Organized sports have their place, but it's disorganized sports I love. And for me, the most perfectly disorganized game took place this summer. It was just batting practice, really: My 70-something mother caught and pitched. My best friend from grade school, John Breeden, was there with his nine-year-old daughter, Danielle. My best friend from graduate school, Cam Davis, supplied the bat and balls.
I'd driven thousands of miles on our annual trip to this baseball field in Bend, Ore., where John and Cam live. The Deschutes River meandered beyond right field, and we played under one of those summer evenings you feel will never end.
John, Cam, and I were all comparable athletes. Growing up, we were the skinny, small boys who loved sports more than anything but who didn't have the size or power to be stars. John washed out of organized baseball at 8; Cam quit at 14; and though I showed promise as a youngster, I quit at 12.
Now, almost three decades later, our love of play hasn't diminished, and there isn't 10 pounds of excess weight among the three of us. OK, 20.
John, of course, was the most eccentric: He played in thongs and without a glove.
Cam and I were amazed at the softness of John's hands. When athletes refer to soft hands, they mean hands that absorb the impact of the ball, catching it with quickness and grace. John picked up short-hops, hot grounders, and fly balls sans glove with nary a miss. That's what 40 years of continuous play, organized or not, will do for you.
I pointed out that John owes me, in part, for the softness of his hands because of the endless hours of baseball we played together as children, and he expressed his gratitude with a "Yeah, right."
Cam hit first, with his customary precision. The problem was that Danielle had very little pitching experience, so the pitches to Cam came anywhere within a six-foot radius of him. He hit well, given the circumstances, but he's not a bad-ball hitter.
Cam and I had been a team in the two-person, pick-up softball game of "over the line," where you pitch to your teammate. We took on former high-school stars and even former minor-league baseball players during my graduate-school years and never lost a game. If it wasn't the revenge of the nerds, it was at least the revenge of the skinny, late-maturing guys who'd played a fraction of the organized baseball our opponents had.
When John took his turn, he was relentlessly considerate. He'd hit one to Cam, then one to me, then one to a nine-year-old boy who wanted to join us. John had the opposite of Cam's classic hitting discipline. His daughter would pitch the ball somewhere in the same area code, and John would quickly shuffle his thonged feet to send a hit to each of us in turn.
Danielle said she didn't want to hit. But since the three of us all have daughters who get more opportunities to play sports (disorganized and organized) than any boy's ever been given, we gently, persistently, insisted - and were delighted when she hit twice as many balls as anyone else.
My mother is so selfless and unassuming, I almost forgot to ask if she wanted to hit. She had last played softball about six decades ago, with maybe a handful of hits in between. Because sports were foreign to my father, it was my mother who told me about Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. It was she who would patiently, gently, throw whiffle balls underhand to me in our shady Oregon backyard.
Now, 35 years later, it was my turn to pitch to my mom. At first, like Danielle, she balked, then accepted, and hit into the outfield almost every ball I pitched to her. We had as good a chance at catching them in our dropped jaws as in our gloves. She hit one grounder so hard it even caromed off John's soft hands.
Finally, it was my turn to hit, and I had neither Cam's discipline nor John's consideration. I was trying to hit one into the Deschutes, which is my annual quest on every trip to Bend.
I had my mom pitch to me. While she has the same problem with her pitching self-esteem that Danielle had (it's just lack of practice), most balls were thrown in front of me. The wind was blowing out to right field, and while that's not usually where I hit with the most power, the combination of wind, outfield fence, and river made it irresistible.
It was the classic problem: I was swinging for the fences. Not only that, I was swinging for the river. I swung ferociously, dribbling some into the infield and popping some up, also in the infield.
"Swing harder!" John yelled derisively from the outfield.
I was laughing so hard at his advice that I could barely swing the bat.
Finally, I digested his advice, got the pitch I wanted, and hit a line drive that hastily left the park, splashing into the Deschutes beyond the fence.
Cam is as thrifty as his Scottish ancestors, so he immediately climbed the fence and waded into the river after the ball. He threw it back onto the field like a Wrigley Field bleacher-bum disgustedly throwing an opposing team's home-run ball back onto the field, and climbed back over the fence.
Just then a sharp gust of wind blew his painter's hat out into the middle of the river. About that same time, tired of chasing pitches, I threw myself a fungo and hit it so high and deep it rivaled Cam's hat for distance.
"Did your mom pitch that?" Cam wailed as he saw the ball sailing into the middle of the river.
"Yes," I lied.
OK, Cam, so now you know. I owe you a new ball and a trip to the paint store for a new free hat.
But given the fun of this perfect game, the price of a softball is a bargain.
The love of disorganized sports is a lifelong commitment, as my mother showed. And no matter how many years go by or how many miles separate family, friends, and favorite playing fields, you never lose anything you really love - despite the occasional softball in the Deschutes River on an endless summer evening in Bend.