I’ve been a sports junkie for most of my life. In fact, the only period I can’t remember being glued to the sports pages and tube was during my years in Madison, when the 60s provided their own other world. But even then I kept my eye on Bob Gibson, the great St. Louis pitcher.
Sports have been a significant topic between me and many of my friends. Is Big Papi washed up? Compare Charles Barkley’s lifetime stats to Larry Bird’s, then tell me who was the better player. What do we think about millionaires playing for teams owned by billionaires? The list stretches endlessly (at least according to my life-mate Sue). It’s that guy thing—the substitute or perhaps testosterone version of intimacy.
But today’s post isn’t about professional sports or my obsession with it.
The subject’s up because this year I’m co-managing a community co-ed softball team, Jah Energy (named after the Jamaican god). I’ve played for Jah nearly twenty-five years, much of which I was a pretty good first baseman (“if you’re gonna throw wild, throw it low. I’m too damn short and fat to leap high, but I can pick ’em out of the dirt”).
Now though, I’m too old to play much anymore (probably close to, if not the oldest person, in the league) so the shift to co-manager makes sense. Still, it’s super cool to hit the field every once in a while as catcher, watch my son playing first or outfield, my nephew covering third, and the diamond stocked with representations of Jah’s different generations–including some first year newbies. One of the benefits of catching is you see it all.
But managing a community co-ed softball team is more of a challenge than I ever had as a player. There’s finding enough women who want to join, for example, and deciding the minimum number of games people must attend to be on the playoff roster. Collecting dues. But for me, the most difficult issue is finding a balance between my desire to win and trying to have everyone play—no matter their skill level. A seriously schizo experience.
When I held down first base, the answer seemed simpler. Everybody plays. But truth be told, I was a starter and mostly played full games. It was the other positions where people were shuttled in and out. Kinda made my largess an easy do.
Come a decade or two, (and I was no spring chicken when I first joined Jah) our manager at the time began subbing me out. I knew my skills were eroding and that the woman who replaced me was the better athlete. Not only in the field, but at bat. (A banjo hitter, I never hit a home run during the course of my twenty-five years.) So for me it was still “everyone plays” in part, because I now was one of those “everyones.” But another part of the conflict went internal; should the shadow of my former self play at all, or just let others take my spot? And how much of the “let others” take my “spot” was really for the good of the team, or was I simply embarrassed by my declining ability?
Well, for the past few seasons, whatever the reason, I mostly chose the latter, satisfied to coach third base and enter a game in the late innings every once in a while as a defensive replacement at first or catcher. This arrangement continued to shield me from the winning/playing time conflict.
Ain’t shielded no more. Now most of you know I’ve had a pretty turbulent spring, so, much of the weight has fallen on Sara, my co-manager. She also has difficulty balancing playing time and winning. We talk about X, we talk about Y, but eventually we end up with a back-and-forth about playing a terrific outfielder the whole game or replacing him halfway through when each fly ball then becomes an adventure?
One might think it’s an easy call. Stay the course, play everyone, and that be it. But losing regularly, even in a community league, grinds the grit from your spirit. Not just mine, but the whole team’s–even those who spend a lot of bench time. Slowly my take on “everybody plays” began to change. I too was tired of losing and grew closer and closer to playing our best players as much as possible.
Only as manager, I’m forced to see and accept both sides of the issue. Despite my desire to win another championship (we’ve won two), a season that runs April through August requires a significant time commitment. From where I now sit, it’s just not fair or okay to keep people with less skill off the field game after game. To say nothing of the legitimate complaints that would hit the fan if we actually worked it that way.
So Sara and I middle it, which probably pleases no one. We work hard to find times when substitutions might not affect the outcome—a situation that doesn’t occur during too many games. We also try to play our best players much of the time, but wewill take ’em out if the need to get someone else into the game is greater. Much to the chagrin of those who come out and those who really want to win.
And this is just the regular season. What’s gonna happen during playoffs?
To be honest, this managing gig is a gut buster and man, I miss the days when playing time decisions weren’t mine to make. But time doesn’t reverse itself (except in Superman comics) and since this team means so much to me that I plan to have my ashes spread over our home field, I expect to be struggling with this shit for years to come.