Like so many male Americans, I wish I were a professional athlete—preferably an all-star professional athlete. I want my face to grace the cereal boxes that fans nationwide will buy just for the picture, and I’m quite confident this desire applies to millions of other American males regardless of their vocation, stature, or athletic ability. To many, the pro athlete has the best job in the world, and as a result, professional athletics has become a very exclusive league. But New York City has its own members-only club that rivals pro sports in many ways—its summer softball leagues.
Softball is the sport of the everyman. Though hitting a baseball may be one of the most difficult things to do in sports, hitting a softball is often considered the easiest, thereby fostering softball’s inclusive nature, which caters to anyone of any age, shape, size, or ability. But in New York, you have to be good, really good.
The math is simple: about eight million New Yorkers and fewer than 100 fields—a glaring discrepancy, to say the least. Organized softball is a rite of summer throughout the country, where in most places, any willing player can easily find a team, pay a roster fee, put on a uniform, and play 20 to 30 games a summer. But not in New York. With so many people vying for so few spots, thousands of men and women in the five boroughs will never have the opportunity to play on a team in an organized league. Ever. Regardless of their talent, desire, or even willingness to pay cold hard cash, the majority of the willing will be denied one of every American’s basic summertime rights. Luckily, I’m in the minority.
I’ve been a regular in the New York City softball circuit for seven seasons, playing for teams like the Machine, Actor’s Fund, and Working Class in several of Manhattan’s most prestigious softball leagues. The leagues, like most in the city, are modified fast-pitch leagues, meaning pitchers are empowered to do a hell of a lot more than just gently toss the ball across the plate, as in traditional slow-pitch softball. They throw fastballs, curves, change-ups, and other pitches of wily movement, which means you have to be good—real good—to play. My team has four guys who played baseball in college and one who even played in the minor leagues, and there are a few players amongst our rivals who were actually invited to spring training of major league clubs. Fortunately, I’m very good, too, but when I moved here seven years ago there was no assurance I would ever get onto a team. But for whatever reason, the light of some higher power shone on me one spring afternoon in 2000.
I had the young, fast, 25-year-old legs that few other players possessed, because once you get onto a New York City softball team, you never leave.
It was in April of that year that I overheard my software firm’s art director—a fattening, graying, surly guy named Richie in his early 40s—talking on the phone about his upcoming softball practice. This was my first summer in Gotham and I had already been clued in that it’s virtually impossible to get on a team; the average comment was, “Don’t even bother, I’ve lived here for years and I don’t know anyone who’s been able to get on a team.” It would be my first summer since I was seven not playing organized baseball or softball, however, so I eagerly waited for Richie to get off the phone. Though I’d barely more than nodded hello to him, I had to finagle my way into his good graces while worrying that he’d think that I—a mere coworker—played at that deplorable level of softball normally reserved for company outings and family picnics.
“Hi. Matt, right?”
“Right. Hey, I heard you on the phone talking about your softball practice. You wouldn’t by any chance need another player?” Richie sizes up my smallish stature but I continue in a single breath, “I nearly walked on to my college baseball team and I played all throughout high school and just got done playing in an adult hardball league in South Jersey before I moved to New York and when I lived in Philly I was our softball team’s all-star for four straight years and I can really play.”
“Well,” he said, “we’ve had the same team together for years and we always win. We have the best infielders of any team in the city.”
And then he paused. He wanted to see if I’d slink away, feeling his team was out of my league. I didn’t flinch.
“Sounds OK.” Played it cool. Didn’t convey my excitement of being on an elite squad.
And to my surprise, he got back on the phone, called a guy from his team, and told me to show up at Central Park’s prestigious Great Lawn that weekend for an unofficial (yet very official) tryout, since his team was in the unique position of needing another guy for the upcoming season.
That Sunday I quickly won over a team of seasoned New York softball skeptics. I ran down balls in the outfield that no one else in the league would have gotten within 10 feet of. I stretched a routine single into a double. I scored all the way from first base on a shallow fly ball. I had the young, fast, 25-year-old legs that few other players possessed, because once you get onto a New York City softball team, you never leave. It’s like the Supreme Court: No one joins unless someone dies. Therefore, most of my middle-aged teammates were past their athletic primes. And this was how it began.
In my first season with the Machine I began to understand why it’s so difficult to break into New York’s tight-knit softball community. Our shortstop was on six teams, our third baseman on five, and most everyone else on at least two or three. And it’s not like they were on so many teams because they had time to kill—these were all guys with full-time jobs and families, but on weekends and evenings between May and September they traded their briefcases for bats and nomadically trekked to and from the few fields of Central Park, 11th Avenue, Carmine Street, and FDR Park. Most had literally played together for at least 10 years and they also seemed to know nearly everyone on every other team; I could see why newcomers were so few and far between, as well as why I, a 25-year-old, was the youngest guy in sight.
I had a great first year, particularly in the field, where I made a quick leap from lowly right field (because I was the new guy) to left field, the most important position, where the hulking right-handers hit their rockets and moonshots. Other teams’ best sluggers even purposely began hitting away from me because they knew anything in my direction would die in the glove. In less than a full season I went from being an unknown to a known; suddenly guys I’d never met were asking me if I could stop by their games and lend a hand, because in New York City softball’s few elite leagues you’re either a hired gun or a why-don’t-you-ask. Guns are always being recruited by opposing players begging them to join their teams in other leagues, whereas the why-don’t-you-asks always end up on a roster in case a team might be short a player on a given day.
If you’re in any elite club long enough, you too eventually become an elitist, whether you like it or not. And I do like it—a lot.
“Hey, Matt, do you know someone who can show up on Sunday? A few guys are gonna be out of town and we’ll need a third baseman.”
“Why don’t you ask ____?”
Needless to say, it’s better being a hired gun.
By 2002 I was regarded as one of the premier outfielders in the city and found myself not only in demand but also recently laid off from my job, a combination that made me a very hot commodity. I ended up on not just one or two additional teams, but seven, so during that one miraculous summer I had at least one game every day of the week, and some days as many as five. I had officially arrived. I was the all-star I’d always wanted to be.
New York City softball has become my own microcosm of pro sports, and I’ve become one of its brightest stars, bringing me my own little slice of fame. As an adult in the toughest leagues in the toughest city, I proudly admit that I love being praised every day by my teammates and opponents, as I’m still flattered when I receive an offer from another manager wanting me to play on his team. Who knew I was such a sucker for compliments? To me, there’s nothing better than making a tremendous play in the outfield, running back to the dugout to see my teammates waiting to give me five, and coolly not even crack a smile as if to say whatever I did in the field—no matter how spectacular—was simply routine.
I will be 32 years old when the 2007 season begins and I will still be among the youngest 10 percent of all New York City softball players and 2nd youngest on my team, as it really is that hard to break in to the most exclusive clique in town. With a little work or by pulling a few strings, anyone can get into the hottest club or hippest restaurant, but only the luckiest of souls can get onto a softball diamond on a sunshiny New York City summer day. And as outsiders inevitably stop by and ask how they, too, can play on these golden diamonds, I’ll continue to coldly brush off their requests, knowing I surely won’t be the one to give up my spot, thereby ensuring that the city’s few fields will continue to be closed to outsiders.
I will enjoy the relative nature of my stardom while I can, and as many of my teammates prepare to enter their 40th and even 50th years of life, I too look forward to enjoying 20 to 30 more years of elitism. I mean, if you’re in any elite club long enough, you too eventually become an elitist, whether you like it or not. And I do like it—a lot.