I have made just two emergency room visits. And during one of those trips I had a concussion, so I barely remember it. (Judge me if you will.) It is, however, fair to say that my favorite athletic pursuit—16-inch softball—presents a persistent threat of hospitalization. Homespun on-field remedies are also a common occurrence. To wit: The first time I dislocated my left ring finger during a game, a teammate—and, let the record show, fully accredited anesthesiologist—instructed me: “Pull on it until it pops.” He was right. My phalanges more or less clicked back into place immediately. An orthopedic surgeon and an occupational therapist took it from there. (For those uncomfortable with resetting their own bones on the fly, my uncle Jack offers this advice: “Look away!”)
The sport’s cantaloupe-size ball, which an aluminum bat propels to speeds melons should not travel, is fully responsible for the bone crushing. Gloves cannot protect us because they are forbidden. Like cavemen and mimes, we make do with our bare hands. (We wouldn’t be virtuous otherwise.) It is probably for this reason that 16-inch softball is played here and not really anywhere else. My friends in Los Angeles shriek whenever I describe the game to them, and I consider the 12-inch softball that is played daily in Central Park the exclusive purview of toddlers and cowards. As explained by Mike Royko, the truest of Chicago men and thus the stalwart pitcher for each of his 16-inch softball teams: “[Wearing gloves] unfairly penalizes those with talent and calloused hands and gives an unfair advantage to those with tender and well-manicured hands.” In his column, Royko chronicled and/or inspired the sport’s last zenith, circa the 1970s, while also providing acerbic color commentary for 16-inch games that aired on local television.
I play on a team with my uncles, cousins, and some friends who are considered family. “The sport [is] all-the-more appealing due to its being organized by family, community, and ethnic background,” the 16-Inch Softball Hall of Fame website explains. My family team is far from dynastic. I blame our Swedish heritage. We too easily submit to our native land’s ubiquitous mantra of lagom, which roughly translates to “adequate.” (Perfect for any occasion!) Another fatal defect: We share genetic makeup. So, in big moments and games, the collective pressure we place upon ourselves typically inspires mass hyperventilation. (Our other well-worn mantra: “I’m sorry.”) On a softball field we are most nakedly ourselves—struggling, per our hard-wiring, to keep our minds from messing with our instincts. But that’s basically the point. “In real life, he’s a fireman,” Royko’s play-by-play partner remarked about a batter during one of those televised games. Royko’s retort: “This is real life.”