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Boys and girls of summer
Formed in 1971 under circumstances nobody can recall, the McGill Staff Softball League is a study in contradiction. The eight teams play on a single field hidden between Molson Stadium and McConnell Arena, a peaceful oasis with truly awful turf. The players are competitive, in a laid-back way. They're serious about playing the game, and serious about decamping for post-game beers. Some players are jocks, some are most definitely not. By day, the 100 or so players work in every corner of the McGill community, but are united by one thing: a passion for the league, burning for years, even decades.
|PHOTO: Claudio Calligaris|
Love is tough to explain.
Cicada chirps fill the hazy, late summer air. Grand trees obscure the urban skyline, the dulled roar of Parc rush-hour traffic the only gentle reminder of the surrounding city. Squirrels frolic amid the cluster of unused picnic tables piled in deep left field. As the clock's hands slowly move toward 5:30 pm, the players trickle in.
In this field of dreams, ball caps are the exception, not the rule - even then, the definition of "ball cap" must be extended to embrace well-worn promotional giveaways from hardware stores.
Long shorts. Short shorts. Cargo pants. Faded Darth Vader T-shirts. Cut-off sweatshirts, armholes stretched to preposterous diameters.
In the dugout, a man excitedly shows off his new underwear. "See?" he asks a teammate as he uses both hands to hoist the label above the front of his sweatpants. "Calvin Klein!"
"Uh, why is the label at the front?"
The man is unfazed. "I must've put 'em on wrong in my hurry to get over here. They're Calvin Klein!"
Uniforms aren't top priority around these parts. It's partly a money issue, as the league prides itself on maintaining low overhead and staying affordable for anyone who wants to play. (Each team pays $200 per season, which covers the cost of field rental, equipment replacement, and other expenses.) It's partly because, as players drift out of the league, their jerseys tend to follow. And it's partly because, even if teams are savvy enough to secure snazzy matching T-shirts (often by swinging a sponsorship deal with a sympathetic neighborhood watering-hole), actually getting each player to wear the shirt on the same night is nearly impossible.
And they'd have it no other way. The uniforms, or lack thereof, pretty much say it all: this is softball at its most laid-back. In fact, "laid-back" is the single most common adjective used to describe the appeal of the McGill Staff Softball League.
"It's laid-back," says Steve Burliuk. A computer support technician with the Library Systems Office, Burliuk has played for the Library Leaders since 1994.
"It's laid-back," says Karen Culham, a bindery clerk with Printing Services and member of Printing (that's the team's name, honest) since 1984.
"It's laid-back," says Stewart McCombie, who's played since 1987 for the Shrugs (a plucky, ragtag group cobbled from all walks of McGill employment - when the team was asked to provide a name back in '71, the then-captain simply shrugged his shoulders). An assistant producer/director for the Instructional Communications Centre, McCombie is also in his tenth year as the McGill Staff Softball League commissioner.
"I don't even know the name of the league," admits Sevak Manjikian, a Shrug since '95. Now that's laid-back - especially considering the McGill PhD student (and former casual employee of the Islamic Studies Library) is the team captain.
Two outs, bottom of the inning: pitcher and batter are locked into a battle of nerves. The pitcher winds up, and the dugout falls quiet. As bat meets ball, the silence is cut by the sharp crack... of a fresh beer being popped open. The crowd goes wild.
"It's not a beer league," stresses McCombie. On-field drinking got somewhat out of control nine years ago, forcing the commissioner to threaten a complete ban. Magically, the troubles "stopped rather abruptly." Today, beer consumption is limited to the sidelines and kept in check. What happens post-game, when the teams retire to taverns of their choice (each team has its own longstanding preferences, but Bar des Pins is rather popular), however, is a whole other matter.
"We've got this rule that we stick pretty close to," says Burliuk of the Library Leaders (affectionately known in some circles as the Library Lushes), "where if you strike out, you owe the team a pitcher of beer... and some people are into double-digits by the end of the season!"
A shout from the bench: "Easy out!" A lame foul ball dribbles off the bat. The batter tosses his bat into the sand in mock frustration, then bursts out laughing. A shout from the bench, again: "Easy out!"
Today's league is definitely kinder and gentler than that of the past, when hot heads oft prevailed. Manjikian has heard stories of fisticuffs, but hasn't personally witnessed anything more than an occasional mild temper flare-up - and even those, he suspects, were more "the results of pent-up frustrations in the work place. Especially with the Library team. Maybe it's because you have to be quiet in the library so much."
(Burliuk of the Library Leaders denies all such allegations: "In terms of degrees of competitiveness, we're somewhere in the middle.")
"It's definitely calmer than when I started playing in the '80s," says Printing's Culham. As a veteran player, Culham is often asked to ump other teams' games, but even that oft-maligned role gets off pretty easy. "I only get yelled at once or twice," she reports, "and I'm not a very good ump. I get nervous and make bad calls, but the teams are good about it."
McCombie admits he's had to "weed the garden" over the years. ("Does that sound better than saying I threw some people out?") He recalls one repeat offender, since gone from McGill entirely, who routinely faked plays and was often present during suspicious "accidents." She had to be physically pulled away from other players on several occasions "and that was with people on her own team!"
But just because those two-fisted days are over, don't assume these people don't play to win. Printing, which ended its four-year winning streak with a shocking 19-9 loss to the Chaotic Swingers in this year's championship final, is particularly infamous for its competitive drive.
Culham says there's nothing sinister about their (usually) winning methods: "We just try really hard when it matters later in the season." Others, however, disagree. It seems the Shrugs' lucky green bat went missing this year; Manjikian holds the disappearance directly responsible for his team's uncharacteristic failure to make the semifinal playoffs. Terms such as "Shrug sabotage" are being bandied about - not that he's pointing any fingers, of course. Taken aback by the accusation, Culham dismisses any notion that the green bat's absence affected Shrug performance.
Commissioner McCombie, he just laughs.
During warm-up, a man explains his temporary relegation to the sidelines: "I mean, I could play, but I'd probably open up my stitches and miss work for the rest of the week."
"Miss work for a week?" chirps a passerby. "Sounds good to me!"
Another man heckles an opponent as she slips on her glove. "Better warm up that arm," he yells. "I hear your family is accident prone!" The inside joke draws guffaws from both sides.
The League has seen only a few injuries over its thirty year existence. Incredibly, given the ballfield's bumpy terrain, game casualties have been mostly limited to a smattering of dislocated shoulders and knees, the occasional light sprain or bruised shin, and one allergic reaction to a wasp sting.
"But another player and I did break our noses together one year," McCombie notes with pride. "Not by running into each other, but in separate games within a week. It was kind of neat. We took a picture of our noses at the end-of-season banquet."
Standing at home plate, the batter absentmindedly digs a toe into the sand while staring into the sky. A grin breaks out across his face as he spies the cars parked far in the distance, a stationary parade winding between the rusty chain-link fence and the Molson Stadium bleachers.
"Wow! Look at all the targets tonight!"
Of course, nobody tries to hit a home-run with the express desire of dinging a parked car, but... well, accidents happen.
Even mellow resident philosophers literally cackle at the mention of the ball-meets-car phenom. "This is a matter of pride," explains Manjikian. "If you can hit a parked car, you will raise a number of smiles and happy feelings on the bench. The players know not to park their cars over on that side."
He goes on to recall witnessing a long-haul ball put "a serious dent" in the side of a parked mini-van this past season. "If it had been a station wagon or a truck," he waxes, "that would have been problematic in my philosophical point of view. But not a mini-van."
The green bat controversy notwithstanding, ask any player to what keeps them coming back, and they'll inevitably cite the pervasive atmosphere of encouragement. (The league is even set up so that every team makes the first round of playoffs.) In fact, ask any player to recall a favourite play, and they'll likely spin a tale involving small moments of underdog triumph. (Well, either that, or a well-oiled double-play.)
"One game, I was running home to score," recalls Manjikian, "when someone threw the ball to the woman playing catcher. Sometimes the players who you don't expect to make an incredible play can surprise you, and she caught it and tagged me out. I remember that play because she was so happy - everyone else was so happy for her, too."
"That's what's so fun about this league," adds McCombie. "There have been a lot of great plays like that over the years where your jaw just drops because you can't believe it."
"It's also a real mix of the McGill community, from the higher-ups to little guys like me, and we're all on the same level. Whenever you see vice-principals and associate directors at work, they're always in three-piece suits. So I think it's such a cool thing to go up to the ballfield and see so-and-so in shorts and a T-shirt, having a beer and playing baseball."
"It's just fun," says Culham. "Plus, it's the only exercise that I get!"
With the sun setting behind McConnell Arena earlier and earlier, and no night-lights to illuminate play, the diamond is once again returned to the squirrels. A lone bottle cap glistens in the dirt near the empty players bench. Even the insect noises sound a little plaintive.
"It's kind of an emotional thing when softball season is over," admits Commissioner McCombie, "but come September everyone's back at work, the students are back on campus, and all hell breaks loose. You're back going 120 percent, so there really isn't time to think about it.
"Besides," he adds, "there's always one early-bird who calls me in February and says, 'Hey Stew! Are we starting spring training soon?'"
The McGill Staff Softball League end-of-season banquet will be held in Thompson House on Saturday, October 5. The public is welcome, tix are $5 at the door. Interested in joining the league's 2003 season? Contact Stewart McCombie at email@example.com.