This is a story about an adult co-ed softball game, and a particular tiny moment in time that revealed a simple but profound truth to me; however, to set up the story I have to go back to childhood, that time of big dreams, joyful play and boundless enthusiasm. I'm thinking in particular of my fifth grade year, a time when my classmates and I invented, or perhaps re-invented, a recess game we named "Smash". It was a simple game - 12 to 15 of us would gather out in the schoolyard with a ball of almost any kind, surrounding it closely as it lay on the grass. Eventually one brave soul would snatch the ball and run, the rest of us tearing after him with the intent of tackling him to the ground as viciously as we could, at which point he would let go of the ball and someone else would grasp it and run, only to be chased again by the screaming mob. If, either through fear or just bungling, the ball carrier dropped the ball before being tackled, a penalty was assessed, consisting of the entire horde jumping on top of him in a classic dog pile - thus the name, "Smash". Being 10 year old boys, this seemingly senseless activity was endlessly fun.
The typical strategy for the ball carrier was to run like hell and hope only one or two of his fellow players would catch him to make the tackle. I was not one of the large guys in my class, in fact a bit on the small side, so playing this game had more hazards for me than most. However, I had a wild streak in me in those days and played the game a little differently. My small size had one advantage - I was quick and could snatch the ball up and get away before the others could react, usually attaining a good 10 yard lead on the group before they came up to speed. It was at that point that my strategy diverged - I would stop, turn, put my head down, let out a roar and charge straight into the howling pack, usually to be bruised and battered while being pummeled soundly to the ground, laughing gleefully.
That year was also one in which I really discovered baseball. My friends and I would go out almost every nice Saturday morning in the spring and play on the schoolyard diamond until sundown, oblivious to the world outside of the playing field, lost in the endless drama of fly balls, grounders, and the glorious line drive in the gap. That summer I joined a little league team and started at shortstop for the first time, reveling in my new found role in the middle infield, excited at the possibility that any play might come my way. I was perhaps an above average player, but nothing spectacular, so I was pleased when at the end of the season I won my first and only award, granted to me by my teammates - a tiny trophy with the label "Most Inspirational Player".
Now let's flash forward to my 44th year. A few years before I had joined an adult coed softball team, and each summer we played every Saturday for a couple of months. The idea of joining a team like this is pretty basic - the opportunity to run around like a kid for a couple of hours, have a few beers and a few laughs afterwards, and occasionally go home with a teammate to have drunken sex. That's about it. And so it was for me for several summers until a fateful Saturday afternoon when in the flash of just a few seconds...
I was playing shortstop, my old childhood position. In softball the game is played on a little league sized field, quite a bit smaller than a hardball field. This is fine when you're a little munchkin, but playing infield that close to a batter when he's 250 pounds and swinging out of his shoes requires being on one's toes at all times lest a vicious line drive finds itself colliding with your noggin. On that particular day we were being hammered by the other team, a condition that had most of my teammates sagging in despair but which inspired in me a seething anger, an irrational desire to have my revenge in some manner, however small. Late in the game the opponents best hitter - a huge fellow who had already humiliated us with 2 impossibly long home runs - came to bat with a runner on first. His presence at the plate shot my adrenaline up, and I settled into a steely resolve, bent over at the waist, glove hovering inches above the dirt, ready for anything he could send my way. On the first pitch he lashed a vicious grounder past the pitcher, headed up the middle into center field.
What happened next transpired in no more than 3 seconds, so let's take ourselves into slow motion, like in the movies. I can remember clearly my reactions and thoughts, but they must have been flying at the speed of light (the effects of anger and adrenaline, perhaps), because so much happened in that micro-moment. My first automatic reaction at the first hop of the ball was to break toward second base, a simple reflex and no more. Then I clearly remember thinking there was no way in hell I could catch up with that ball; the best I could do was frustrate and humiliate myself by making the effort. A clear signal went to my legs to stop, give up on it, resign myself to the inevitable and position myself for the ensuing throw in from the center fielder. However....do you remember my previous discussion of Yang will and Yin will? It's only in retrospect that I'm making this connection, of course, but I see it clearly now - my Yang will, the desire to create, to act, kicked in and I bolted even more quickly toward a point in short center field where my only chance to cut off the ball would be. Simultaneously, my Yin will, the receptive, looked my doubts straight in the eye and ordered them to "let go". Sadly, despite the heroic partnering of Yin will and Yang will, I realized as I approached the last step toward the ball that it would be impossible to catch up to it - my animal instincts, trained for millions of years in my DNA to calculate instantly the trajectory and speed of game in the hunt, knew with certainty that I was too late. There would be no joy in Mudville, as the tale of Mighty Casey so sadly laments.
This is where, as I think back on Dostoevsky's truism, the faith of childhood took over. Rather then helplessly watch the screaming grounder rip past me, my Yang will gave one last order to my aging body and I leapt with all my might, body parallel to the ground, my Yin will shouting "Let Go!!!!!!". Practically dislocating my shoulder, I thrust my glove out and as I hit the ground, sliding on my belly, the ball nestled into the very tip of the webbing. The impossible had happened - I had stopped the ball, cut it off from it's destined journey into the outfield. It was, by definition, a miracle.
But I wasn't done. I knew there was a runner heading from first to second base, and if I got the ball there before he arrived we would make an out. There was a dilemma, however, that needed to be reconciled - I was on my belly in short center field 5 yards behind the bag, my back to the play. I had no time to get up and look to make a throw, so by instinct I did the only thing I could - I flipped the ball blindly over my shoulder in the general direction I presumed second base to be. The second baseman was covering the bag, the ball somehow went right to him, a half step ahead of the runner. He was out. Another miracle.
Now, you may argue that the play was always possible, that it unfolded just as the laws of motion and momentum would dictate, that my characterization was merely hyperbole. But I know better; one moment the ball was past me, the next it was in the webbing of my glove. The toss to second base was awkward, completely blind, and nothing but an act of faith. I know a miracle when I see one (besides, I did say miracle with a "small m").
And like all good miracles, there was something gained. Later, upon reflection, I remembered my trophy in little league, and realized why I had won it - in their boyhood hearts my teamates knew that when I was on the field I treated every play as a possible miracle. And I realized that a cynical, jaded middle-aged man had been granted a moment of grace - the miracle had finally happened.