I took over the Paris Review softball team this year because the former captain, Lauren Kane, left the magazine for a big job at The New York Review of Books just before I was hired, and someone noted during my first week that I might be a good replacement because I “like sports” (ie, I sometimes watch Premier League soccer on weekend mornings). I am not, strictly speaking, an athlete, and had never played a full game of softball; Still, wanting to be amenable, I agreed and found myself on the phone intermittently all spring with the New York City Parks Department, trying to get our field permits nailed down. At one point I was arguing with someone about the timing of sunset on a specific day in July.
The list of things I didn’t know about softball when the season began in May is long and comical. Among them: Not every field has bases—if you don’t bring them, you might need to use your shoes as second and third. Turf can be very slippery and you should expect bloody knees and have a first aid kit on hand. The play is often at second, and even more often at first. Pitching badly is sometimes actually preferable to pitching well. You can run through first base but not the other ones. You have to shift over in the field when a lefty is batting. You should not attempt to catch with your bare hands, even if it seems like the ball is coming at you very slowly. Right field is actually kind of a chill place to be, except when it isn’t. It all comes down to the quality of your ringers—and sending people shamelessly pleading emails to get them to show up to your games.
When I arrived to play our first game, against Vanity Fair, I didn’t even know how many outfielders a team required. It was a bleak beginning of the season, pre–Memorial Day; There were only seven of us, most of whom had never played and the rest of whom hadn’t practiced. I had expected a few people hitting around jovially in the summer twilight, and instead we arrived to face a team of guys who were saying things like, “My favorite spring ritual is dusting off my cleats!” One of them got really mad at me over the way I was standing at first base. (I was standing wrong.) We lost 27–1. I was surprisingly demoralized by the experience and wasn’t relishing the concept of forking my summer evenings over to what seemed like the perfectly miserable pastime of taking the subway up to Central Park to get crushed. All in all it seemed like it was going to end up being a raw deal, being softball captain—the kind of thing I would try to foist on someone else next summer. In our second game, we lost 11–3 to The Drift.
Then something happened. On the solstice, we were scheduled to play The New Yorker. It was a Tuesday. My friend Nick and I were having bad weeks for similar reasons, and we got a beer and commiserated about how absolutely feckless we can both be from time to time. Neither of us felt much like going to softball, especially because it looked like it was going to really rain and Nick was wearing his suede shoes. All afternoon I’d been trying to subtly convince the New Yorker captain to cancel the game, but he didn’t, and so we sighed and lugged our crates of mitts and balls up to Ninety-Sixth Street, where we got off the subway into sheets of driving rain. Surely, then, the game would be canceled; I told people at the office not to bother making the trek. But a smattering of New Yorker players were determined to play, and if there’s one thing Nick and I hate, it’s being seen as cowards. So we went along with it, and the rain let up a bit, and after a while a few of the old guard team members—Jeff Gleaves and Dan Piepenbring and Matt Levin—surprised us by showing up, and so did Adrienne Raphel and Moses Tannenbaum, a star player we’d recruited from the Drift team, and my friend Ben. The New Yorker had at least twenty more people than us, but somehow we put up a good fight, and the final score was 9–6 (arguably 9–7, though it’s probably uncouth to point this out months later).
Something about the rain made the game feel different, higher stakes, and I figured out how to hold the bat properly, which helped. Eventually there was a sunset, and green fireflies off the wet steamy grass rising, and we walked to Tap a Keg after the game was over. We had pizza with the nice New Yorker team, and drank more beers than perhaps we intended to on a Tuesday night before a long subway ride home. Nick’s shoes got ruined. Later he texted me to say that he was “reinvigorated by taking a spin around the diamond,” and I agreed. I felt overwhelming affection for my friend Nick, who is among the kindest people I know, and perhaps my favorite person to spend a summer evening with. He and I decided that despite everything else it was very good to remember what life is all about, which is taking a spin around the diamond with your best friends.
The first game we won this summer was against the New York Review of Books in July. We played in East River Park— unusual for us—at a strange but pretty spot squeezed in between the highway and the river. It threatened to thunder but didn’t. Adam Wilson came in a Jerry Garcia Band hat and promptly hit a home run into the water. The sky turned orange and we kept scoring until the moon started rising: 25–12. We went to a funny nearby bar to hide out in the air-conditioning and eat Dominos. Some people stayed and played pool. I was exhilarated.
The season continued. A lot of people came out of the woodwork to play—friends from college who played softball at high school, ex–Paris Review staffers, people with tenuous connections to people who have tenuous connections to the magazine. There were lots of highlights: Everyone showed up to beat Vanity Fair in a rematch. Paris Review softball veteran Josh Pashman drove from upstate to pitch for us many times, and more or less whipped the team into shape. After losing to Forbes, we sat around at a beautiful outdoor bar in Riverside Park, foraged through some leftover catering platters, and played my favorite game, dichotomies. (Are you thunder or lightning? New Hampshire or Vermont? Et cetera.) We had a mini batting practice with DC Comics in Central Park on one of the nicest nights of the summer. I started noticing the earlier and earlier onset of darkness, and some changes in the air—it wasn’t any less hot but was less humid, maybe. There were fewer threats of rainstorms. I began to prematurely mourn the end of the season.
What I am describing—coming to like this sport—happened to me for the obvious reasons: the camaraderie, the running around outside on sunny summer evenings, the drinking of beer in parks, the surprise of suddenly caring about winning, the frustration of losing . It’s hard not to get sentimental when writing about softball, probably because of how it aligns with the seasons. When we started playing in May, we were still on the brink of summer. Now, that summer has more or less come to an end. Over the course of it, we did some of the things we planned to do and failed to do others. We went away and came back. We indulged in certain things that are characteristic of July and August. We stayed out occasionally too late, we complained about the heat and lounged around, we missed some deadlines, we went to the beach and the lake and swam in cold water. We had wins and losses of all kinds—at least I did, or I was noticing them more than usual, because I’ve had more of both this year than I have ever had in my life.
We won our last game, very handily, against Harper’s in Chelsea Park. It was August 31 but there was a bit of September in the air—something we were remarking on before the game because that’s the kind of thing one remarks on at this time of year. The floodlights had come on and it was really dusk by the time we headed to the bar, where we stayed a little too long, though in the fact that was the right thing to do on this particular evening. When I got home I sat on my stoop a little drunk and called my friend Ben, who is maybe the most angelic of all my friends, on whose couch I have slipped in the middle of crises for nearly a decade now, and who came to all our softball games this summer except the last one, something I appreciated much more than I had told him. He was at a party in Bushwick but picked up. We talked on the phone for a little while—I wanted to tell him about some problem I had been having, some minor drama of the heart (feckless, indecisive, et cetera). I started to, but instead I ended up talking about softball, which was more interesting anyway. What I wanted to tell him but didn’t manage to (drunk, shy, et cetera) was that I had been so happy to play the game with him all summer—that it had in fact reinvigorated me during what might have been a difficult time in my life. I realized all of a sudden that I was very happy and that softball was more or less the reason for it, or one of them, and that this was a funny and surprising turn my summer had taken, one which makes me laugh a little just thinking about it.
Sophie Haigney is the web editor of The Paris Review.