Originally published in the Tampa Bay Times.
It didn't take much to be a Base Invader.
Many players on the unofficial Times softball team this fall didn't know how to throw or how to hit, much less how to track an outfield fly ball.
I figured we would start with a few losses, improve when everyone got the hang of it, and end with some wins.
Game one was grim: Base Invaders 3, The Team 17.
Game two was bleak: 1-18.
Game three was even worse: 5-24.
It surprised me just how fast we triggered the mercy rule, the point when your opponent leads by so many runs the umpire calls off the game.
By our eighth game, another slaughterfest, we had distinguished ourselves with a staggering run differential of -122 runs — the worst of any team in any softball league this fall. And in the weakest division, no less.
I guess some of the blame for this falls to me. I'm the coach, a loose title reserved for the person who persuaded enough friends to chip in for the team fee plus $27 for a customized, Space Invaders-inspired team T-shirt. (At least we were No. 1 for looking good.)
All I wanted was to play ball again. In high school, I was a well-conditioned softball player with a great arm, a quick sprint and a can't-lose attitude. Now I'm 25 and spend most days on my computer or phone reporting stories about misleading political rhetoric. And not exercising.
On the Base Invaders, my experience made me one of the best players and the de facto team leader. And, really, that was the role that gave me heartburn.
My only real responsibility was to make sure we had enough players on the field and then write down where they would play for the scorekeeper. The fact that we didn't stand much of a chance of winning no matter who was in the lineup should have made it easier, but I fretted over my friends' feelings and always put off choosing until the last minute.
More people usually showed up than could fit on the 12-person roster. It pained me to ask a fee-paying friend to sit out, so sometimes I figured it was just easier to bench myself. The one night we didn't have enough players, I bickered with a close friend who couldn't come and persuaded a queasy but competitive girl to play after all. I watched as she returned to the dugout from the batter's box, shivering in the Florida heat.
I never forgot I was not Joe Maddon, that we were not the Rays, that nothing serious was at stake. But I felt like I wasn't coaching or managing my personal relationships very well.
People around the paper asked if we were still getting killed. What kept us going with such lopsided scores?
Frankly, most of us checked any shame back in August.
We learned to live for little victories: Not getting shut out. Turning our first double play. And then another.
Once, a new pitcher who had walked a slew of hitters early in the game went on a tear, striking out at least five batters. She waved bye-bye to one who couldn't believe he was heading back to the dugout and not first base.
The next week, a young photographer with zero softball experience caught a pop fly at second base, her eyes looking down as she locked the ball in the glove above her head. On Facebook, she wrote, "This was the greatest moment of my entire life."
Even the girl who had played when she was sick said that game was a highlight because she caught a foul ball that dinged off the bat and into her glove.
We recounted our best plays over pitchers of beer each week and dreamed openly of the day when we would last an entire game — losing, yes, but on our terms. Maybe it was the beer, but teammates assured me I was doing a fine job and not to worry about the little things, and I believed them.
Right now I am playing with another little victory in mind. If the team loses by no more than 33 runs over the last two games, we will avoid the distinction of being the worst (or "most challenged," as the city athletics supervisor put it) team ever.
No matter if we avoid that ignominy, I'm happy. We became better friends through the season's strain. And the team wants to play in the winter league that kicks off in just a few weeks.
Editor's Postscript: In their final game of the season, the Base Invaders successfully made it through all seven innings without being mercy-ruled. They lost 12-4 and were awarded the league sportsmanship trophy.