As is customary in venturing overseas, the change of lifestyle often becomes synonymous with experiencing “first times”. On this occasion, I was introduced to slow pitch softball. My first time. Don’t knock it until you try it! Some of my father’s colleagues participated in an organized softball league where games were regularly played at the Franklin D. Roosevelt High School over the weekends. They were scouting for new recruits to add on to the Canadian presence in a world dominated by American sluggers. My brother, Brian, who was somewhat more gifted when it came to organized sports – at least better natural ability and coordination, especially after my major growth spurt – had agreed to join, so I was happy to tag along and give it a shot. I would love to say that I was courageous and a superstar athlete ready to represent my country while thumping Yanks around the field, but really it was just an honour to serve my country as best I could and share an activity with my compatriots.
|Brian pitching up a storm|
The team setup was predominantly American, as previously mentioned. The teams I can remember from back then are: AID (Americans from various aid organizations), DEA (somewhat self-explanatory), Embassy (not many career diplomats there, mainly US marines responsible for Embassy security), Fetzer (a school of American Baptist kids who seemed to get by on walks), Profes (the Roosevelt teachers and major rivals to the students), Prophets (adequate name for a team of mainly US missionaries bringing the word of The Big Man Upstairs), Roosevelt (a team of students from the school, mainly High Schoolers) and Team Canada. The latter was perhaps the most fun loving of all the teams and I was fortunate to be on the roster. The Canadian talent, a source of national pride, counted among their ranks two RCMP officers, Alain Lambert and Jim Whalen, Stuart Bale, our admin officer, David Marshall, a trade commissioner, Gilles Rivard, head of the development section, Jules Audet, representing the Canada-Peru development program, Dave Schmidt, working for FedEx, Michel, a UN employee who looked like Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Scott, the lone American who had been excluded from the DEA team for some reason. Brian found his knack on the pitching mound, demonstrating great form and intestinal fortitude. Mario Lambert and I were there as well representing the rest of the promising youth.
The way Canadians explained the game to my brother and I was to just get out there, take a swing and have fun. That was the reason for playing slow pitch softball. Everyone had their chance to shine facing a slow ball almost anyone could hit, leading to a momentary belief of being amazing. Nobody and everybody was a hero. My fellow countrymen took this sport and its philosophy to a whole different and enjoyable level. I remember on some occasions, our batters who will remain nameless ran out of the batter’s box chasing a bad pitch to hit while everyone else had a good laugh on the bench. Sportsmanship was everything to us even if we were doing a ridiculous job. The opposition frowned on our disregard for real competition and the proper rules. The umpires were perhaps among the few locals involved in the Saturday league and had little to no understanding of the basic rules such as foul balls – when a ball is hit and lands outside of the line – or strikes - a ball being missed when swung at or hitting the plate after a high arching parabola. This was sometimes frustrating as some teams played for walks. I recall my brother initiating confrontations over a bad call against our side with one of the umpires and all our team rallied behind him in support. The other teams, which took their game very seriously, over-competitiveness and aggression was common, but not for the laid-back Canadians. We were not out there primarily to win games - we hardly ever did - but we felt we deserved the same treatment our rivals enjoyed. If we complained, other teams and their fans (usually spouses taking in the game) looked down at us claiming we were whining. If they did it, it was normal. Therefore it was a league of whiners. Most of the time however, nobody had as many laughs and as good a time as we did.
I had never played baseball or softball in my life, and neither did Brian. This did not deter us from engaging in the activity. In the beginning, I was not too sure if the glove was supposed to go on my right or left hand as neither seemed exactly comfortable – although I am ambidextrous. While warming up before a weekend match – our only source of practice - I missed a catch as I tossed a ball around with Jim Whalen, hitting me right in the knee. That was some awful pain I never wanted to replicate again. He suggested I walk it off, as all police-machoman-tough guys would, and eventually the pain would go away. He was right. Although no real technique was taught (i.e. positioning for a catch, defending a line-drive, how to time your swing when up at bat), we continued to practice a variation of America’s favourite pastime. It was apparent that the game did not require superior athleticism even though none among us was particularly good. The key was hand-eye coordination to determine positioning. The Marines annoyingly would say to their batters when they didn’t swing, regardless of the nature of the pitch “good eye”. The ball used in the game is significantly bigger than a baseball. Not only is it easier to keep an eye on it, but the speed is greatly reduced as it travels through the air. Aside from this, depending on what position you are assigned to in the field, you would have to sprint from time to time to make a play and having a bigger ball travelling slower makes it a game pretty much anyone can play. I thought I could get a hang of this eventually with practice, although our team did not consider that to be important. Warm-up on game day was good enough, a very Canadian approach to competition.
|Best picture I could find of the Softball field|
The league was also undergoing a period of expansion as a new franchise team was added the same year Brian and I were on our rookie season. The team in question was Mobil. The team was made up of some US executive businessmen from Mobil Oil, recently setting up operations in Peru. The rest of their roster seemed to include locally-engaged staff that had never played the game before and appeared to be coerced into the sport in a team-building effort. They did have some nice uniforms though. Maybe someone lost a bet on poker night, but they did not seem to want to be there at all. Their first match was against our team, a game we won easily. Hard to believe as we generally did not win. As a matter of fact, Stuart Bale, the closest we had to a team captain, had not come on that fateful day as he was ill. Upon arriving to work on Monday, my Dad bumped into him and told him the news. My Dad had never seen Stuart so disappointed, missing the only game in his entire posting that his team won. Mobil became better as they improved their skills and showed promising teamwork on the field, eventually declaring that their goal before the end of the season was to beat the Canadians. They trained twice a week on school grounds whereas the Canadians continued their relaxed attitude. When game day came along, the men on a mission came up short against us. I thoroughly enjoyed being on this team as it brought a sense of camaraderie among my countrymen and the true value of sportsmanship: it’s just a game.