Saturday, September 3, 1985
Three a.m. Saturday morning, Labor Day weekend. I’m behind the wheel of my beat up Chevy Blazer, wearing a red and grey-striped softball jersey, with “Holden Electric” scripted in crimson across the chest. In the passenger’s seat, my wife Carole, a white cotton ball stuffed in each ear, is dozing off. The tape deck blares out a medley of Beach Boys’ songs from the “Endless Summer” album, my favorite road trip music. Still five hours left to go on this crazy, impulsive excursion.
We left Sutton’s Bay, a chi-chi, Lake Michigan resort town at ten p.m. last night, en route to Houghton, an old northern mining town located on the western tip of Michigan’s fabled Upper Peninsula. It’s a nine-hour drive. And we’re out here halfway between whistle stops like Manistique and Munising because my former softball mates–a fastpitch team I’d played on and managed for fifteen years–is competing in the state finals for the first time. Their game starts at 9 a.m. And as much as I hate to own up to it, I desperately want to make it there on time. My dilemma, for which I take all the blame, is that Carole and I are booked on a transatlantic fight from Detroit to Paris; and the plane leaves on Monday afternoon at 4 p.m. That’s less than three days from now. What the hell was I thinking when I made this knuckleheaded decision?
I look over at Carole, still sound asleep and curled up in a fetal position, her head pressed softly into the pillow. Even in baggy, faded jeans and an oversized red sweatshirt, even with no makeup, at forty two Carole still has that same unadorned beauty she has always possessed—naturally curly auburn hair; expressive liquid brown eyes; long, dark lashes, a perfectly shaped nose, soft, smooth cheeks, pouty lips, and that lilting childlike voice tinged with a New Yawk accent, a tone of voice that’s captivated me ever since she was a seventeen year old high school senior.
With Carole, what you see is what you get. Her artless appearance matches her calm, unaffected demeanor. But I know I’m testing her composure. I may have already pushed her too far. Carole stirs. I turn the music down.
“Hey, I hear the Upper Peninsula is gorgeous at this time of year,” I say.
She yawns and pauses for a long moment. “Is that why we’re driving through it in the middle of the night?” she says, her lower lip curling into a tiny frown.
“We’ll make it back for the flight, I promise.”
My Adam’s apple knots up before I can even get the words out. Carole rolls her eyes, turns her head toward the door, and sinks back into her pillow. She’s been onto me for a long time. This dance, in fact, has become all too familiar to both of us.
I’m a forty-five year old writing professor and Carole’s a visual artist who has been living with my softball “jones” ever since we migrated here from New York City twenty-one years ago. Last September, almost a year ago to this day, I assured her I was done playing and managing this team—a team I’d handpicked and organized fifteen years ago while I was still working on my Ph.D.
Carole doesn’t trust me; and she’s right. My track record in the “I am quitting” department I admit is pretty dismal. God knows I’ve had enough excuses to step away, to gracefully phase myself out. But for as long as I can remember, precious few experiences have matched that intermittent sense of belonging I felt when I was part of a team. And, lately, I’ve been anxiously wondering what, if anything, is going to replace that jolt of elation that follows say a game-winning hit; or the “I really did that” sensation of catching up to an unreachable fly ball; or the bone-weary contentment that washes over you after you’ve played three consecutive games on a sweltering Sunday afternoon; or the afterglow at the local bar, where we’d hang around for hours in our uniforms and praise each other for the all “money” plays we made?
Over the years, I’ve even developed a strange attachment to those late night postmortems, where diehards like Billy Hurth, our no-nonsense centerfielder and Steve Pollok, our fiercely competitive shortstop, would linger over a beer with me, dissecting and replaying the screw-ups and flubs that helped us lose the game.
It’s all pretty crazy making stuff, even more so when you’re my age. I look over at Carole again, and a sudden but familiar panic overcomes me. Deep down I know that for the last few years, Carole has slowly been drifting away from me.
Over the past three summers, Carole, who by nature keeps her own counsel, has been spending more time with her women’s art group. They’re all fiercely independent women, and I know when they get together they talk about their personal relationships. I also know that some of them have very strong opinions about the way their male partners have treated them. I wonder if Carole talks to them about our marriage. And if so, what does she say?
Maybe I’m being overly paranoid, but I’m aware that lately Carole has seemed uncharacteristically distant, even moody, two qualities that until now, have never been part of her makeup. A piece of me senses that largely because of my stubborn insistence to keep on playing ball, our marriage may already be at the tipping point.
I remind myself again that Carole doesn’t ask for a hell of a lot. And the trip to France is as urgent to her as playing softball is to me. It’s something she has looked forward to since she took her first art history class fifteen years ago. Besides, it would be our first trip abroad together. But last fall, when I announced my intention to quit playing and managing, I didn’t count on my old team making it into the state finals, the only goal we hadn’t achieved in the fifteen years we’d been playing together.
Now, here I am driving anxiously through the night, one moment feeling like a giddy college kid anticipating his first Spring Break, and the next like an abject hypocrite. This last year I’ve been slowly realizing there’s a lot at stake here. And as we head toward Houghton, still some four hours away, I have nothing but time to think about it.
Five a.m. and we’ve just passed Munising where Route 2 west intersects with Route 41 northwest. Still some three-plus hours to go. As the last strains of “God Only Knows How Much I Love You” fade out, the tape deck clicks off. And for a moment I’m not sure where I am. I look out the driver’s side window, searching for some landmarks. When I pass a boarded up wooden building whose faded lettered sign still reads “Starlight Supper Club,” it strikes me that despite all the mythology I’ve heard about the Upper Peninsula being “God’s country,” throughout the years we’ve lived in Michigan I’ve never been curious enough to visit it.
The UP, as native Michiganders refer to it, is famous for its natural beauty–large tracts of state and national forests, cedar swamps, more than 150 waterfalls, and low population densities. And because of its extensive coastline on three of the five Great Lakes, the UP is one of the most desirable vacation destinations in the Midwest. Unfortunately, as Carole had earlier pointed out, in a lightly sarcastic tone, “But we won’t be seeing any of those natural wonders tonight, will we?” Her remark makes me wince.
When I pass an abandoned old ball field, the outfield snow fence lying on the ground in pieces, I think about some of the simpler pleasures of playing ball in small farm towns all over the state: the chirping of midnight crickets, the pungent aroma of a new fallen rain on the grass; the musty scent of fresh-cut hay and alfalfa; the flapping sound when the wind ruffles the corn stalks behind the outfield fence; and the calm tranquility I feel when I’m standing in left field between innings on a sunny Saturday afternoon in a lake resort town like Charlevoix or Petoskey, playing catch or just shooting the breeze with my outfield mate, Billy Hurth, while we watch squadrons of white gulls swoop in over Lake Michigan.
I remember the anticipation and excitement I felt when I first began playing in weekend tournaments; driving to road games, windows rolled down, fifties and sixties rock and roll music cranked up to the threshold of pain, and me singing the words as loud as I could and looking forward, just as I did in childhood, to a whole weekend of nothing to think about but playing ball.
I glance at the dashboard clock. It’s 5:30 a.m. A sudden stab of pain shoots across my lower back; and I feel a vice-like tightness in both hamstrings. Well what did I expect? Except for a few pit stops, I’ve been driving nonstop for almost six hours. And now that the adrenaline has worn off, I’m left with a visceral reminder of what got me thinking about quitting in the first place.
In my early forties, my reflexes, never really my strongest suit, were becoming considerably slower. I was a mini-step late charging bunts I used to be able to anticipate. So I volunteered to move from third base, a position that demands quick, almost automatic reactions, to left field. My eyesight was also starting to deteriorate. When fly balls came spinning through the arc lights, I saw only half the ball: unfortunately, it was always the dark half. Whenever we played a night game then, I relegated myself to being the designated hitter. Even back then, a piece of me knew I should quit. But I kept convincing myself that thirty-plus years of experience as a player and manager would be enough to sustain me for a few more years. Maybe I should just play part time, or be a full time designated hitter.
I look over at Carole who’s still sound asleep. I’m grateful for everything about her; her steadiness and patience, her common sense, the subtle emotional support she gives me. Carole hasn’t come right out and said it; that’s not her m.o. But I’m wondering again if she’s preparing to move on without me. That’s when another episode of anxiety begins to settle in. Why am I so bent on doing this? Am I really going to risk losing my partner of twenty-one years just for the sake of showing up to what will certainly be my last softball game?
Six a.m. And we’re about sixty miles out of Marquette. By now, we’ll have been on the road for almost eight hours. My stomach is still churning and my hamstrings are screaming. Usually, Carole and I readily agree to share the driving. And for a long minute, I think about asking her to spell me, just for an hour, just until we get to Marquette. But under the circumstances, that’s probably not a very smart move.
Even during the times when we’ve been at odds, Carole and I have always been good traveling companions. During the year, we’ll drive to Chicago, or Ann Arbor for some small combo jazz or a good independent film; or to Detroit or Grand Rapids for a show or a concert. In the early days of softball, we drove all over Michigan, pursuing one weekend tournament or another. We agreed that taking these trips was a good way for us to spend time together. It was also an excuse to explore the state. But that’s before softball became a source of disagreement between us, though I’m sure if you asked Carole, she’d describe it somewhat differently. That’s because for the past five years she has chosen not to accompany me on softball road trips. This is a pretty extreme action for her. It’s not exactly an ultimatum; but it’s clearly meant to be a wake-up call for me. It makes me think that the only reason she’s taking this trip is because she wants to make sure I don’t screw up our excursion to France. Just the thought that I need to be chaperoned makes me self-conscious and edgy.
Then again, I tell myself that I’m not the only middle-aged guy who carries this affliction. What about my teammates? None of them are kids. They all have jobs and families. How come they’re still playing? Carole’s art group, I’m sure, would be quick to say we’re all just a bunch of immature guys reliving our childhoods. And from their point of view, they might be right.
But is every one of us guilty as charged? We are, after all, a pretty eclectic mix. Cliff Goodman and Carl Cluley are factory rats; Jimmy Holden is an electrician who runs his own business; Billy Hurth, a Clark Kent type–mild mannered state employee by day, aggressive center fielder by night, is college educated and the father of two children; Steve Pollok is a tough workman’s comp lawyer with an advanced degree; Jerry Murphy is a street smart Oldsmobile lifer. Finally, the academic types, a PhD like me and Kevin Ford, who’s a highly regarded Psych professor.
We’ve been playing together for years. And despite our differing educations and personal tastes, even the guys who have relatively satisfying, even successful lives, still play because when we’re out on that field, we’re living in a parallel universe. After every ball game, whatever the outcome, for better or worse, we’ll head back to real life and the responsibilities we left behind the moment we slipped into our uniforms and gathered to take batting practice, whip a softball around the horn, and wait, with giddy anticipation, for the evening’s first pitch.
For the next half hour I’m locked in, thinking about the possible scenarios that might play out after we arrive at Houghton. What would happen if Jimmy actually needs to use me? Would I even be physically capable of playing?
About two years ago, I realized that even against mediocre pitchers, guys whose best offerings once looked as big and round as an inflated balloon, I was swinging at pitches a millisecond late–which in this game is all it takes. To mask that deficiency, I started to take pitchers as deep in the count as I could, hoping maybe I could get a walk. But I knew I could only fool myself for so long.
For most of my ball playing life, my strongest asset was an accurate throwing arm. Even after I’d moved out to left field, I could still, on occasion, throw a strike to home plate from almost 250 feet away. But last season because of the sharp ache in my rotator cuff, every time I tried to hit Pollok, the cut-off man only 100 feet away, I could barely shot put the ball to him. So what the hell am I thinking?
I look over again to my right. For the last two hours, Carole has been staring out into the darkness. Neither of us has uttered a word. Even in the best of times, I’m never very comfortable with silence. But this is no ordinary silence. A palpable tension hangs in the air.
7:30 am. And here we are, at first light, approaching Houghton and the playoffs–and the uncertainty of our future together.