One Man's Opinion

Thursday, July 15, 2004

The real spirit of the game

My friend Chad Hoffman and I recently returned to Iowa after playing hooky from life for 18 days, embarking on a five-city vacation that let us watch grown men play baseball in some of America's greatest stadiums.

To paraphrase the great first baseman Lou Gehrig, we were two of the luckiest guys on the face of the Earth, and we savored every minute of it. We were able to see the Boston Red Sox bash balls off Fenway Park's famous "Green Monster" outfield wall. We watched monstrous fielding performances by the Pittsburgh Pirates in PNC Park. We enjoyed the atmospheres of close-knit Doubleday Stadium in Cooperstown and large-but-friendly Yankee Stadium in New York City. And we scribbled on Orioles' scorecards underneath clear plastic ponchos on a rainy night in Baltimore.

One of the best parts of the trip, however, wasn't on the itinerary, didn't require a ticket, and featured players who earned nothing for their hard work on the base paths.

That was in New York City, where we were able to watch two games of the "Real Estate Industry Softball League," an organization of home-selling professionals who come together every summer to play fastpitch softball on the rocky ball diamonds of midtown Manhattan.

"REISL" teams from New York City's five boroughs - Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Queens and The Bronx - converge on Heckscher Ballfields in southwestern Central Park several times a week throughout June, July and August. They play in games combining major league excitement with an it-can-only-happen-in-rec-softball-league style of play.

Just like in rec league games in New Hartford, Storm Lake or our hometowns of Schaller and Pella, Chad and I saw players argue with umpires, toss good-natured insults back and forth, and hustle throughout the entire contest.

The atmosphere surrounding the six Heckscher diamonds, however, was purely New York City.

On the western edge of the ballfields, soaring skyscrapers peered over the towering trees to get a glimpse of the games, while expansive granite rock outcroppings dotted the landscape east of the complex.

Members of the crowd ranged from wives of ballplayers to men in suits resting before meeting business clients for dinner, a potpourri of people representing the diverse mixture of the nation's biggest metropolis. The bleachers even included a fan from Scotland named Denny, who talked nonstop about his country's game of hurling, while pitchers from the "Lightning" and "Johnnies" hurled softballs at batters from their perches on the mound.

Every once in a while, our mound on Field No. 2 also became the property of third-party outfielders, who had to race from their positions in Fields No. 3 and No. 4 to chase down towering 400-foot blasts that strayed into our infields.

The no-fence ballpark layout of Heckscher meant that it was not uncommon to see three outfielders from three different teams all standing within 10 feet of one another during games, facing their own dugouts but able to clearly hear the chatter from the second basemen 25 feet behind them who were playing in an altogether different game.

While neither the chatter nor the talent of players on the Lightning or Johnnies squads equaled those of good Iowa girls' high school softball teams, the games were just as entertaining to watch.

Solid base hits, sparkling defensive plays and the occasional throw from shortstop sailing over the first baseman's head kept us smiling and in our seats, and the fresh air, fun fans and temporary peace from the honking of taxi horns only added to our enjoyment on that early Monday evening.

The next night, we watched the New York Yankees play the Colorado Rockies in historic Yankee Stadium. The crowd was large and raucous, the pitching was top-notch and the atmosphere was amazing.

For some reason, though, watching the Yankees' multi-million dollar infield of Jason Giambi, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez was no more satisfying than looking at the multi-MBA infields scoop up ground balls on the Heckscher diamonds.

For it wasn't money or fame that made the Central Park players hustle after fly balls or sprint toward first base on almost-routine ground balls. Ten, 20 - and in some cases - more than 30 years after finishing high school, the real estate professionals still had a desire to play ball, sporting an infectious enthusiasm for the game that made everyone around them have a good time.

That entertaining environment was why Chad and I decided to come back to Heckscher the day after visiting The Bronx's most famous landmark, Yankee Stadium. It was a decision rewarded with a classic seven-inning REISL affair between the "GVA Williams" and "KTR Newmark" real estate firms.

A visit to the ballfields of southwestern Central Park hadn't been part of our plans while preparing our baseball trip this summer. But, as we sat in the small bleachers next to the backstop of Field No. 2, we knew one thing for certain.

It'll be on the itinerary next time.

* Brent Hardin is a student in the University of Iowa journalism master's program and a former staff writer for the Pilot-Tribune.