Diamond In The Rough
Playing softball with the natives of a country called Big Sur.
Thursday, August 16, 2001
Members of the Wrecking Crew hard at play and hard at rest. Below, Socko League veteran Leo Foster takes a break from the Over the Hill Gang''s season schedule.
831 -- Tales from the Area Code ''Easy out, eeeaasy out," catcalls a girl from behind the batting cage as a local CHP officer, wearing a knee brace, steps up to the plate. But on the first pitch, he knocks a long fly ball onto the top of the 10-foot-tall mounded dike that marks the center field boundary. If it''d gone over, it would have been a home run. But he seems content with the ground-rule double.
The next hitter, a squat guy with a mustache and two knee braces, steps up to the plate.
"Hey, batter batter batter... POP UP!!!!" This time the obnoxious fan is correct, and the ball goes up and then comes back down for an easy catch by the shortstop.
The Burrito Brothers have just gone three up and three down, and the members grab their gloves and reluctantly trudge back into the field. A long-haired Rebels outfielder, clad in camouflage pants and the team jersey, a rebel flag on a white shirt with red sleeves, trots by the bleachers, which are full of Burrito Brothers supporters. "Sure is quiet over there," he calls to the Burrito Brothers'' fans. Only a few respond, addressing him by name. There''s really not much they can say. Their team has fallen behind early in one of the biggest games of the season. By the third inning, the Brothers are down 12-2.
Big Sur may follow the rest of America in its choice of summer sport, but like everything else imported to this 90-mile stretch of Central Coast, its softball league has been thoroughly imprinted by the unmistakable Big Sur vibe.
For instance, the whole stretch of coast is crawling with waiters, bartenders and dishwashers, most of whom hang out with their coworkers. So the "Socko League" boasts representation by all the area''s major employers, from the Ventana Inn to Esalen to Post Ranch Inn.
In addition to the work cliques, several demographic groups have their own teams. Most of the league''s women play for the Bombs. The Burrito Brothers consist largely of Latinos plus a couple of local California Highway Patrol officers. And then there''s the Over the Hill Gang, many of whom were once top players on various top teams, but now limp out each week to play together in the B-League.
"This is a very loyal sport," says Leo Foster, the league''s commissioner and a player with the Over the Hill Gang. "The game is defined, to a large degree, by the sponsors, teams and their fans. The league really does a lot for itself and for the community."
Foster was one of the Socko League''s founders when it was formed back in 1975 around teams from the area state parks, the Big Sur fire brigade and the Point Sur Naval Base.
As the league has evolved, a number of unique rules have evolved with it. One rule is that, with the players pitching to their own teams, each batter gets only two chances. Because the field at Pfeiffer State Park is oddly shaped, with a very small right field, a ball hit into the trees beyond the right field fence is ruled a single. (Foster recalls that during a championship game in the early 1980s, the Ventana Inn team won by training their players to hit to the trees. Soon after, limits were set on the number of singles that could be hit to right field in one inning.) More rules involve the dike in center field. According to where on the dike the ball is hit, the shot may be ruled a home run, a ground rule double or a live ball.
Teams have come and gone over the history of the league. Only two founding teams, the Ventana Inn and the Outlaws (affiliated with Nepenthe), have survived intact to this day. The most successful team in the history of the league has been the Outlaws. Loved by their fans, despised by everyone else, the team has won more championships than any other. Lately, though, the team has struggled, and, in the last week of the season, it looks like they may be involved in a battle with a lower-tier team just to make it into the playoffs.
Once in the playoffs, however, anything can happen. Twice, teams from the B-League have come in and won everything. Emotional stakes are much higher during playoffs. Umpire calls that go undisputed during the regular season lead to intense arguments and even fights when the trophy is on the line.
This year it looks like the Rebels are the favorites. They''ve lost only one game early in the season and have since gone undefeated. But the Post Ranch team, though they struggled at first, has been playing extremely well since getting new uniforms. Their main problem is that, when surf conditions are good, they seem to have trouble getting all their players out.
And the Burrito Brothers, who gave the Rebels their only loss this season before struggling in the second half, still look very strong. But in the game I''m watching, Burrito Brothers vs. Rebels, it''s clobberin'' time--the Rebels end up with a ridiculously lopsided win: 35-3. At the end of the ninth inning, both teams line up for the traditional handshake and then head back to rejoin their fans. The winners have a little more kick in their step, but as players converge with families and friends, it becomes harder and harder to distinguish the winners from the losers.