I used to live outside of San Francisco, and in my old neighborhood, quiet Sunday afternoons and Monday evenings were regularly punctuated by the sound of blood-curdling screams. Before I figured out that these howls were only the tribal yahoos of men watching football on television, I was certain someone had caught a finger in his Black & Decker, or spilled a can of paint in the living room.
Over the years, whenever there has been a football or baseball strike, I have found myself muttering "Good!" with the kind of umbrage I normally reserve for when they throw drunk drivers in jail. I have a long-standing chip on my shoulder about sports----specifically team sports. In fact, I have studiously avoided participating in them ever since I left high school 25 years ago. Since then, I have partaken only of the occasional pickup game of volleyball on the beach, and once, on a writing assignment in Brazil, I kicked a soccer ball around with a group of teenagers in a jungle clearing.
Thus it was with no mean irony that one summer a few years ago I felt called to join a men's softball team, though perhaps I did so for the same reason that 40 years after a war a soldier returns to the battlefield where he lost a leg.
I didn't start out soured on team sports. In fact, my first taste of it came about because my family had the biggest yard in the neighborhood when I was growing up. With two sets of trees, apples and elms, at either end to act as goalposts, we had the best soccer field around. I don't remember the winnings or losings of any of those games, however, only that it was my yard, and for a few indomitable years before my parents split up and I had to move, I felt like I lived in the best of all possible places. After my parents' divorce, something happened to my budding sense of team spirit. It faltered.
Once I hit elementary school, it downright fell on its face. This was largely a function, I believe, of all-boys gym class, where sports----which were defined from elementary school on as football, basketball and baseball----were administered with a certain cutthroat economy, epitomized by what I call The Lineup.
Two captains, invariably the most athletic, were picked by the coach, usually a former Marine who was now a math teacher pressed into service as a phys-ed instructor for ten-year-olds. These captains would then alternately pick team members from a lineup consisting of the rest of the boys, until everyone was teamed up.
It wasn't just the indignity of being last on line, or even second or third to last, that I would remember with a wince 20 years later. It was that the captains would then argue about who had these designated losers the last game----mostly the skinny kids, the fat kids, and the short kids----and who had to take them this game. As one of the first yardsticks against which I measured myself out in the world, sports were thus sorely lacking, although at the time I thought it was just me.
Out on the playing fields, things were not much improved. The field behind my old elementary school was popular with dirt-bikers and gophers. In baseball, you couldn't count on a ground-ball doing anything more predictable than jumping erratically and possibly knocking out a few of your front teeth. Even out in right field, where I usually bided my time trying to talk myself out of sitting down, going after one felt like throwing my body onto a grenade. By the time a grounder did get to me, it had often passed through at least one infielder's legs, even two, with howls of disdain attending each. The air seemed to gel with the collective anxiety of my teammates. If the ball went through my legs, which it did with some regularity, the field exploded with disgusted and disbelieving groans, accompanied by the sound of mitts thudding against the dirt.
The few moments of victory I did experience in these games were so gratifying and infrequent that in my mind they still seem larger than life. I recall the time I hit a ball over second base, driving home three of my teammates. The astonished expressions on everyone's faces said it all: I was Ulysses returning triumphantly from sea, who, disguised as a beggar, recaptured his sovereignty in a house full of insolent braggards.
I don't doubt that these comeback memories had something to do with my return to the sport----and to team sports----after all those years. As I get older, I sense the urge to re-experience old glories, forgetting, or perhaps forgiving, that they were attended by a disproportionate amount of pain.
Back in the game after my extended leave of absence, I did indeed rediscover some of these old glories. At bat, for example----it was all coming back to me----I remembered that in no other arena did being a lefty command such respect. Stepping up to the plate, I quietly revelled in watching the entire opposing team shift 20 paces to the right, and this time without taking any paces in while doing so.
On the other hand, some things hadn't changed at all, and it seemed that we were merely bigger versions of the way we were. There was still a fat kid swinging at balls after they had already hit the catcher's mitt. There was still a captain whose repertoire of exasperated gestures took half the fun out of the game. And there was still a certain anxiety, which I kept to myself.
But there was no Lineup.
The closest thing to it was the batting order, and once it became evident that I had honed my grudge into a fairly consistent line drive, I was not last, or even second or third to last, at bat. During one particular game, I had the great satisfaction of batting a line drive that knocked the shortstop's glove right out of his hand. The captain, in a decision he couldn't possibly have known the significance of, changed the batting order in mid-game and put me in the coveted position of fourth at bat.
In that moment, I knew I had gotten what I came back for, and began to understand why I had come back at all. What I proved by making that pilgrimage back to team sports was simply that the war was over. In literally playing out my unreconciled emotions, I was able to finish some unfinished business, and finally make peace with some hard feelings I had about myself.
Gregg Levoy is the author of Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life (Random House) and This Business of Writing (Writer's Digest Books). His articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Washington Post, Omni, Psychology Today, Reader's Digest, Science of Mind, and many others. A former adjunct professor of journalism at the University of New Mexico, he currently lives in Tucson, Arizona.