If journalistic activities were sporting events, then surely counterfactual storytelling would be tee-ball: a simulation of the real thing with all the difficulty taken out of it, suitable for hapless children. And counterfactual storytelling about sporting events, of course, only threatens to compound the embarrassment. It leads the way to lame esoterica best suited for lonesome late-night sports radio. (If the “tuck rule” play had been upheld as a fumble, would the Raiders have been a football dynasty? If Jeffrey Maier had had his hands chewed off by ants in his crib, would Mike Mussina have ever gone to the Yankees?) The results are hackwork, space filler, a way of hiding from the realities of the here and now.
It is hard to say which is worse: to dwell on one’s own athletic conquests, basking in the wan glory of an inherently ephemeral success, or to dwell on having been conquered, brooding over events that can never be reversed. Yet we also see the appeal of an approach that combines honest self-criticism with taking the judicious measure of one’s foe.
The grim reality of the top of the first inning in yesterday’s softball matchup between the New York Observer Salmon and the New York magazine squad cannot be undone. The traumatic sequence of events happened how it happened: the first New York batter lifted a fly ball to right, in the clear blue sky; neophyte right fielder Tom Scocca, trying to go back on it, took a header; center fielder Josh Benson tracked down the ball and fired to the infield, with the afternoon sun at his back; the ball, coming out of the sun, hit starting pitcher Matt Schuerman in the face. Schuerman, the pitching hero of the Trader Monthly game, came up bleeding from the mouth. Skipper Jake Brooks summoned Scocca in from right to be the emergency pitcher (and to keep him away from any more fly balls), and the new hurler, over-anxious about putting it over the plate, began feeding the New York hitters a steady diet of meatballs. Scorching grounders and booming line drives ensued, finding the gaps in the already-rattled Salmon defense. After New York had batted around, someone on the Moss side offered to invoke some kind of adjunct slaughter rule and stop the half-inning there, but the Salmon insisted on playing it the real way, three outs, no matter the cost. Finally, after realizing it was possible to loft the ball into the blinding sunlight, the battered pitcher struck out the opposing skipper to end it. But the Observer was at the short end of a 9-0 score before its first ups.
But the Salmon were born to swim upstream, against adversity. The offense tallied a pair of runs in the bottom of the inning, Nikki Brydson took over the pitching duties with aplomb and endurance, and the defense tightened up. There was some late-game disagreement about New York’s run tally, but the Observer at one point cut the margin to two or three runs, before ultimately falling by a score of either 15 – 10 or 14 – 10.
So: what if that terrible first inning had never happened? The arithmetically glib answer would be: a rousing 8 – 6 victory for the Salmon. Yet that doesn’t get at the deeper issues–the possible acts of heroism that went undone, the mysterious feedback between success and confidence, confidence and success. In pursuit of those deeper–and, did we mention, space-filling?–truths, we convened a panel of participants to explore the question of what might have been.
Jake Brooks, first base and manager: London would have never called. Our British import Edmund Glover was not a promising prospect as a softball player. On the way to the game, in his rugby kit, collar stretching outward like a hand cradling his head, he asked me two questions: “Isn’t softball a girl’s game?” and “Do you use one or two hands on the bat?” No. Yes. [But…no, no, no, no.] During warm ups, he enjoyed a fag in the outfield. I made a mental note to keep him benched–out of harms way. Then 9-0 happened. I had to replace Schuerman with Scocca and Scocca with Glover. [What I name I now realize!!!] When he came up to bat, down by more runs than British Parliamentary seats, Ed delivered a shot to deep left center that skirted past New York’s ringer and into the empty baseball field abutting ours. It was the shot heard ‘cross the pond, and if 9-0 never happened, I’m afraid that hit would too have been just the stuff of lazy August afternoon daydreams.
Michael Calderone, shortstop: What if the first pitch hadn’t happened? Shifting players around that early in the game would shake up any club–especially one with only one game under its belt. But the team’s ability to play well together was evident in the final six innings. And despite the rocky start, the Salmon trailed by only two runs heading into the seventh inning, and almost pulled off a comeback. Bring on the Paris Review!
Nikki Brydson, catcher / pitcher: Softball is a fickle sport, and it is the seemingly inconsequential plays that win or lose a game for either team at any time. If New York Magazine had been held to just two runs–as they were in the second inning against the New York Observer–the tides may have been turned in the favor of the NYO. But in that first inning, the NYO experienced shame and heartache as only an underdog could, and the overwhelming desire for revenge took hold, forcing a near comeback.
Tom Scocca, right field / pitcher / catcher: I wouldn’t have a giant grass stain on my trousers and an abiding feeling of Russ Ortiz-grade shame.
Jason Horowitz, third base: If the tragic events of the first inning had never happened, the nationwide crackdown on ringers would still be an idea kicking around conservative think tanks, the New York Observer t-shirts, instead of depreciating in value, would have followed their pre-9-0 trajectory and become the Starter jackets or Air Jordans of their generation. and Jake Brooks would not be living in squalor.
THE LOOK BOOK
Josh Benson, center fielder
That’s an actual team t-shirt you’ve got there, right? When Jake Brooks first handed me that shirt, I assumed it was a sort of mock-up spring training-type deal to tide us over until we got the real jerseys. But then when I showed up at the field and saw everyone warming up in their t-shirts, it dawned on me that this was really it. So yes.
And it’s got the Observer Guy on it? I think if you look closely at it, you’ll actually see that it’s Peter Kaplan. And the paper under his arm is the Financial Times.
Tell me about the shorts and the shoes. I’m glad you asked. The shorts, I believe, are from Target. Or maybe they’re Target knock-offs. I’ll have to ask Iva. The shoes were given to me by my cousin Jahn because they didn’t fit him. I don’t think he actually bought them with softball in mind, but they worked great.
Is that blood on your knee? Yes, but you should see the other guy.