Sunday, May 3, 2009

Meet the Noreasters!

I never imagined I would be the last Ford playing organized baseball, ahem, softball.

My family projected Pat to be playing throughout college and I figured Tom’s arm would have to literally fall off his body before he stopped playing in his twilight league. I always had a more peripheral relationship to the game and thought that when I walked off the field after a playoff loss when I was sixteen I’d never be in a uniform ever again.

I was wrong.

During my interview with my buddy Chris, we talked about what it meant to play on our softball team, the Noreasters. After an exciting doubleheader on Saturday, I thought it would be the perfect time to introduce everyone to the team that has become like a family to me.

I first joined the team three years ago after Chris’ blind endorsement. He knew the team needed an outfielder and was satisfied with all the bragging I had done about my stellar outfield work seven years prior. He could see I was hungry to play and he did everything to sell me to the manager of the team. Without seeing me play, she reserved a roster spot for me.

It was a gray afternoon on Randall’s Island when I first stepped on the field as a member of the Noreasters, a team in the Rainbow Division of the Big Apple Softball League. It was an exhibition game against an all-women team from a different league.

I was quiet throughout most of the game, concentrating on swinging the bat and learning everyone’s name. I remember making a nice catch in the outfield and then forgetting there was a runner on first with only one out. That’s when I was first introduced to Chris screaming like an idiot for me to throw the ball to the infield. I also hit my first homerun in that game, a deep drive to centerfield that I had no trouble legging out. Our catcher tried to convince me I broke a lamppost out there, which looked like it had been bent in half by a car eons ago.

That game ended after Chris maimed a woman sliding into second base with an errant throw. He had moved to shortstop from centerfield. He fielded a groundball cleanly and then side-armed to our second baseman, who had no chance of catching it. The woman crumpled to the ground as the ball hit her square in the head. She was helped off the field and was pretty out of it for awhile. She ended up being O.K. and Chris sparingly played the infield after that, mainly because we are now required by law to alert the paramedics whenever he’s playing any infield position.

My first season was truly special. We made it to the championship game and played hard despite being overwhelmed by the best team in the league in the end. As much fun as we had on the field, we had even more off of it. We were always joking around, picking on each other and finding new ways to gross everyone out. It was the perfect atmosphere for someone who was trying to find himself again.

When I joined the team, I had made the decision to leave grad school; I was extricating myself from an awful relationship; and I was struggling to make ends meet every month. Everyone on the team made all of it easier to bear without even trying. Starting with my amazing manager Trish, everyone gave me the confidence and assurance that I was a good guy and good things were bound to happen to me if I just kept working hard. We felt like a family despite our differences in ages and backgrounds. We loved to win and perform well individually, but if neither happened, it was nothing a couple of margaritas couldn’t fix at Arriba, Arriba after the game.

I started my third year this past Saturday, with a team MVP award in my pocket no less (sorry to keep piling on Chris).

The night before the game, I lovingly re-oiled my glove and got everything ready for the following afternoon. I had my cleats, sweatbands, black socks and batting gloves all packed into my softball bag. I wore all three of my hats for at least five minutes each in an attempt to decide which one I would wear tomorrow. I ended up throwing all of them into the bag in case I wanted (or needed to in the event of a crappy performance) to switch up my look for the second game of the doubleheader. After filling up my water bottles and putting them in the fridge, I went to sleep with dreams of rounding the bases after collecting a clutch hit to win the game.

I left my apartment the next morning preparing my mind for the game. I had the song Victory 2004 blaring out of my headphones. When I’m trying to get my mind focused, I think about everything and I think about nothing. At times, I visualize the ball getting hit in my direction in left field and what I’m going to do to catch it or stop it from going behind me on a base hit. Other times, all I’m thinking about is the rhythm of the music and the hop in my step as I make my way to the bus.

A lot of things can throw me off my mental preparation ritual, none worse than the breakdown of public transportation. To reach Randall’s Island from Astoria, I have to take the M60 over the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge to 125th St and then take the M35 back over the bridge and onto Randall’s Island. Usually, it doesn’t take me long at all, however since it was my first game back after my vacation, it took over an hour. I waited a half hour for the bus at 125th St; it took me ten minutes to actually get on the bus and it took forever for the bus to get me to the field we were playing on. It was far from an ideal start and led to me practically blowing out my ear drums by cranking the volume on my iPod all the way up because I was so angry.

It was only the second time ever Chris had beaten me to the field. The first was last year before the start of the playoffs. My girlfriend convinced me it would be a good idea to walk over the RFK Bridge to get to the game. That was another hour of my life I’ll never get back. We ended up playing three games that day and getting bounced out of the playoffs. It was the longest day ever with absolutely nothing to show for it except sore legs and a hangover the next day. Chris blames my walk over the bridge entirely.

I was actually pretty nervous coming into today. Last year, I had worked out vigorously several weeks before the season started. I did sprints, lifted weights and made sure I was eating right to get myself in the best shape to help the team win a championship. This year however, owing to a hectic work environment, going back to school (actually doing the homework this time) and outright laziness, I am far from being in great shape. I thought I would be a hot mess out there in the field and at the plate. I wasn’t worried so much about not being good anymore, since I’ve been there before, but I wouldn’t have been able to withstand the ridicule from Chris and everyone else.

As soon as I grabbed my glove, everything felt the same. Chris and I started to throw in the outfield to warm up our arms and it was like the long winter never happened. My mind went right back to focusing on what I needed to do on every play and how I was going to approach every at-bat. Before I knew it, the first inning was in the books and I was waiting for my first chance at the plate.

Our leadoff hitter, Bill, is a hitting machine. Well, he was before me and our shortstop Brad jinxed him. While we were taking practice swings, we mentioned how Bill had probably hit .900 last season. “It’s amazing how he does it holding a beer in one hand,” Brad joked. “I actually think he had four cigarettes in this at-bat so far,” I joked right back. Predictably, Bill ended up flying out to the outfield. Brad and I vowed never to make fun of Bill again, but the damage had already been done. He went hitless for the day.

With two runners on base, I stepped to the plate. I love hitting with runners in scoring position. There is no way I’m not bringing them in. Whether it’s a sacrifice fly, a ground ball to the left side or a screaming line drive, I’m putting the RBI in the bank. I walked confidently up to the batter's box. I made sure my batting gloves were on as tight as possible and then rubbed my hands in the dirt. Then, I rubbed my hands together and gripped the bat. I settled into my stance. I watched the pitcher start into his delivery and tapped my bat twice on my shoulder. I let the first pitch go by. It was called a strike. I took a deep breath and rearranged the dirt I was standing on. The second pitch sailed in and I swung. It was a line drive up the middle; two runs came into score.

It was a good start to my 2009 softball season.

As usual, anytime we play the Ball Breakers, the game ends up being close. We were down by a couple runs going into the last inning. I ended up getting on base and Brad smacked a ball that ended up splitting the outfielders. I’m not the fleetest of foot on the base paths, so when Brad turned the corner at first, he started screaming at the top of his lungs, “You better run Ford!” The ball ended up past a line of rocks that designated the play a ground rule double. We now had the winning runs on base for our catcher that day, Jonathan.

Jonathan laced a ball into the outfield and I started clapping as I ran to touch home plate. I turned around and saw Jonathan taking the biggest turn I’ve ever seen at second base. I looked toward the outfield and saw that the ball had split the outfielders and was rolling into deep right center field. Jonathan chugged home with a game winning three run homerun! The entire team was shouting and swarming around him as he attempted to catch his breath. For reasons passing understanding, Brad grabbed him and threw him into the fence. Jonathan let us know later that because of the lack of oxygen, he didn’t feel us pounding on him.

We now had an hour and a half to kill before our next game, so some of us decided to grab food at a nearby concessions stand. Trish reiterated to everyone that we weren’t going to sit down and relax, because when we do that, we usually play like crap the next game. Everyone got their food quickly…..except for Chris and I.

We had ordered hot dogs, but according to the hostess, our receipt “blew away” and they hadn’t made them yet. Trish glared at the guy who finally threw them on the grill until we were given out food. Meanwhile, everyone got to sit down and enjoy the nice weather and relax, exactly what Trish wanted to avoid.

We did end up losing the second game, but we played hard throughout the whole game and only lost by a couple of runs. I ended up being the last out in fulfillment of the Ford curse. It never fails that in a tight game a Ford will come up with two outs and the game on the line…..and make an out. It happened to Tom; it happened to Pat; and it’s happened to me more times than I can remember. In this at-bat, at least I hit the ball hard and the outfielder had to make a great catch to end the game. It took all Chris had not to burst out into an MVP chant.

Over margaritas and light beer, Trish instituted a ban on the concessions stand in between games. It may not have had anything to do with the loss, but we weren’t taking any more chances.

We have a championship to win.

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