On a Sunday afternoon in June, against the backdrop of Diamond Head, men gather to play baseball. Gentle trade winds keep it from being as warm as it otherwise would be, and friendly chatter fills the Hawaiian air as bodies begin to limber up in preparation for the ensuing physical exertion, which will doubtless result in soreness tomorrow.
“Who’s the home team?”
“I think we are.”
“No,” says the umpire, “they’re the home team. You were home in the morning game.”
The anointed home team, in powder blue that compliments the sky, takes the field. Players wear uniforms bearing names and numbers. Some of the names are real, others are nicknames: Dirtyballz, Redneck Haole*, etc.
This is a public park in Honolulu. Everyone has day jobs. They are here for the sport and the camaraderie it engenders. I am here by accident.
We’ve stumbled onto the game while walking back from the mall to my brother-in-law’s apartment. At first I thought it was softball, but then I saw the pitcher throwing overhand, so we ran across the street (after looking both ways, of course; wouldn’t that be an obituary?) and took a two-hour detour to watch very bad baseball. Then again, bad baseball is better than good almost anything else.
The home team’s starting pitcher, a rail-thin right-hander, takes his warmup tosses. Two of the six skip past the catcher and crash against the backstop. After the sixth, the catcher lobs the ball to second base; his throw is on line but lands 20 feet in front of the bag.
This is a weakness to be exploited. Run at every opportunity.
One thing about amateur adult baseball leagues is that there are many weaknesses to be exploited but few who can exploit them. The inability to execute is both exasperating and charming, in that truly anything is possible, with the notable exception of that which is expected.
Another thing is that you can find these leagues everywhere. You don’t need to travel to Hawaii to play or watch games, although it’s a nice excuse to visit the islands.
This league uses wooden bats, so there is no metallic ping. There is also precious little solid contact, so the satisfying crack of ash against rawhide isn’t as prevalent as it might be in more skilled hands.
The visitors, donning green jerseys, score four runs in the first inning. Several walks, a couple errors, and a grounder to shortstop that is probably ruled a hit at this level are exacerbated by five pitches that sail past the catcher, allowing runners to advance at will. None of them can get a good enough jump to take advantage of his arm, but he can’t catch the ball, so it doesn’t matter. Why steal bases when they are being given away for free?
The bottom half of the first is relatively clean, as is the top of the second (the catcher has been replaced by someone less charitable than his predecessor). But in the bottom half, the visitors generously return the gift given to them by their hosts.
The visiting team’s pitcher, a lefty whose fastball might crack 70 and is backed by a loopy slider, loses the strike zone. That isn’t always a problem at this level, where guys will hack at 3-0 pitches a foot outside or take swings while literally jumping away from the ball, but the home team capitalizes on his wildness and a couple defensive miscues behind him.
The last lapse comes on a fly ball to right field, with the fielder holding up his glove and not moving as the ball lands 20 feet behind him. A woman keeping score is vocal in her desire to rule the play an error, but one of the other dozen or so fans (not counting the dogs or the homeless people sleeping in the park) points out that the fielder never touched the ball. After a few rounds of repeating the same arguments, the scorekeeper grudgingly relents.
A quick glance skyward reveals no clouds in the direction the right fielder is facing. He definitely saw a round object above him when he tried to make the catch, and it definitely wasn’t a baseball. The object he saw was much larger and farther away. It was literally too hot to handle.
After two innings, family obligations force us to leave. The impression that lingers is one of grown men who love baseball and who are frustrated by their inability to do what they’d like to be able to do on the field, though not so much (they mainly just shake their heads and laugh at themselves) that it keeps them from enjoying the experience.
My first thought as we walk away is that I can do better than those guys. My second, more sobering and honest thought is that I really can’t. My third, and the one that remains with me even as I write this, is that they looked like they were having the time of their lives out there. That’s not such a bad thing.
* – Haole is a derogatory Hawaiian term for a foreigner, usually of European descent. The guy who calls himself Redneck Haole is white, so he is entitled to use the word without giving offense. Also, his teammates think it’s hilarious.
Image credit: Sanjay Acharya
Geoff Young is Crooked Scoreboard’s baseball editor, and occasionally travels to exciting places. You should follow him on Twitter.