answer.
For, while the Marshalls give their pep talks, and the lawyers down their Heinekens, few know softball was started in 1887 when an excitable Yale fan threw a boxing glove at a Harvard alum after Yale beat Harvard in a football game; the quick thinking Harvard man hit it back with a stick. From this supremely childish act was born softball, which later flourished with slight modifications as a way to keep inactive firemen occupied via the machinations of Louis Rober, who made a team of his fire department and named them the Kittens.
As the ASA fully admits on its website (www.softball.org), the sport, with Rober's changes, was eventually known as Kitten Ball. This was not altered until 1925, when someone proposed it be called softball, because no man in his right mind would play Kitten Ball.
So whether the beer was informally added as a needed injection of heterosexual male ethics or to forget the gross embarrassment of ever playing a sport once known as Kitten Ball, beer is a part of softball that's here to stay - if the players have anything to say. They'll leave it for the historians to figure out the rest.
...To the old, Ball, Game!!!
And between the blatantly chugging lawyers, or the surreptitiously sipping-between-innings ASA players, beer is a part of softball. And not a destructive part.
While a few may raise their bat in anger, for the most part in all leagues, the drinking is moderate and in the spirit of good times.
Everyone who plays softball is playing to win, no matter their blood alcohol content. Likewise, there's virtually no one who is playing who isn't having fun. They might not have fun if they lose, but if they didn't enjoy softball there would be no cause to hunt down a sponsor, buy matching uniforms, and play over 100 games a year.
In the end, softball is about love. Love for the game. The love of competition. The love of the outdoors and action. The love for beer. The love for a sport that once was publicly called "Kitten Ball."
Softball is an idea big enough to contain something for everybody; and all its players, ASA and otherwise, love it, for it bestows its love unconditionally upon them all.
So dust off the plate, choke up on the bat, and crack open a tall, cool one.
Ken Burns would approve.