The Steel Begonias and Me

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:40

    I may have just managed my last softball season in the Berkeley women's C league. As I write this, the Steel Begonias, which I formed two years and four seasons ago, are into the second week of the summer season, which goes on for 12 games into the middle of September, without me.

    I retired myself. I promised to take the team back in August, but I'm not sure I will. The Begonias were the first new women's team in Berkeley in years. By creating it, I became part of an arcane Berkeley subgroup, which is made up of a nearly constant population of 80 to 90 women.

    It's a very inbred world. "Where did you come from?" a member of the opposing team asked me at our first game. Until I moved to Berkeley in 1994, I had never played organized baseball or softball other than in a beer media league in Baltimore with City Paper, Russ Smith's first paper. Russ pitched and I caught. That way we each had a safe place to park our beer cans. We had a shitty record, and most of it was pretty forgettable. But I remember a play I had at the plate against a particularly obnoxious ad agency when one of their big guys, probably the account exec for a moribund Baltimore institution like Hamburger's men's store, tried to score from second on a well-hit single. As he rounded third, I took a throw to home and held my glove out to make the tag. He tried to take me out, sending both of us sprawling. I can't recall whether I held onto the ball, but I think the other team was so ashamed they gave us the out.

    When a neighbor of ours said he needed women for his coed team, I said I had played. That's how I got the rightfielder's job on Crazy Fingers (our uniform was a tie-dyed shirt with a stencil of a hand with one shortened digit in honor of Jerry Garcia), two-time C and B league champs. I stayed for five years and 10-plus seasons. Since there was so much room for improvement, I got better over time, to the point where I can line a single into left two out of four or five at bats. The better male players, already past their primes, merely grew older.

    When our son got involved in Little League a few years later, between helping out in practices and scoring his two weekend games, I was spending five days a week on or near a baseball diamond.

    So when Mary, the backup pitcher for Crazy Fingers, asked if I would start a women's team, it didn't seem like such a stretch. She was my linchpin because she could throw consistent strikes. None of the other women on our team wanted to play, though. They were worried it would be too competitive.

    Between PTA contacts and Little League moms, I gathered nine players by the registration deadline. I came up with the name, Steel Begonias, on the drive downtown. No one got it or liked it much, but it sounds pretty cool to hear a player yell, "Come on, Begonias, tight D." That first season, I was pleased enough to never forfeit a game because of too few players. I think we may have won one.

    The supposition about Berkeley women's softball is that not many women want to play, but I was collecting new players every week. My open dugout policy was in complete contrast to the established teams. They're closed systems, having reached a tenuous balance, which is hard to achieve, given the players' physical limitations.

    The largest group is women over 40 who can only catch, pitch or play first. Next are the late 20s and early 30s softball warriors who just want a game. And then there's the handful of college or high school stars. One such player this year had a very rude habit of throwing people out at first from centerfield.

    With the exception of the one ringer team each season, the league is nearly all white. The umpires and the people who run the program are black, male, middle-aged former jocks. They do their jobs very lackadaisically, and I'm not sure how they've gotten away with it for so long. (Nearly every encounter I've had with other Berkeley agencies has been very satisfactory.) The official mailings are littered with logical and grammatical inconsistencies; the umpires usually treat us like children; and our field is too small, poorly lit and badly maintained.

    It takes time to master the peculiar logic that governs managing a team at this level. First, you have to keep in mind that people have paid to play. So everyone has to be amused and allowed field time. But winning is fun, too. Power hitters come in two varieties: the larger, slower types who need to hit the equivalent of a triple so they have time to get to first, and the true competitors who must be able to restrain themselves when one of us Little League moms drops an easy fly ball. Defensively, you are handcuffed by other limitations. By my last season, I had three people who needed to play first and two who could only play third. Five of my roster were not physically able to play the outfield. And then there's the odd headcase trying to relive her glory days.

    Fortunately, I managed to tap into the warrior network and accumulate six or seven star-quality, seasoned players. One held down the infield at second, another played first and the rest cheerfully gave up their traditional infield roles to make my outfield the strongest in the league. It got to the point where we had a consistent lineup from week to week?that's when we started winning more games than we lost. Last fall we beat the second-place team for the championship playoffs against Come Ready Too, the current A-level ringer black team.

    This spring, we finished 6-4, which I considered 6-2 since two of the losses were to Come Ready Too. But we lost to the third-place team in the first round of the playoffs. It wasn't pretty. The other team had a bases-loaded triple to right that our rightfielder thought the umpire had called foul, so she didn't make the play. Someone else on our team thought she spotted some ringers.

    We decamped to a bar in downtown Berkeley and reminisced. One veteran told about an old team of hers from the 70s called Casual Sex. About 10:30, some people from the team we lost to filtered in from their 9:15 championship game against Come Ready Too. "We had five good innings," the manager said grimly.

    Later in the week, one of my players called to complain: about the bad umpiring, my plans to let someone else manage and her not being assigned her favorite position, which she is not physically able to play. She was talking to me as if I were the manager, for whom players performed to earn their jobs.

    "Think of me as the party planner," I interrupted. "I just try to see that people have fun."

    "But I thought you liked to win," she said.

    Afterward, I realized she was partly right. It was indeed more fun to manage when we won. And if everyone played her best game, we could beat Come Ready Too someday. Besides, I still haven't hit a home run.