We Parisians kicked off our softball season last week with a game against DC Comics. It wasn’t what you would call a W—down twelve runs in the final inning, we came back to put a far less embarrassing defeat down in the books (final tally: 13 to 8)—but what we lacked in skill and precision we made up for in chutzpah: after our seven runs that final inning, our dugout roared such that our opponents seemed perhaps a bit deflated, making our loss all the sweeter.
We’ll go on to play such hard-hitting publications as The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, High Times (they’re up next), and a handful of others. But first, to celebrate the opening of the season, we’re sharing an essay by erstwhile editor and softball captain George Plimpton on playing right field, a position I’m all too familiar with. —Caitlin Youngquist
I can’t remember whether it was last summer, or the one before that, or maybe even three years ago, when in a pickup baseball game after lunch, I was the last one picked from the lineup. The captain, a teenager, referred to me as “Mister.” “I’ll take mister … ah.” He asked me if I would play right field. Sure, I said. I thought of the half-finished summer drink back on the porch, a glass of white wine.
The others ran to their positions. The first baseman, a twelve-year-old, stretched out his length like a big leaguer to receive the warm-up tosses zipped across the infield.
There were two of us who walked to our positions—the young pitcher (a third my age) because that is in the nature of pitchers. Even in pickup softball games, they move with a kind of smug, imperial elegance to the pitching mound. As for me, I walked out to right field because there was no need to hurry. I don’t run much—perhaps a burst of speed to get to a subway door before it closes. I was surely without a glove that afternoon, unless I had been able to borrow one from the right fielder on the other team, which was unlikely. That year, if I recall, she was the young Romanian ballerina who’d never played baseball.
Right field is where nothing happens. In softball games just about everyone, except the ultra-suave, bat right-handed and they tend to pull the ball, which means that the left side of both the infield and outfield gets almost all the play. When on rare occasions left-handed batters step up—ultra-suave because they are in the minority and cause consternation—everyone shifts around to compensate. The center fielder encroached upon the quiet refuge of right field. When a fly ball drifts out he moves in front of the right fielder. “Mine,” he calls out, not with any degree of urgency but in a muted condescending way as if it were better that he helped out in this situation, very much like a Boy Scout guiding an elderly lady across a street.
So right field is where the inept and those who are getting on in years are sent. They nurse the injury of being the last picked. They trudge out there by the oak tree and turn around.
It has always been my contention that great thoughts have been generated in the lonely wastes of right field. I have no doubt that Albert Einstein was playing right field when he came up with E=mc2; so was George Gershwin when he suddenly hummed to himself the upward scale that provides the opening notes of “Rhapsody in Blue”; wasn’t Woodrow Wilson playing right field when he came up with the concept of the League of Nations? Was not Edwin Hubble staring up into the heavens hoping a baseball would never materialize when the first inklings of the Big Bang Theory came to mind. William Randolph Hearst dreamed up his newspaper empire playing right field in a softball game over a century ago. Hugh Hefner was in right field when … well, you get the drift.
For me, it wasn’t always like this. At school, in the college years, at the Sunday games for years after graduation, in the grass field beyond the A&P, I remember the studied nonchalant walk I affected as I walked to the pitcher’s mound.
Then one year I was asked if I would play first.
“Well, Tim is a pretty good pitcher.”
“Time? Who’s Tim?”
“The young kid over there warming up.”
And then that summer afternoon last year, or was it a year or so before, a glass of white wine still left on the luncheon table, I found myself in right field.
There are many right fields in our lives, and not only in baseball. The equivalent in touch football is the position of center. They are the last picked in the lineup. “I’ll take you, mister … er … ah?”
What the centers hear in the huddle, usually from quarterbacks scrabbling the play in the grass is this: “OK, Jack, you go along to the right, down toward the bushes; Penny, you go long on the other side and cut right behind Steve; Warren, you go down the middle, then cut for the sideline. Who’s the center?”
“OK, you center it on three, take five steps down, and if everyone’s covered I’ll throw it to you.”
So the center does this—the five steps, the turn, arms up plaintively. Nothing. On offense, it was possible to spend the entire afternoon taking those five steps, turning, and watching the ball arch far overhead on its way downfield.
In soccer, of course, the equivalent of right field is being picked to play goal—the least active of the positions, and thus suitable for the boy (or girl), or someone’s grandfather, standing in line, shifting worriedly from one foot to the other, hoping not to be the last picked, and upon that indignity, “Hey Joe,” or “Jull” or “Mister … er … ah” whomever, “You’re the goalie, OK?” and then that slow trudging walk down to where the two piles of coats mark the goalposts.
If one has been picked for the better team, a whole chilly autumn afternoon can be spent standing between two piles of coats waiting for something to happen, some movement from the farther end.
Shep Messing, a professional goaltender who played for the New York Cosmos, told me once that he whiled away such moments of inactivity by talking to the goalposts. He felt he had to talk to someone, not very serious stuff. He’d say things like, “Be there when I need you.”
I remember from my brief playing days as goaltender with the Boston Bruins (as a participatory journalist) that when my team was attacking the other net, the expanse of ice in front of me was so vast that I could hardly make out what was going on at the opposite end. I wrote about it thus: “With the puck at the other end, it was not unlike standing at the edge of a mill pond, some vague activity at the opposite end almost too far to be discernible—could they be bass fishing out there?—but then suddenly the distant, aimless, waterbug scurrying became an oncoming surge of movement as everything—the players, sticks, the puck—starts coming on a direct line, almost as if a tsunami, that awesome tidal wave of the South Pacific, had suddenly materialized at the far end of the mill pond, and was beginning to sweep down toward one … a great encroaching wave full of things being borne along full-tilt—hockey sticks, helmets, faces with no teeth in them, those black, barrel-like hockey pants, the skates, and somewhere in there that awful puck.”
Alas, that is the sort of thing that can happen to disturb one’s reveries in right field … the thwack of the distant bat, the faces of the infielders suddenly turning as the bills of their caps tilt first upwards, then directly toward right field where the ball is beginning the downward curve of gravity’s rainbow. If he thought to look, it would be the first time while standing out there he had seen the infielders’ faces, now staring at him with horror; instead he is staring up transfixed, arms stiff as poles, reaching for the sky as if praying to an Almighty Being.
I had a friend playing right field in a pickup game who, frightened by a sudden ball hit his way tumbled backward into a thicket and while extracting himself had been bitten by a bee, probably a yellow jacket. He turned out to be allergic, violently so, and was hurried to a local hospital where he fell in love at first sight with the receptionist. This change meeting quickly resulted in a marriage, which turned out to be a disaster. I never mentioned it when we had lunch on occasion years later, but I’ve often thought that if he had caught that long-ago fly ball he might have escaped a rather unfortunate five years of his life.
Peter, Paul & Mary had a song about playing right field, echoing all this:
Playing right field is easy you know
You can be awkward
You can be slow
That’s why I’m here in right field
Just watching the dandelions grow.
Oddly, at the conclusion of the song, with the right fielder daydreaming as usual (“I don’t know the inning / I’ve forgotten the score”) a ball is hit out his way which he actually catches! Started by everyone suddenly yelling at him (“And I don’t know what for”), he looks up and the baseball falls into his glove for an out! Poetic license indeed! Hyperbole!! No right fielder worthy of the tradition would catch a ball.
I once played briefly with a softball team, many of whose players refused to catch the ball at all. It was not because of age. They were “The Penguins”—a team put together from members of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Almost all of them depended upon their fingers for their livelihood. So if a ball was hit out to a violin player in right field, he (or she) would turn and run alongside the ball until it stopped before picking it up and throwing it toward the infield. I don’t recall that we ever won a game.
Of course, right fielders go to bat—the enormous moment, perhaps three or four times an afternoon, when once again the focus is leveled where you are at the plate, so unlike the peace of the grass out by the oak tree, the cries of encouragement, and then it’s over, a soft liner to the shortstop, the heads turned as you walk back to the others (“Nice bat, pops!”).
So what’s on my mind as I set out for right field and the oak tree beyond? Sometimes I remember the Sphinx’s famous riddle that befuddled so many (and who got devoured by the winged lion when they couldn’t solve it) … in so many words, what had four legs in the morning, two at midday, and three in the evening? The answer (which Oedipus solved and saved the city of Thebes): man, who crawls as a baby, walks upright in the prime of life, and eventually as an elderly gent supports himself with a cane. The three stations in softball, if one extends the metaphor, would start with pitching, then first base, and end with right field. Too melancholy a thought. Better to consider Alexander Pope—“To be swift is less than to be wise.”
And besides, one can consider the great right fielders who have occupied the same area—Roger Maris, Henry Aaron, Reggie Jackson, Al Kaline, Frank Robinson, Enos Slaughter, King Kong Keller, Mel Ott … Ott who played right field for the New York Giants in the Polo Grounds, very often standing in what became known as Ott’s Spot because the stands behind him (The Porch) were so close that there wasn’t much to do except turn and watch the home run balls sail overhead. And Babe, of course, the great Babe Ruth, he played right field.
I turn to face the infield. The game had begun. A pop fly goes up. Was it caught by the shortstop? The third baseman? Who knows. It is time for reverie, and the mind begins to soar…
George Plimpton was a founder of The Paris Review, which he edited for five decades.