My (not so) triumphant return to the softball field

On Wednesday night, after a layoff of more than 10 years, I stepped back into rec league softball. I left the game as a position player and I came back as a pitcher.

If you’re a fan of the movie “The Natural” you can see that I kind of pulled a reverse Roy Hobbs. On the big screen he comes back to the game as an old man playing the role of slugging outfielder after last being seen as an amazing young pitcher decades ago.

Of course, the big difference is that Hobbs was great as a pitcher and a hitter and I’m terrible no matter what position I play. But none of that takes away from the great time I’ve had playing ball again.

I warmed up for our opening night doubleheader with a couple of team practices and two trips to the batting cages and came away from one practice session bloody and bruised. Some things never change.

When I was younger, faster and thinner (but just as uncoordinated) I broke my leg and dislocated my ankle at a coed practice. I kept up the knack for stupid injuries by straining a muscle in my leg in my first at bat in my first game this week. The whole thing cracks my wife up.

Want to hear something crazy? I sort of like getting hurt in a “Fight Club” kind of way. The pain makes you feel alive in a primal, moronic, pig-headed fashion. Would I rather be at home fruitlessly cleaning dishes, dying a slow death every day, or dragging myself through two softball games in a mild form of agony?

I love dishpan hands as much as the next guy but I’ll take the pain that comes out of competitive activity any day of the week. I may stink when I pitch and hit but I wouldn’t even be out there if I hadn’t lost 38 pounds this year. And you know what? I’m proud to be able to be on the field again — playful mocking by my better half be damned.

In case you’re curious, we lost our season-opening doubleheader. In fact, we got killed. But I’m used to that and it’s not a big deal. The last rec league softball team I played on, the Riflemen, lost 19 in a row before pulling out an extra-inning win in the last game of our second season thanks to a free out courtesy of an opposing player ejection.

The best part of getting out there and playing again was competing with friends. There I was, back on the field for the first time in a decade as fired up (and non-productive) as ever. Spiking the ball after catching the final out of an inning, screaming out encouragement, bad jokes and all kinds of nonsense all night long.

As a pitcher working the first game in my life I threw enough strikes to hold my head high and when I stepped to the plate I made contact every time. It’s nothing to write home about when the woman you share your life with excelled as a fast-pitch softball player through high school but it means something to me.

I was finally back on the field. Maybe not better than ever, but just being there was all that mattered after a decade of sloth.

Thank goodness, it’s almost over

Taking a moment to look back, look ahead, and fire off some random observations as I turn the page on the calendar to September.

 LOOKING BACK

* Heading into the month I thought it’d be an uphill battle for the A’s to play .500 baseball in August but it turns out I was way off the mark.  It ended up being a losing battle to play .400 ball with the A’s ending August with a .393 winning percentage.  Losing the last game of the month in 16 innings on a blown call at the plate in Cleveland just added insult to injury.

* When dawn broke on August I thought Brian Fuentes would get torched all month as the A’s went up against powerful Toronto, New York and Boston lineups but the dude posted a 1.93 ERA with 3 holds.  That gives me at least a little hope that he’ll be an asset next year when he plays out his 2-year contract in Oakland.  Apparently Craig Breslow took it upon himself to be the left-handed setup man to get hammered last month.  The poor guy had a 6.00 ERA with a 1.89 WHIP and a whopping .326 BAA.  I bet they didn’t hand out beatings like that in the Ivy League.

* Clearly, the only good thing to come out of August was the emergence of Brandon Allen.  Nice to finally see a young Athletic rise to the challenge of playing the Yankees.

* August was a pretty decent month for Scott Sizemore.  I’ll take a slugging percentage close to .500 and an OPS over .800 out of my third baseman anytime.  If the A’s stick with him at the corner next season — and I’m not sure they will — I think he could put up some decent numbers relative to his salary once he has a greater comfort level playing third base.

* Best A’s news I’ve seen in a while?  Conor Jackson traded to the Red Sox at the waiver deadline.  Am I happy for CoJack?  Sure.  Am I happy the A’s got a warm body for him?  You bet.  But the main reason that I’m so excited is that manager Bob Melvin has been robbed of the temptation to pencil Jackson into the lineup every day.

It absolutely killed me that when Allen was initially called up Melvin said Jackson was still the starting first baseman and they’d try to get Allen playing time here and there.  Jackson is a lot of things (decent bench player, Valley Fever survivor, former beard wearer) but he ain’t an everyday first baseman in the American League.

It took a nagging injury to Jackson and a hot streak by Allen to get Melvin to do the right thing and just let Allen play every day.  Best of luck to Jackson in Beantown.

* When does taking 2 out of 3 from the Yankees feel like getting swept?  When you lose 22-9 like the A’s did on Aug. 25.  I think that game went beyond lowering the bar for the 2011 A’s — it buried the bar.  From here on out if the A’s don’t give up 22 runs, 13 walks and 4 grand slams I’ll look at it as a decent game.  If they lose my a small margin that’s a good game and if they actually win it’s an amazing game.

LOOKING AHEAD

* It feels sooooo good to know that the last month of the season is finally here.  I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve watched this team play this year and just wanted the season to end right that moment.  The suffering is almost over.  I think every die-hard A’s fan still watching and listening to games should get a medal and a voucher for a few free drinks in the West Side Club.  We’ve earned it.

* At one point I was hoping to see the A’s finish the season on a strong note while breaking in prospects like Michael Taylor and Chris Carter but at this point I’m content to see them lose and earn a high draft pick.  Check out the reverse standings at MLBTradeRumorsto see where the A’s are projected to pick in the 2012 draft.

Right now they’re in position to get the No. 8 pick but I think a couple of  losing streaks could land them in the Top 5 on draft day.  If they A’s aren’t going to make any significant gains in player development in this lost season they might as well come out of it with a stud draft pick they can put on the fast track to the majors.

* Any chance Trevor Cahill pitches well for a few starts in a row?  I know some people thought his stellar 2010 was propped up by a lot of luck on batting average on balls put in play but his sorry 2011 campaign goes beyond tough breaks.  The kid just has no idea where the ball is going when it leaves his hand.   The fact that he’s been having the same problem for so long is really disturbing.  I would have expected Cahill, Kurt Suzuki and pitching coach Ron Romanick to work out the kinks by now.

* I’m hoping that Suzuki can keep up his hot hitting and get back to being the kind of hitter a lot of fans expected him to be when he signed a long-term contract with the A’s.  I don’t expect the kid to be some beast in the middle of the order but I also expect him to hit better than .250 which is something he’s only managed in one month this year.

 TOTALLY RANDOM

* I keep trying to give A’s flagship station 95.7 FM The Game a chance but I’m still not particularly  impressed.  It certainly beats listening to KNBR for sports coverage since they’re just a shill for the Giants but 95.7 definitely isn’t a place for A’s fans to hang out and talk ball all day.  More often than not when I tune in the only time I even hear the A’s mentioned is during a commercial.  I’ll just settle in and get comfortable with the fact that The Game is just trying to be a general sports station and the A’s won’t get a lot of play until they earn it on the field.

That’s not unreasonable but it is a little frustrating for an A’s fan who was looking forward to the team having its own station.

* Shameless self promotion alert:  Over at Swingin A’s I promised to deliver  a 4-part look at the A’s rebuilding effort.  So far all I’ve done is crank out Part 1 which has started to gather a lot of dust but I swear that Part 2 is coming soon.   I didn’t leave it in the hands of Bud Selig’s Blue Ribbon panel to finish up in a decade.

* You know what I’m loving right now?  The NL West and Wild Card race.  You don’t have to think very hard about that one to figure out why.  Of course, now that I’ve said that it’ll probably jinx the whole thing and the standings will turn on their head by the end of the month so I should probably enjoy this while I can.

* The Giants cut Miguel Tejada yesterday which marks a sad end to Miggy’s career.  The guy who was known for his effort and passion in Oakland went out as a non-hustling malcontent in San Francisco.  Sadly, we’ll never know what could have been if the A’s made a long-term commitment to Tejada instead of Eric Chavez.

* Is is just me, or does Ryan Sweeney have the emptiest batting average ever?  I know he’s hitting pretty good this year but I just don’t feel it.  I guess that’s what happens when a guy hits a respectable .270 but slugs an abysmal .339.

* I’m not sold on the idea of the A’s being able to keep free agent slugger Josh Willingham in town beyond this season and I’m note sure they should try too hard.

The A’s need a power hitter and Willingham fits the bill but once you get past Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Lance Berkman, David Ortiz and Aramis Ramirez there really aren’t any other power hitters available on the open market which could drive up Willingham’s asking price.

The only reason I have some apprehension about the A’s breaking the bank for the Hammer is that he’s on the wrong side of 30 with a history of injuries, plays weak defense, will barely hit .250 this year and he strikes out a ton.

Why hand Willingham a ton of money for several years when Chris Carter can probably do the same thing for the league minimum with room to grow?  We’ll see how this one plays out.  For the right price I’d love to see Willingham back in green and gold in 2012.

* I’m calling it right now: We’re going to see the A’s win 20 games in a row this month … if we all go to the debut of “Moneyball” in Oakland on Sept. 19. It’s kind of depressing to know that the only way you can see the A’s play winning baseball is to go to a theater to see Hollywood sprinkle B.S. all over a great, sometimes-misunderstood story.