Okay, so first baseball was my passion. Unfortunately, in high school my work schedule started getting in the way of organized sports. As a result, I ended up focusing on intramural softball. Little did I know then that softball would be a sport I’d end up playing all my life! Most people move to golf at some point, but I still haven’t lost that competitive spirit once I walk onto a softball field. My goal now is to play softball into my 60s, if possible. I’m getting pretty close!
It all started in high school with our lunchtime intramural softball games at Cretin High School. My friend, Jim Landwehr, talks about this in his hilarious book, Cretin Boy. We wore what would probably now be called a “Class B” military uniform every day of school. That meant a military uniform complete with long sleeved shirts, long wool pants, a black necktie and military-style dress black oxford shoes. We didn’t have time to change clothes, so that was the uniform for softball. It was hardly a competitive league, but more of a pick-up game. My friends and I gulped down our lunch every day to ensure we were at the field early enough to be on one of the teams.
When I moved on to the University of Minnesota, Pat Judd, Jim Landwehr, and I almost immediately signed up for the intramural teams. Because of our circle of friends, we chose to go with co-ed teams. We were competitive and were pretty darn good. In those days, I always started in center field. I staked out that position mostly due to that being the position of my childhood hero, Willie Mays. I even wore Willie’s #24 on nearly every jersey I’ve ever worn. The University intramural games were always a lot of fun, but I quickly got the reputation of being a hot head. I just could not get ahold of my competitive juices, even in a recreational league. That was a fault that I’ve worked hard to change (only somewhat successfully!).
The University intramural teams led to city teams in Saint Paul. At one point we even had uniforms with numbers and nicknames on the back. My number, of course, was 24 and the name was “The Ax.” For whatever reason, I don’t recall why/how I got that nickname, but we did have some pretty creative nicknames, not to mention team names! Pat coined one of our teams, The Walrus Gumboots, a shout-out to the Beatles.
I moved from Minnesota after graduation, so no longer had my softball buddies to play with. I took a bit of a softball hiatus, but not completely. I learned quite early in the Army that it can be difficult for Army officers to participate in intramural leagues. We were always targets for the enlisted Soldiers. Some surly enlisted men saw the sports fields as an opportunity to take potshots at the officers that they otherwise could never do. As a result, there were lots of innocuous takeouts on the bases, “errant” throws at the runner, and other things that could be done arguably within the rules, but were clearly dangerous.
At my Officer Advanced Course at Fort Lee, Virginia, a few of us brave souls decided to give it a shot as an all-officer team in the post intramural league. Between these and semi-competitive games among our fellow Advanced Course classes, I learned a LOT about myself. First, the league was as tough as expected. We hung in there despite nearly ever other team trying to get us to quit. We never did. We did not win many games, but we were competitive and we never quit. That alone was a victory. The inter-class rivalry games were infrequent, but one tournament created a huge personal issue for me.
I previously mentioned my competitiveness. This was one of those time it where that competitive fire got the best of me and it hurt. I don’t remember the details, but one of our staff instructors was the umpire. I got into a heated argument about a call and ended up throwing my glove. Bad move! Not only was I dressed down on the spot (he was a senior officer), but it was I later that the I really felt the effect. I was in a dead heat for the ultra competitive “honor graduate” spot. The turning vote was my inability to control my emotions on the softball field. Passion is a great quality for an Army Officer, but it must be controlled passion. That was a lesson that I learned the hard way. I wish that it created a more lasting respect for umpires. Sadly, that has not been as successful as I hoped, but I truly am much better!
After leaving the Army and starting law school, I worked at the Ramsey County Courthouse. I quickly learned that there was a courthouse softball team. We even had at least a couple District Court Judges who played regularly. This was a co-ed league. For being a bunch of work colleagues in a city-wide league, we were pretty good. I made many good friends as part of this league and keep in touch with some of them to this day.
Two of my colleagues on the courthouse team became very good friends – Tom Kempe and George Perez. Together we played in multiple leagues over the years. The most constant was a weekly league with the Knights of Columbus. We played for a team that Phil Sterner, one Tom’s fraternity brothers managed. This was an all-male league from various Twin Cities Southern suburbs (or “parishes” because it was a Knights of Columbus league). This was a unique league because we did not have umpires. We used a carpet for the strike zone. In essence, if the ball hit the carpet behind home plate, it was a strike. If not, it was a ball. It did not matter if the pitch was thrown 50 feet high – as long as it hit the carpet – it was a strike. The batting team supplied an “umpire” who was to watch the carpet and to rule on the outs. This was fairly successful, but still led to a heated argument every once in a while.
I played with the Knights for many years. It was a lot of fun, but the military again took me away. This time it was my mobilization to Germany and the follow-on civilian career with the Army in Maryland. That ended my time with the Knights, but I was still able to find a softball league to play in. I played for my unit team at Fort Meade. Since I was a relatively new employee when I first began to play, this turned into a great opportunity to meet and get to know many of the people that I worked with. I made some lasting friendships on that team and enjoyed every minute of those games.
I thought my softball career was over when I had spine surgery in 2009. I was also concerned as my eyesight was changing. I’d had a few near misses on the field with batted balls coming pretty close to beaning me in the head. By this time I was regularly playing infield. Between that and my back surgery, I tabled my softball playing for the longest stretch of my life. It was not until moving back to Minnesota in 2019 that I resumed this passion.
In the pandemic Summer of 2020, my kids were looking for players for their co-ed team in Minneapolis. I jumped at the chance and have not looked back. Now I mostly pitch. I’m not particularly good at pitching, but it fills a need for the team – and I wear a mask for protection! Despite using protective equipment, during a very cool September game that year (the last Fall league game), I had to stretch for a hard hit ground ball. While trying to twist to pick up and throw the ball, I felt a hard pop in my right leg. It hurt! Even worse, the runner was safe at first!
After a moment on the ground I slowly got up and tried to amble back to the pitcher’s mound. It didn’t take more than a couple of half steps to realize that I wasn’t playing any more that day. I was helped off the field and later diagnosed with a full hamstring tear. I had surgery in October to reattach my hamstring and started the six-month-plus rehabilitation regimen. It again appeared that my softball playing days were over. I couldn’t walk without a limp and certainly couldn’t run by early Spring of 2021.
When my son asked this spring if I was up for softball again, I couldn’t say no! Even though I was still not ready to run, I thought I could at least pitch. Well, we just finished the Summer session and the end of session tournament. During those tournament games, I almost felt almost like my old self while running the bases! They talked me into Fall Ball, which will have me playing after my 60th birthday. It has been a good run and I think this old guy still has a bit left in the tank. We’ll see where it all leads!