16-inch-softball is a relatively simple game. 10 players in the field. Seven innings. Three balls. Two strikes. One oversized leather ball. No gloves.
See ball. Hit ball. See ball. Catch ball. Hope ball doesn't break your fingers.
And that's all you really need to know. Not much to it, right?
But for something so simple, 16-inch-softball has become an integral part of my life the past six years - something I never would have guessed growing up in southern Indiana, a place where driving aimlessly at night through cornfields makes sense but playing a stickball game without a glove would seem ludicrous.
I've been playing in the Chicago media Kup Softball League since 2013 for ChicagoNow. I'm not a particularly good hitter. I'm not a particularly good fielder. But I hustle, try to make the right play at the right time and root hard for my teammates. And - sometimes - the 16-inch-softball gods reward me by allowing me to cross home plate or field a ball without ending up on a blooper reel.
I don't play softball because I'm a natural at it, though. I play because of I love the game, because I enjoy being with my teammates and because throughout the past few years, softball has been there for me.
Softball was there for me in 2013, at the peak of my panic attacks.
My panic attacks reached their zenith in 2012 and 2013. I went to the hospital multiple times sure I was in the midst of a heart attack. The slightest racing of my heart could set me off. I began cognitive behavioral therapy and went on a light dosage of anti-anxiety medicine. My other therapy? Playing softball, running around the field and learning to be OK with my heart pounding again during exercise. Sure, there were times standing in right field where I thought, once again, I was having a heart attack. But forcing myself to stay out there and finish the game helped me come to grips with the fear. Now, happily, attacks are few and far between. But those nights in right field helped prepare me to be ready for them.
Softball was there for me in 2014, after the death of my first son.
I knew I was going to have to miss the last few games of the season because my first son was due in late summer. Nathan Joseph Grace was born Aug. 24, 2014. He died Aug. 26, 2014. I was, of course, devastated. Softball was the last thing on my mind. I wasn't planning to play. But I knew I needed to do something other than grieve. So, two weeks later, I joined the team for the playoffs. Most of the night was a blur. But I remember the support of my teammates. I remember screaming as I crossed home plate for a run and thinking of my son as I cried silent tears in the dugout afterward. It wouldn't be right for everyone, but it was what I needed that night at that time.
Softball was there for me in 2015, during a stressful year.
2015 was a tough year. My wife and I were trying to conceive again. Unsuccessfully. There were many changes happening at work. But softball was a consistent source of comfort and camaraderie. For the hour I was on the field, all I had to think about was not getting my fingers broken and not striking out.
Softball was there for me in 2016, for the birth of my second son.
Then there was 2016. I played a few games during the season, but I ended up missing the playoffs. Which was OK. Because I was holding Colin Noel Grace in my arms. He was born on Aug. 28, 2016. A week later, I sent a picture to the team of him wrapped in my ChicagoNow jersey shirt with the message that he was rooting for them in the playoffs.
Softball was there for me in 2017, a year of active fatherhood under my belt.
I only made it to maybe three games during the season and didn't feel right playing in the playoffs after missing so much, but I was delighted to bring Colin to watch the championship game. He was delighted to crawl around in the dirt and grass. It was a win-win.
And softball has been there for me in 2018, a place of comfort and camaraderie.
It has been a roller coaster the past few years. I'm the proud father of a little angel in heaven and a buoyant 2-year-old who brings me more joy that I could have ever imagined. My softball skills certainly haven't improved over the years, but I'm slightly less terrified of line drives coming toward me and I'll occasionally get some decent lift with a swing.
Tonight, we play The Onion (motto: The True Fake News) for the championship. Win or lose, I'm thankful for the season we've had, the teammates I've shared it with and the sport that has given me so much. And that's a good, simple feeling to have.
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