Family sports day requires a family of sports

Our annual Sports Day is a stellar event, a time when intrepid members from four families choose up sides and engage in team sports. The key to the day's success is simple. We realize that our group ranges widely in age and ability, so we make allowances for one another. As one of our players said: "When your Sea World demonstration includes jellyfish as well as dolphins, you don't expect both to jump through hoops."

This year Sports Day fell on a recent Saturday. Initially, our four-vehicle caravan pulled up to a public volleyball facility. The court was being used by four adult players - two teams of two. They offered to consolidate into one team that would challenge our group.

We noticed that our prospective opponents were capable of hitting the ball over the net, a fact that gave them a severe advantage. They'd be announcing "game point," I reckoned, before we had even worked out where our players should stand and what direction they should face.

I could brusquely assign positions, I thought, saying, "You play left forward. You play center back." But with 15 players in our group, I would soon be saying, "You play middle left-of-center deep forward. You play center semi-left shallow back." It would lead to confused wandering on our side of the net and, eventually, a sit-down strike.

We politely refused the volleyball challenge, deciding that our group should play baseball instead. Because uniformed teams were using the local diamond, I led our caravan to a dirt lot that said "ball field" to me.

True, it had boulders, weeds, and a 40-foot eucalyptus tree behind second base, but apart from all that, it was perfect. The others humored me, knowing that the site stirred fond memories of the sandlot of my youth, a field that had me climbing an embankment to get to third base and stepping around an abandoned Buick to shag a fly.

While disembarking from trucks and vans, our group effortlessly formed into two teams. Six-year-old Cassie and her 8-year-old cousin, Gwen, named the teams after cereal products, causing Gwen's dad to decry children who watch too much television. Nevertheless, we remained the Raisin Brans versus the Frosted Flakes.

As each player came to bat, he or she was given this choice: fat bat or standard wooden bat. The fat bat is a caricature of a regulation bat - its barrel is as big around as a Christmas ham. Composed of a hard plastic shell filled with air, it is a cross between a piece of sporting equipment and a Macy's parade float. It is used with a plastic ball that travels no more than 20 feet, regardless of how hard it is struck. (If that ball were shot from a battleship's cannon, it still would travel no more than 20 feet.) To my surprise, many selected the fat bat option.

If we could study aerial motion pictures of our game, we would see defensive alignments expanding and contracting like accordions. They were constantly adjusting to equipment choices - moving way up for one batter, way back for the next. Defensive positioning was the day's main source of exercise.

Cassie, a shrewd youngster, asked if she could swing the fat bat at the volleyball, thereby more than doubling the surface area of the object to be struck. We agreed. Then Cassie pressed her luck by asking if she could determine what equipment Jason must use.

Jason, a 20-year-old Raisin Bran in his athletic prime, was walloping the softball during each at-bat. No doubt Cassie, a Frosted Flake, would have had him swinging at a Ping-Pong ball with a conductor's baton.

My endorsement of the dirt lot came back to haunt me when a fly ball caromed off the 40-foot eucalyptus tree.

Ralph, Jason's dad, yelled, "Arboreal interference!"

Don, my neighbor and perhaps our sandlot's best legal mind, disagreed. Their lively exchange went like this:

"The tree in question is indigenous to the field, Ralph. It is part of the field. To be capable of interference, it needs to be foreign to the field," Don said.

"But, Don, when I'm about to catch a fly and something deflects the ball into another time zone ..." Ralph said.

"Even so, it does not meet the standard for interference, Ralph," Don said.

"But, Don, you can't think it's normal that there's this huge tree...."

"The tree is a condition of the field, Ralph, just as the abnormally high green wall in Fenway Park is a condition."

The issue was not settled that day, and probably will not be settled until it reaches the Supreme Court. We resumed play at the argument's outset, realizing that Ralph and Don were enjoying themselves and would spend the rest of the day locked in debate.

More controversy arose when a struck ball landed near one of our invisible foul lines. Several Frosted Flakes saw it as clearly fair, several Raisin Brans as clearly foul. The final arbiter was a preoccupied Harriet (Don's wife), the player nearest to where the ball landed.

When asked, "Fair or foul?" she looked up at the sky, thinking it was a weather question. Because it was a sunny day, the ball was ruled in bounds.

Pitching to Cassie was my biggest challenge. I knew that she liked the ball to float slowly toward her, like a dirigible that approaches for half an hour before its arrival. She stuck the fat bat over the plate, holding it motionless and parallel to the ground, hoping that its frozen position would impede the ball's progress. My duty, as she saw it, was to lob the volleyball in such a way that it would collide with her bat. Failure to hit her bat meant I was pitching poorly. After five attempts, I succeeded, and she experienced the thrill of offensive glory.

By game's end, both teams had scored in double figures, and everyone was pleasantly tired. As we made our way back to our vehicles, we spoke of holding another Sports Day soon after Christmas. We spoke of, perhaps, playing volleyball. I know what will happen. I will lead our group to a volleyball facility that has some kind of impediment on the court. Meanwhile, Cassie will have us volleying her massively oversized beach ball.

In other words, we all will have a wonderful time.

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