I have a brilliant idea about how to make the game of baseball much more enticing for spectators: each team must allow a fan to play one inning.

I’ve laid out this scheme to more than one baseball aficionado, and surprisingly it has not been taken seriously.

Here’s my proposal:

Before every game, any attendee who wants to voluntarily participate in “Bocciardi Baseball” is issued a numbered ticket indicating whether that person is a fan of the home or visiting team.

Shortly before the game starts, one lucky fan of each team would be selected in a drawing. And that person would get to play an inning of the game! Offense and defense. He or she would have to bat and play in the field. No designated hitters allowed.

There would be, of course, no limitation on eligibility. Participants could be of any age (18 and over), gender, or ability.

I’ve often wondered how a coach would manage the team in this scenario. What position would the fan play? I think it would have to be an infield position; that way, the other three infielders could help cover the entire territory.

Yes, it brings up a lot of logistical difficulties. Each team would need to have all sizes of uniforms and shoes at the ready, for one thing. But just think about what a scream it would be to watch. Consider the revenue!

Obviously in my fantasy I would be picked to play an inning with the Giants. If they put me at first base I could potentially be very effective, considering that that was my position growing up. In the 8th grade our coach – Sister Barbara Anne – called me “Stretch.”

(Disclosure: that nickname may no longer apply.)

***

October is ending, glorious October. In San Francisco there is no changing of the leaves. But as the days shorten, the summer fog typically begins to wane. The sun finally reveals itself, although lower in the sky, and the air snaps like an apple. Most years, there are occasional washes of rain. Not enough to keep us indoors for long, but enough to feel like a quick autumn cleanse.

My brother Marc and I, 1968

This is also the best time of year for sports fans. The baseball season heads towards the World Series, and football season is just gearing up. Meaningful games are taking place on chilly fields, with a lot on the line. There’s always someone to root for, always a sense of anticipation.

I grew up near the foothills of San Jose, surrounded by nut-brown orchards. As kids, the neighborhood boys and I adhered to the professional sports seasons religiously, playing whiffle ball in the spring and summer, flag football in the winter, and basketball on rainy October driveways in the fall. My best sport, I would say, was street flag football. On knee-grinding asphalt. We lived on a very steep hill, so teams facing uphill were at a decided disadvantage, but no one cared. I could catch anything and no one could catch me. Whatever the sport, we played until darkness closed in and our parents dragged us inside, against rigorous protestations. We were endless stores of energy.

Every night before bed I would fantasize about playing professional football. My favorite player was Jimmy Taylor, a powerful Green Bay Packers fullback. His number was 31, and because of him I wore that number throughout my life.

***

My mother, Beverly Steger, was an outstanding athlete in the late 1940s at Glendale High School in southern California. It surprises me how well-supported girls’ athletics were at her school. She played just about every conceivable sport, was frequently featured in the Glendale News-Press, and in the summer of 1950 was recruited after graduation for a regional semi-pro softball team.

Mom on the right, in her high school letter sweater, 1950

Mom never played slow-pitch softball – always fast-pitch – and she was a feared hurler. Only once during her high school years did her stoic, often belittling father come out to watch her play. On that particular day the coach decided to move her from the mound to shortstop – a position that she had never played and a move that, Mom thought, squashed the possibility of her finally impressing her father. The first hit was a line drive between her and third base. She dived for the ball and made a miraculous back-handed catch, body parallel to the ground. “White shorts on, legs exposed, everything skinned up,” she told me. “But,” she added proudly, “I showed him, didn’t I?” 

Luckily, my own parents were truly interested in everything their children did. In high school I played basketball, softball, tennis, and badminton, and Mom and Dad came often to watch me play (well, Dad didn’t have much of an excuse not to – he was already on campus because he was the principal!). But I was just an above-average athlete, not an outstanding one, and my nerves hamstrung me.

Investments in girls’ sports then were at their lowest point. I remember playing basketball outside on terrible cement courts. (When I first started, girls had to play a ridiculous six-person, half-court, zone-only game, with just two dribbles allowed.) And coaching was often sub-par. In softball, for example, I insisted on using my own bat, which was a massive wooden club that I could barely swing. I just liked the feel of it. But no one ever told me that I’d never be able to get any bat-speed on that thing.

Of course, my best sport – flag football – didn’t exist for girls in my time. I had one opportunity to play in high school on “Powder Puff Football” day and as I recall it was a travesty, a comedy of ineptitude.

A few days after I graduated in June 1972, along came Title IX, which provided that girls’ and women’s sports funding in federally funded schools should be equal to that offered for boys and men. (A revolutionary concept!) The Women’s Sports Foundation says that in the ensuing 35 years, female participation increased 904 percent in high school sports and 456 percent in college sports as a result of the legislation.

I just read an AP piece about how girls’ flag football is “soaring in popularity” at high schools around the country. In fact, the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section has voted to approve it as an official sport for girls.

I wish I’d been able to take advantage of Title IX. I wish I could have played flag football or, better yet, joined a Little League baseball team. What if I’d had better coaching, a lighter bat, and a modicum of confidence? What if I truly had been taught the fundamentals? Maybe I could have played at least at the college level, who knows. 

***

I don’t know how professional ballplayers survive the grief when they retire from their game. Their final moments on the field mark the end of their youth and the loss of the incredible camaraderie of playing a team sport. In my twenties and thirties I managed softball and basketball teams in San Francisco, learning what teamwork meant, discovering the cheapest pizza-and-beer joints in the City, figuring out how to close down the after-game bars and still drag myself into work a few hours later, and – most importantly – making intense lifelong friendships.

But I hung up my cleats at about age 40, realizing that although I could still run well on the basepaths, it was beginning to take me waaaay too long to get my legs moving out of the batter’s box. It was time.

I miss it so much.

***

Sometimes Julie and I spend the end of our day bragging about our athletic exploits. And by the time we’re done, the tales of our sports heroism have become bloated with exaggeration. Did you know, for example, that when playing intramural football Julie once did a full pirouette in the air while going up for a fingertip catch in the endzone? But did you also know that while playing street football I once went out for a pass, leaped, snagged the ball with one hand, and came down in a cactus? Completion!

***

The World Series will end this week (and what a thriller it’s been so far), but before the baseball playoffs started this month I made a mental list of the postseason teams and my feelings about them:

Teams I love:

Cleveland Guardians

  • Their new name may be terrible, but they play old-school baseball.
  • They haven’t won a World Series since 1948.
  • The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland.

St. Louis Cardinals

  • It’s a storied franchise.
  • Three great players are retiring this year (Pujols, Wainwright, and Molina).

NY Mets

  • I love New York but hate the Yankees, so the Mets get my support.
  • Darin Ruf, one of my ex-Giant boyfriends, plays for them after a heartbreaking trade this year.
  • Their manager Buck Showalter used to manage the Orioles, who play in Baltimore, an area where many of my friends live, and I really like the name “Buck.”

Toronto Blue Jays

  • Bob Brenly, one of my all-time favorite Giants, played for the Blue Jays after he was released by the Giants.
  • Also, there is nothing to hate about Canadians.

San Diego Padres

  • Haven’t ever won a World Series.
  • Players don’t have gross scraggly beards.
  • The great Tony Gwynn (RIP) played with them for TWENTY years and often took less money than he could have gotten elsewhere because he wanted to stay with the Padres.
  • But a deduction for Manny Machado. Ick.

Teams I’m torn about:

Houston Astros

  • Caught cheating when they won a World Series in 2017 (but it was the Dodgers they beat that year so I’m torn . . .).
  • I really, really, really want future Hall-of-Famer and Renaissance man Dusty Baker, who managed the Giants for 10 years, to win a World Series as a manager.

Philadelphia Phillies

  • The underdog Phillies beat the abhorrent Atlanta Braves in the 1993 postseason (see below), so there is a very large and special place in my heart for the Phillies.
  • But a deduction for Bryce Harper. Ick.

Seattle Mariners

  • They’re the only MLB team to have never been in a World Series.
  • But I loathe the Seattle football team (Seahawks) – and their gum-snapping, USC-cheater coach – with the heat of a thousand suns, which has poisoned me against any professional team from Seattle.

Tampa Bay Rays

  • They’ve never won a World Series.
  • But in game 6 of the 2020 World Series, the Rays’ manager foolishly removed pitcher Blake Snell, who’d allowed only two hits, which led to a *&^%$#@ Dodgers win. Unforgiveable.

Teams I loathe:

Atlanta Braves

  • I got an ulcer during the 1993 baseball season, when the Braves beat out the Giants (104 wins to 103) in the last great pennant race before wild cards were instituted.
  • Also, their “tomahawk chop” is a loathsome nightmare.

NY Yankees

  • I’m sick of them and their endless piles of money.

Los Angeles Dodgers

  • Odious. No need for an explanation.

***

I started young

As I’ve written before, someone once asked me to explain why I love watching sports and I found it hard to come up with an answer. For me, much of it revolves around passion and adrenaline and hope, and the older I get, the harder I fight not to lose those things. As a profoundly emotional person I don’t think I ever will, but I make sure I keep stoking the fire.

One of those passions is a fierce sense of place. I know it sounds ridiculous to believe that your local team somehow represents you and everything you live for, but that’s how I feel. When I was growing up, San Jose didn’t have a professional sports team; my allegiances lay with the Giants and the 49ers because San Francisco was the closest big city. After having lived in the City for more than 40 years now, my ties have only grown stronger.

But it’s also a form of love. Sports allow us to care fiercely about something outside ourselves — a person, a school, a town. 

As a child I was famous in my family for insisting that we delay dinner and keep the television on after any team won a postseason game because I wanted to see what I called “the happy locker room scene.” Champagne dumped on heads in sheer reverie. (Pre-goggles, when men were men!) That’s really what I lived for. Sports allow us to be fervently happy for others. 

Julie and her dad, 1978

Julie once told me that she’d seen her father cry just a few times in her life. Once was when he thought a tornado was bearing down on his family. (It missed them, thank God.) All of the other times were because of sports teams (especially the UK Wildcats).

As for my own father, well, on a memorable October afternoon in 1988, I saw him literally crawl across the floor in anxiety as 49ers quarterback Steve Young ran out of gas and tripped and stumbled across the goal line after a miraculous 49-yard game-winning run against the Vikings.

Sports fanaticism is something we can share when we watch a game together and root passionately for our team. We can scream, scare the dog, throw popcorn in the air, high-five each other, and spill our beer together, collectively, with one heart. 

As the great sportswriter Roger Angell once said, “It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificantly and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring – caring deeply and passionately, really caring – which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives.” 

***

A couple of weeks ago I tried on an old glove that I hadn’t worn in a couple of decades. I must have broken it in really, really well because it was still soft and, unlike me, hadn’t cracked one bit. Three of us played catch in a local park and it felt sooooo good. I can still catch the ball like a champ, but now that I’ve had rotator cuff surgery, let’s just say that I don’t think I’d do too well as a fan-player in my made-up baseball game. I probably can’t throw 30 feet, let alone 90.

While we were tossing the ball around, some twenty-somethings walked by, looked at us gray-hairs, and smiled.

***

Is the passion we have for sports all about playing or all about watching? Well, it’s both. It’s about the way our lives evolve – starting with the little child watching games on TV with family and falling asleep dreaming of scoring a winning touchdown. Then the glory years of playing sports ourselves, perhaps too long, until dusk falls and the toll on our bodies forces us to stop. And finally, in the autumn of our years, we become mostly spectators again, relishing our memories, lying about our exploits, rooting heartily against the teams we disdain and lustily for the teams we love.

For me, the passion and the adrenaline make me feel alive. They keep me, somehow, young.

And how can we make it last?

Play catch no matter our age, before winter really sets in.

Watch football with people we love on chilly Sunday afternoons.

And hold close the memories of those childhood basketball games on slippery neighborhood driveways in a warm October rain.

Oh, for the fun of them, when I was one of them.

And when October goes
The snow begins to fly
Above the smoky roofs
I watch the planes go by
The children running home beneath
A twilight sky
Oh, for the fun of them
When I was one of them
“When October Goes,” by Johnny Mercer and Barry Manilow

With my nephew Alec, 1996

***

Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.

September 6, 1974 [age 18]:

“And so today another chapter in my life begins. I was hired for the teacher aide’s job. (I think Mr. Salazar’s daughter didn’t actually want the job.) It will be $365/month gross instead of the $500 Dad told me. I had to go down to the Police Department to get fingerprinted, then drove to the bookstore to buy ‘Ulysses’ and two Jack Kerouac books. Tonight, all is quiet. Everyone is tired from their first couple days at school. I’m lying around and thinking about my writing, which is ca-ca.”

6 thoughts on “When October goes

  1. As an old jock who also recently rediscovered her glove and the joy of playing catch, this made me smile and tear up in equal measure. The softball team photo especially was touching – remembering every name and the many joys of playing with so many of these beautiful women. And the headaches from closing some of those bars…. Lovely as always- thanks for the joy, from one of the old, but never done, players.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Paula, love this piece! Wonderful memories and family history. You know, you can still play on a senior league : ) Our season ended so now we’re playing fun ball. Kelly is amazing!
    Keep the stories coming. I love them. XO

    Liked by 1 person

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