by Michael McAllister
A break-up is like a mid-life crisis. You come out of it, look around, and take stock. You buy hair plugs or find yourself doing things you’ve never done before – like joining a gay softball team. Heartbroken, with a lot of time on my hands, I ran into a friend who told me he’d just joined a D- league gay softball team.
“There’s a D league?” I asked. I never knew gay softball had divisions below C. I’d never played a team sport, having been one of those gay boys easily cowed by chest-thumping straight boys. But I bought cleats and a glove and showed up for the first practice of the Lone Star Inferno team, fantasizing that a hidden talent would emerge and I’d be hastily promoted, maybe up to the B-league. Our coach would shake her head: “I hate to let him go, but I can’t in good conscience stunt his natural athleticism.”
Let’s just say I was lucky there was no F-league. Of all the sports I could have chosen to launch my newly single life, softball may have been the one for which I was least suited. I dropped balls, tore hamstrings, and struck out.
I hated being bad at something, especially in front of so many people. Now, we’re talking D-league gay softball; the stakes couldn’t have been lower. But as a writer, I’d just received a string of career rejections, and the failure of my relationship – of which I’d had great hopes – only compounded my feelings of inadequacy. But hot guys came to our Lone Star beer busts, I’d begun to understand the particular satisfaction of belonging to a team, and our second baseman said I looked hot in a catcher’s mask, so I decided to stick around.
I spent the next few weeks researching sports anxiety, downloading a podcast geared specifically to the softball player that was hosted by an old ex-wrestler who counseled the listener on self-confidence.
“Ladies,” he said, “You may be a natural alpha bitch…”
I’d imagined that turning myself into an athlete would earn me more respect. I’d get a sports cup and a baseball cap and life would change. Still, I hit every practice with focus, if not finesse, and hit the batting cages on my own time. I listened to my coach and the other players. I improved at practice, hitting and fielding a little more reliably each time. But stepping into the batter’s box at games, I’d feel my chest tighten, and I’d strike out every time.
I just wanted a single. One little base, and we’d go from there.
By this point in the season I’d been hanging out again with Joe, my ex, and we treaded around each other cautiously, trying to figure out if there was something left to salvage. He started showing up at my games to cheer me on.
At the next game we were down by four runs in the last inning, with two outs. If I struck out or popped up, the game would be over. Mouth dry, I stepped into the box, where I quickly racked up two balls and one strike. After each pitch I’d try to fill the bottom of my lungs. Then I’d exhale and repeat, “Eye on the ball, eye on the ball, all the way in, see the ball hit the bat…”
The ball hit the bat.
With a nice solid grounder, I dropped the bat and took off running, all the way through first base. Safe.
The next batter got me to second, and the next batter got me home. I crossed that plate like a D-league god, and stood trembling in the dugout. All of that pressure I’d put on myself. All of that worry. I’d merely hit a single, in D-league gay softball.
But this was never just about D-league gay softball. It was about courting risk: the risk of disappointing others. The risk of looking stupid in public. The risk of working your ass off towards a goal but still failing.
I felt a rush of embarrassing emotion, and turned and faced away from the field, since there’s no crying in softball. My ex, who’d climbed down from the bleachers, gripped my fingers through the chain link fence as the tears got the best of me. He already knew why.
I’d joined softball as a social outlet, but as the season progressed I’d found a new confidence spreading into other areas of my life. Compared to the gray zones of love and writing, where successes and failures were hard to quantify, softball offered solid data. Knowing I’d hit four singles in one game filled me with solid satisfaction as I limped away from the field on torn ligaments. At the end of the season, my team awarded me a prize of which I am deeply, unabashedly proud: “Most Improved Player.”