Breakfast of Champions
Spring Training 1989
(Whackin’ in Huatulco)
Back around 1990 I played slowpitch softball in the Berkeley “C” leagues, on a team composed, for the most part, of aging psychotherapists, with one or two wine business types thrown in for good measure. We were the “East Bay Wine Works” team, known colloquially, as “the Winos.” By ’90 we’d been together (“together” is a relative term, of course) for five years, and after a couple of years being league doormats, we’d begun to emerge as more or less perennial contenders. (We’d found our inner “Wild Men,” and decided, in a nod to the collective unconscious, that, on a ballfield, empathy was for other people, and softball was for survival.) Aging therapists, you must realize, can be more dangerous than they might appear at first glance.
I was the pitcher. It was a job nobody else seemed to want, and though I’d never thought of myself as a pitcher, (the prestige positions, in the baseball fantasies of my era were centerfield, shortstop, maybe 3rd base) something told me it was the one position which might just give me a chance to contribute.
Now, a pitcher in slow-pitch softball has a couple of serious handicaps. Once launched, a slow pitch takes such a long time to reach the plate, that the fellow standing next to home plate holding the bat has far more than enough time to lock in on the pitch, decide to swing or not, and then, if swinging, to direct the ball where he wants it to go (and to generate enough force in that swing to crush the pitch and drive it by, or over, the opposing outfielders). And of course the pitcher is the opposition player, in the field of play, closest to the ball when it leaves the bat, and therefore in the greatest jeopardy of grievous harm. How quickly I learned what good reflexes I have, and what kind of protective gear I would need to maintain my composure!
By the end of our first year, I’d begun to develop my own distinctive pitching motion, and to master it sufficiently that I could throw strikes with great consistency. That year, if I could hold the opposing team to 7 or 8 runs, and walk only three or four batters in a game, I felt like I’d gained some ground. The first game I won, the other team scored five, and I walked only one.
In our third year we made the playoffs and lost the final game by a single run. I got used to feeling like we had a shot at winning, most of the time. I was keeping the walks down to one or two, most games, and I began to strike out an average of 3 or 4 opposing batters per game. (In slow pitch, that’s a ridiculously high average.)
I worked hard to find a way to keep the hitters off balance, and keep them guessing, but really, the guy on the pitching rubber in a slow pitch game is, most of the time, just there to get the ball into play; defense, hitting, and athleticism are usually the factors that separate the winning and losing sides. Sometimes, though, it seems like it’s just a matter of the way the planets are aligned that distinguishes blessed and cursed.
So, one Sunday morning, in that Spring of 1990, as I sat up in bed, and tried to remember just what had occasioned the consumption of such excessive amounts of red wine the previous evening, I began to wonder how I could possibly compose myself to perform on the ball field, in just a couple of hours, for a full seven innings. I love drinking good wine, especially with a group of other people who love drinking good wine. But I forget, sometimes, how easily my enthusiasm can gather momentum. On those occasions, for me, the “morning after” inevitably involves a good deal of mentally kicking myself for having been too much of a bonehead to pace myself the night before.
The physiological after-effects that morning carried me into a really evil frame of mind. I felt like the prototype for bad company. I didn’t want to speak to anyone. Every palpable contact with the world outside my skin felt as though it bruised me through that same skin, right into my bone marrow: my wife’s voice, the sound of tires on cars driving by in front of the house, the cat rubbing against my leg as I scooped his food into his bowl, the rattle of that food into that bowl. The sound of the phone. (thank god it’s not for me)
I left the house early to drive to the park, to try to loosen up, to coax and cajole this ruined body to jog, to stretch, to toss the ball around with my teammates, and, finally, to corral Harry, the catcher, to warm me up. If I could just find the range, and get into a groove, I might make it through.
The repetition in throwing the ball, and catching the ball, the rhythmicity is comforting; I feel cocooned by it. It’s like being a child being pushed on the swing by a babysitter. The task of focussing on pitch placement serves to shut out the agony of fending off the world from what feels like the burnt edges of my brain. The concentration in each motion, each step and release deflects the challenge of trying to find some part of me that doesn’t want to just crawl into a hole.
It’s reassuring to find that putting the ball into the strike zone comes without much effort this morning. When all else fails, I will throw strikes. Then, too soon for my comfort, the umpire calls for the game to begin.
We are the visiting team, this time out, so I must wait to take the mound. Waiting, this morning is like having a root canal. We’re playing a team that has had, in our past encounters, a history of thrashing us soundly. They’re young, they’re big, they’re fast, they’re cocky, and, looking at them, I’d guess if they had nicknames, those would be names like “Junior,” “Pudge,” “The Big Hurt,” “Rocky,” “Big Mo,” and so on. But this morning I don’t care if they’re the ’27 Yankees. I’m so busy trying to put one foot in front of the other that I have no capacity to absorb the intimidation factor. I feel edgy and mean.
For the first two innings none of their batters reach base. Two strikeouts, a pop-up, a routine fly to center, two infield grounders. After two, we’re ahead 5-0. I’m feeling edgy and mean enough that I singled sharply up the middle on the first pitch I saw.
The strikeouts keep coming. But so do a couple of walks. The umpire who called those pitches balls is one with whom I’ve had my ups and downs, and I know better than to react, even when I’m incredulous at calls he’s flat out missed. The path of least resistance is the only one I can conceive of at this point, so I just let it slide off, and keep pitching. I think perhaps he’s subscribed to the intimidation theme previously mentioned; this team, given the history between us, is supposed to beat us, and he doesn’t want to feel that he’s somehow intervened against the natural course of events. Or something.
Even so, the next couple of innings go by without cause for concern; there are no moments when it feels as though the game’s momentum will change. At the end of 4, I’ve struck out six of their hitters, and we’re ahead eleven to nothing. They have two or three hits.
In hindsight, it’s easy to imagine that if I’d really been paying attention to what was taking place, at this juncture, I’d have had to fight off a huge rush of adrenaline. There’s a rule — the slaughter rule — that dictates a victory after only five innings, for a team that’s ahead by 15 runs, or more. We were within striking distance, as we came to bat in the top of the 5th. But even though I had that information stored somewhere in my memory banks, I was still, for all intents and purposes, just trying to get the ball over the plate. (Perhaps a less serious hangover might have been my undoing?)
We succeeded in bringing four runs across the plate in the top of the fifth, (I drove in two of them with a double to right center.) and we headed to the last of the 5th with that 15 run advantage. I struck out the first batter on a pitch that landed two and a half feet in front of home plate. Then things started to get a little slippery. Two of the next three batters walked, though the way it looked to me, half of the pitches called balls had been meatballs right down Broadway. The batter who didn’t walk lined out to shortstop. Then, with two strikes on him, the other team’s cleanup hitter popped up, and the ball veered foul, over the fence along the third base line. The game was over.
Such an odd feeling. It was so easy, so quick. I almost felt like I’d missed the whole thing.
A couple of years ago, I had the idea of writing a short story in which a major-league pitcher throws a perfect game with a bad hangover, and it occurs to him afterward that he’d accomplished perhaps the one thing that all pitchers dream of, but, because of his compromised mental state, he wasn’t really present while it was happening. It was an event he’d lived through, as though he’d been asleep on the bench. I’ve never written fiction, and I have a more than full-time job trying to keep this winery afloat, so I’ve never gotten around to writing the story. I noticed, however, in a story on the internet last week, that in Yankee pitcher David Wells’ upcoming biography, there’s a chapter about his perfect game a few years back, which he apparently threw with a pretty substantial hangover.
Dang! I’ve been scooped!
Come see us at the Rhone Ranger tasting April 26th at Fort Mason.
Details at: www.rhonerangers.org
We’ll be pouring the best wines we’ve ever made!