Now that the World Series is shaping up to be pretty uninspiring (we hate the Rangers, can’t believe the Cardinals are still in it, and can bring ourselves to root for the Brewers mostly on account of our love for vegetarian slugger Prince Fielder), it’s time to invest in Montgomery’s most high-octane fall sport.
That’s right, dear readers – we are talking league co-ed league softball! It’s too late to join a team this year, but you can still catch some games during the fall season if you get yourself over to Lagoon Park in the next few weeks.
In the future, if you want to play you’ll need to get on a team. This involves making one yourself or joining an existing infrastructure. Some teams are made up of people who work together, occasionally including affiliates like spouses or siblings. Others are linked together by church membership or social group. Still others seem to have accumulated over a few seasons, shedding dead weight and adding better players until they deserve a suitably threatening name. Unless you own some baseball pants and used to play college ball, the latter sort of team is probably out for you.
Before your game, you might want to hit the batting cages at the front of the park. It’s easy to feel the tug of the collective pop-cultural unconscious when you go to the little sliding window staffed by a nice-seeming older man. He dispenses cards and tokens. He’s had to make up new cards because someone was photocopying them. You wonder who would even think of doing something like this, cheating this nice man out of his humble little business, and then sadly remember you’re living in the United States of Goldman Sachs as he gives you six tokens for the cages. Choose among the war-torn bats of various weights and handle tape colors and get to work making hollow noises as you whack at floaty balls coming out of the pitching machine.
Thursday is co-ed night. In the spring season, co-eds play on Tuesdays too. In the fall, they play two games in one night, at 6:20, 7:20 or 8:20. To play, you have to have five men and five women. You can bat six and six, with more on the sub list. You have to alternate men and women, and the league uses a larger ball for men than it does for women. This means one of the home plate umpire’s main responsibilities is handing the relevant ball to the catcher, or throwing it themselves if they are feeling especially frisky (or if the catcher is especially incompetent, more rule than exception given the “dumping ground” status of the position on most of the co-ed teams).
The rules are extremely gender-conscious. If a man walks, he takes two bases. This is ostensibly to prevent teams from walking men so that they can pitch to women. Lineups must be gender-balanced in the infield and outfield, so that you’ve got two men and two women in the outfield (yes, there are four in the outfield) and a three/three split infield. Some of the women are extremely good at softball, just like some of the men are. But there are some teams where women have clearly been drafted and/or bribed to play so that the team will “make.” We once played a team where all the women had pink bats and batting gloves. They said they had demanded the special equipment from their husbands as compensation for playing on the team. I think I would have asked for something better than pink softball equipment. Women rarely pitch, so the catcher is almost always the weakest female player on the team after whoever gets sentenced to stand out in right field (hell during mosquito season, a dreamy abandoned heaven on cool fall nights).
Softball isn’t baseball. In the first place, there’s a different architecture of noise: bats chunk or clink rather than crack, many players don’t know how to call catches or organize plays (or they are too selfish to try) and there’s a surprising amount of heckling both between teams and within teams. The rules are different, too. There’s no sliding and no bunting. If your team hits a home run, any subsequent hits out of the park will get you out until the other team scores with their own dinger.
Everyone seems to manage their team a little differently. Some are obviously rabidly competitive, with folks getting chewed out for bad plays and humiliated by their peers. Others are competitive, but having a good time – there’s lots of good-natured ribbing exchanged between players, much of it loud and hilarious. Still others have decided to eschew competition altogether, preferring instead to rotate folks through positions and not hassle each other when errors pile up. The most fun games to watch are when serious (but not too serious) teams play each other.
Lagoon Park is one of Montgomery’s few integrated social scenes. This is true even though the teams themselves are largely segregated (“that’s one of those black teams,” folks will sometimes say, the “black” sotto voce the vocal equivalent of two raised eyebrows, as in: You know what I’m saying, and I know what I’m saying, but in case you don’t agree with what I’m saying I can always say oh no, that’s not what I meant at all).
Casual racism doesn’t stop the diverse crowd from lining up peaceably for overpriced concessions. You can pay movie theater prices for the usual sweet and salty snacks – over-iced Cokes in styrofoam cups, round and vaguely stale chips served with a side of slippery cheese and then move along to the bleachers to watch a game.
The games themselves are fun, fast and too often over before they start. Teams forfeit because they don’t have enough women, or men, or just because people were drinking and smoking in the parking lot and didn’t make it into the park in time (Lagoon Park is “family friendly,” which they explain means no booze, no smoking and no cursing). You could miss other games while in line at the concession stand because the “mercy rule” kicked in 15 runs into an especially lopsided matchup.
The fields are well kept and studiously monitored by the folks sitting up in the central tower, who will demand your lineup and hassle you if you make illegal substitutions or commit other rule infractions, even as they are unfailingly polite and as Southern as the red Alabama infield dirt. Which is surprisingly hard to get off in the laundry, adding place to the variety of prides felt in evidence of an illegal slide or a diving catch.
Win or lose, nachos or popcorn, spring or fall, Lagoon Park is an unfailingly fun place to spend a weeknight playing or watching a sport that gets a bad rap as the pastime of the people too drunk, stupid or female to play baseball.