When it’s a slow day at the golf course, the caddies play games in the big yard alongside the shack. Some kids toss a Frisbee, others take out golf clubs and hit balls, aiming at trees or stakes or drains.
However, the most popular game—the game that makes the jock caddies grunt and the weak caddies sigh—is softball.
The games don’t begin until the dew has lifted and the grass is dry. Younger caddies, the “rakes,” get harassed to run races against one another through the field while it’s still wet. They have to sprint to the far side, grabbing a leaf from a tree as proof of the journey, then lie in the grass for a moment, then run back. The officials of these races then feel the moisture of the caddies’ shirts to judge if the field is ready for play.
Around the shack, my nickname is “the professor.” I suppose it’s appropriate that if one older caddie must be inept at softball, it should be me. I’d prefer to talk about what softball means than to have to actually play it and be embarrassed dropping a fly ball or, god forbid, striking out in front of pubescent teenagers.
I’m decent enough at golf, and pretty good at Frisbee. During softball, while anxiously waiting on-deck or out in the field, I think to myself, “Oh, just wait until we get the Frisbee out, then I’ll show all of you!”
We pick teams for softball and the caddies who don’t know me assume I must be a solid player, at least bigger and stronger than the younger kids. But then we play a game or two, they see my struggles, and then I get picked later and later, picked after gangly, pimple-faced virgins who don’t know how to drive cars, yet who are more reliable than me at 16’’ softball.
Despite my clumsiness, I still like trying to play, like being inside this game that these kids play so un-self-consciously, that they just do because it’s what they’ve been shown to do. At times I feel like an anthropologist who’s been unwittingly invited into a ritual.
There’s one softball game that I still remember vividly.
It was a Wednesday in July. The day began clear, but a storm front was supposed to come in by early afternoon. There weren’t many bag assignments, just a couple in the morning and a dozen or so for the afternoon.
We had played two games of softball already, each one a rout, 15-3, 17-5, despite having shuffled the teams each time. We re-picked teams once again, and started what was going to be the last game of the day. Sulloway was the captain of one team, Henry O. the captain of the other.
The first couple of innings were normal—a few big hits from the good players, one or two bobbled balls by the fielders. The score was tied 2-2. Most kids were languishing in the humidity, becoming bored and cranky.
Timmy Tourettes came up to bat. This was his first year as a caddie and he’d recently received that nickname because of his foul reactions when striking out at softball. He hadn’t gotten a hit all summer.
He was sipping on a Starbucks cup and looking at his iPhone while he was in the on-deck circle. He went up to bat, swung at the first pitch and ripped it over the third baseman’s head.
“Timmy!” boys were shouting, tickled by this emergence of talent. After getting on base, Timmy took out his phone and tweeted that he got a hit.
I was up next. Feeling the happy waves of Timmy’s little miracle, I made good contact and hit the ball to a gap in left field.
Storm clouds had been billowing into the air and they finally covered the sun. The mood of the game shifted from a sweaty apathy to a cool curiosity.
Surly was next to bat. There were cries to the outfielders to back up.
He looked at the first two pitches. On the third, he swung, striking the ball so hard it was as if there was a baseball inside the softball and he had punched through the outer layer and hammered the inner baseball.
The ball was flying for the woods at the end of the outfield. Joe Ivory, a burly kid who was headed for West Point the following Fall, was sprinting to make the catch. He was running for the forest as if fleeing from civilization.
Ivory reached out his hands as he plunged into the branches and the leaves. He disappeared. Everyone was quiet. Timmy and I were standing in the base path, watching.
A hand reached out from the trees, with the ball. “Caught it!” Ivory shouted, grinning, with blood trickling from his forehead and his knee.
Thunder rumbled from the clouds.
By the end of the seventh inning, Sulloway’s team was up 8-7.
Sulloway was up to bat. A caddie named Doug—so called because he looked like the cartoon character—was playing first base.
Sulloway hit a grounder to the shortstop. The shortstop threw it wide of Doug and Doug stretched for the ball. Sulloway flinched but flinched in the same direction as Doug. Their heads collided. Doug flew back, while Sulloway did a 360Â°, his arms flailing, and fell to the ground, unconscious.
Doug was bleeding from his eye.
“Call his mom!” kids were shouting. We splashed some water on Sulloway and he came to. He looked very confused, inspecting his shirt, the sky, and then the people around him.
“Jesus, Sulloway. It’s just softball,” said Henry O. “C’mon. Help him up. Help him up,” he instructed.
A couple of caddies hoisted Sulloway, walked him to shack, and set him down on a mildewy jean sofa out on the patio.
The game was paused as Doug’s mom came and took him to the hospital.
There was more thunder and the sky got darker.
The game continued. It was now the top of the ninth inning and you could smell the rain in the air. The score was tied 7-7.
One of the afternoon foursomes had looked at the weather radar and called off their round. They were carrying their clubs back to their cars and saw us still playing softball. They pointed at us and a couple of them stopped to watch.
Mr. Simic came off the driving range and passed through the lot in his golf cart. He drove over to the field to watch, too.
Timmy was up to bat. Lunch Box was pitching. Timmy hit a pop fly that was caught by the second baseman. He cursed loudly, spat on the ground, and jogged back to our makeshift dugout.
I was up to bat. I was getting nervous again and almost whiffed the ball on my first swing. The second pitch was low and I held off. On the third pitch, I connected and hit a line drive into center field.
Ivory went running for it.
Just as he got to the ball, a dark, shaggy coyote trotted out of the woods, carrying something in its mouth.
Ivory got the ball, looked at the coyote, and froze.
Caddies were shouting at Ivory, wondering what he was doing.
The coyote jogged towards the infield, towards Lunch Box, like he had something for him.
The thing in the coyote’s mouth looked furry, and like it had recently been alive.
The coyote approached second base, dropped its victim, and then ran for the woods.
Lunch Box was staring intensely at the corpse. “Bubbly?” he said. Bubbly was—we learned afterwards—the name of his family’s pet shih tzu. His parents’ house was just on the other side of the woods.
It was Bubbly, bloodied and mauled.
There was a bolt of lightning and the golf course’s warning siren blew. A downpour began and everyone ran for cover, except Lunch Box, who was kneeling by Bubbly.
The softball game was left permanently suspended, tied at 7-7.
Lunch Box did not come to caddie the next day. One of the caddies came up to me and sarcastically asked, “So what’d you make of that one, professor?”
Lunch Box and his parents spoke at a town hall meeting that summer, a hearing on the proliferation of coyotes and coyote-related pet fatalities.
The town hired a trapper, and revised its gun laws to allow him to use his shotgun.
Later in the year, Lunch Box brought his new dog with him to the shack, a puppy shih tzu. It was no bigger than the 16’’ softball.