I was waiting to order a drink at the bar*. As I did a woman walked past and, in an American accent, said: "I like your shirt". I mumbled a "thanks" with an ashamed smile. Normally this kind of random nicety would cause me to smile broadly back, but my shoe-gazing response was for a simple reason: my shirt said "Mets" and I support the Yankees.
There was a time when I followed the Mets. Their white, blue and orange uniforms and their plucky underdog status in New York had me backing them for a couple of years. Then I realised an important fact about the team: they suck. And I already follow a number of teams that suck (don't we all).
A friend and fellow Mets fan was shocked and appalled that I might move my allegiance from Queens to the Bronx. He even went so far as to call it a "douche move". Fair enough. Yankees fans are not known to be nice, well-heeled individuals; and to move across town from the struggling, bumbling Mets to the most-Championships-in-MLB-history Yankees isn't exactly sporting.
So why was I wearing a Mets shirt, like some stinking hipster wearing "ironic" sportswear? Well, truth be told, I prefer the Mets logo. I love the style and the typography and the colours (royal blue with New York orange). And, it can't be helped, everyone who wears a Yankee cap is a dick.
Though I do seriously love baseball; it's my cricket, so to speak. I like the slow speed, the countrified descriptions of the commentators, the general laid-back nature of the whole thing. If the ball goes into the crowd and you catch it, you get to keep it. I can work happily with the NY WCBS radio feed playing in the background: "It is high! It is far! It is… gone!" Professional baseball has been around for a long time, so long that the Dodgers were once charmingly called the Bridegrooms (as it is, Dodgers is short for "Trolley Dodgers" which was a description for Brooklyn-ites avoiding being run down by trolley buses).
All of this is why I joined a softball team last year.
Poneke-Kilbirnie (2B) was my team. We were at the bottom of the men's social league, and this was a good thing as I hadn't played organised sports since I was in an indoor soccer team at university in the late 90s. I had been thinking about playing softball for a while when I saw a random tweet from a friend asking if anyone wanted to join the team.
I was no star player (batting average of .343 with 7RBIs and 11 strike-outs** on the season). But I did provide occasional comedy, which can be a big morale booster. Batting at the end of the order and with a knack for not being able to remember the strike count (with a batting style that did actually get better over time), I was not viewed as a threat by the opposition.
I played right field, and given the non-tropical climate of Wellington, was sometimes out there in some terrible weather. One game, played in the hills of Newlands, saw the field covered in low fog, so when a pop fly went up it disappeared leaving the fielders standing as though questioning God.
My lack of cleats (shoes with spikes) also did not aid my fielding attributes. While fielding in the pouring rain (home plate was underwater and the game would finally be called off) I ran for a fly ball. It was going to be a close call: I was either going to catch it or stop it on the first bounce then fire it to second. What happened was my feet went to stop for the catch but instead of the usual deceleration I was expecting, my feet kept going away from the rest of my body. I realised at some point in my forward motion that my feet were no longer touching the ground and my butt was travelling downwards, carefully obeying gravity. Once I hit the grass I didn't slide far, but I did slide.
Now normally the centre fielder, Bradley, would come over in cover in case of a mistake. This time around the ball was gathered by Bradley, but the throw was awry, because he was laughing so hard. It's hard to be accurate with tears streaming down your face.
Our final three games were the best. We finished the season 5-1-9 and yet still made the post-season. Such are the mysteries of Men's second division softball.
Before the last game of the regular season we were told that if we won, we'd make the semis. I'm not sure how this was the case, but had something to do with a mid-season demotion by the other team.
I believe that I have set myself up as some bumbling clown on the field. This is slightly unfair and self-deprecating; however, during this game I couldn't muster a single hit and felt like a fool at the plate. Thankfully it was a dry day and my fielding was decent.
Worse was the feeling of tension. This game actually meant something. Winning this game could validate our season. We could make the goddamn play offs!
At one point, with the scores tied, a hitter came to the plate who had gone deep previously. Our pitcher yelled at the left fielder to move back . The left fielder didn't move. What followed was a discussion between the two players wherein the pitcher gesticulated angrily, while the left fielder stayed where he was. It was a little awkward though we all understood why it was happening. The pitcher gave in, turned, set, and delivered the ball. A hit to left field! It looped up in the air and without ever moving his feet the fielder reached up and took the catch for the final out of the inning. The pitcher also stood still as the fielder jogged in and offered his hand as an apology. It was tense, funny and perfect all in one.
In the top of the final inning I made another plate appearance with our team down by one and currently sucking badly. What made it worse is that this was the only game my girlfriend at the time had attended (she would later say of my fielding, "well, you didn't fall down"). The preceding batter had singled with no outs. I was up and the pitcher who had me guessing all day instantly threw a strike. Then I had one of those magical sports moments, my swing connected with the wonderful sound of a metal bat hitting a synthetic material pretending to be bright yellow leather. Sort of like a loud "plink".
The ball rocketed to right and I was off. The runner at first rounded second, heading for third, and was waved home as the ball was bobbled in the field before being thrown to second. No hits all game then an RBI double to tie the game in the final inning. I was well chuffed (or at least I was when I came in, because at the time I wasn't sure of the score). The captain would come up to bat with two outs and hit a home run to bring me in.
We finished the game with a 18-15 win, a box full of beer in the sunshine, and the knowledge that we were in the play-offs next week.
The semi-final couldn't be any different to the previous game. Boy I tell ya, we hit that day! Everyone was a slugger and I managed an entire game with no outs, including hitting a rocket to left that I was very proud of. The opposing pitcher was changed and then came back as his replacement was hit as just often. When he returned you could see the fire was gone and we were heading to a "mercy rule" finish.
That's when I was hit by a pitch. Right on the ankle and it hurt like a bitch. I hobbled the rest of the game but we were almost assured a victory by that stage. Final score: 24-10
The final was played on a proper diamond in Hataitai against the Johnsonville Fossils. I wasn't there, due to a previously planned trip to Auckland. There was apparently a decent crowd with music and a live commentator. We lost 8-18. Perhaps overawed by the occasion.
I'm glad my final few games were some of my best. I'm not sure how my memories would be tainted if the team had gone out on a bum note. That same low feeling you get when you get struck out looking. The empty air and deflating sound of the ball slapping the catcher's mitt. Instead I went out on the feeling of extra weight at the end of your bat and the unthinking push your back foot gives into the dirt as it launches you towards first while your eyes, and everyone else's, stay fixed on the ball.