Softball Stars

Tattoos, tacos, Tweets and TV binge-watching may have overtaken baseball, hot dogs, motherhood and apple pie as quintessential American touchpoints, but while the United States marks its 241st birthday this week, I can still state with certainty that church softball leagues remain a hot summer ticket in communities throughout the country.

A single quick Internet search of “church softball leagues in the U.S.” yields close to 3.5 million results, with immediate evidence of active competition in dozens of states, ranging from North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maine to Ohio, Missouri, Maryland and California to Iowa, Wisconsin and–of course–Minnesota.

So while a higher percentage of people may be “bowling alone” these days, there are apparently many who do more than toss balls to Rover in their own backyards.

Our church softball league is a happening thing, with several teams turning out each Tuesday evening from 6:30 until after 10 p.m. to try their hands–er, gloves–against other stick-and-ball enthusiasts, all of whom care enough about God and country to voluntarily associate themselves with particular houses of worship.

Despite short but sincere prayers prior to the start of each game, along with impartial and usually judicious volunteer umpires, it would be an “alternative fact” for this frequent observer to claim there isn’t heated competition that rears its mostly testosterone-driven head at times. (Although this is a co-ed league, the preponderance of the players is male.)

Over 20 years ago, when my family moved to Worthington, my sports-loving husband was persuaded to join our church’s crew at the ball field. His first game’s scheduled start was past our very young son’s bedtime, so I wasn’t present to see the errant catch that managed to break one of my spouse’s fingers in the early innings and send him to the hospital’s emergency room for necessary treatment.

By the time the break had healed, the season was nearly over–and so, it seemed, was his amateur softball league career.

Two decades later, our youngest son expressed interest in taking a crack at it. Although my husband initially arrived at the diamonds merely to support our teenager, it wasn’t long before he was once again urged to join his church peers in the dugout. And he’s not even the oldest guy on the team.

To date, there are no broken bones to report; injuries have instead taken the form of twisted knees, pulled quadriceps and skinned calves (credited to ill-advised base slides–incidentally, he was safe).

Sometimes, younger teammates like our 16-year-old are called upon to serve as base runners for mature batters who can nail their swings but not touch ’em all with Kirby Puckett’s legendary speed and panache. And the power hitters packing certain team’s lineups nearly blow spectators’ minds with their batting prowess, punching hit after hit over the outfield fence, causing nine-year-old onlookers to drop their fidget spinners and run for the balls while the ump chalks up a few more runs for the lucky team.

The Tuesday night vibe is family-friendly, with no alcohol around and no (audible) cursing. Elderly church fans cheer from lawn chairs and energetic preschoolers run circles in the grass while older kids idly keep an eye out for them as their parents play.

The benefits distill to this: A sense of community is fostered with such interactions, teens and adults cooperatively engage in healthy exercise and never doubt the spiritual aspect of this activity; anxious spouses like me fervently pray for a full hour that their 50-something mates will survive each game unscathed.

Let’s play ball? Amen–but don’t forget the ice pack and Advil.