Get into the Game: Summer Softball Bacchanal In Central Park


By Kristy Barry

All photos courtesy of Kristy Barry.

The glory of summer in New York isn’t rooftop parties, boating on the Hudson, or Yankees games. Summer is truly spectacular when I’m playing softball on Wednesday nights in Central Park.

We play on dirt clearings throughout the park, with tree branches hovering over home plate. Trees also serve as foul posts for left field and right, but if you hit the ball into the tree and it falls in fair territory, then the ball is good to play. That is, even if you pop the ball into the tree hanging over the third base line and a squirrel catches the ball and tries eating it like a nut for thirty seconds, the ball is still in play.

There are no walks and you can only strike-out with three whiffs or three foul balls. More importantly, this is a world-class beer league. We crack bottles of beer and use our gloves as cozies. When you spill said beer, you get boo-ed on the field often by your own teammates, even when you’re running after the ball. Drop the ball–no big deal, that happens. But spill a few drops of Corona? You need to be slapped.

The team is loyal, fun-loving, and joyfully competitive. We don’t throw bats when we screw up but do relish in endlessly mocking each other’s mistakes, within the team. We’re unabashed in our celebrating, whether we win or lose, though we usually win, which helps morale. We’re dominant but appreciate more the friendship we all share–over big victories.

“Wrecking Paul” will snuff his cigarette as he steps up to the plate to crush a homerun over the big oak tree in right center. My brother Zack sometimes refuses to play wearing shoes while Jeff sometimes wears pink shoes and Mandy batted in rollerblades and skated around the bases. Girls wear cute high socks. Some guys wear baseball pants while others opt for dresses. Erik wears his golfing attire, blissfully eager to roll around in the dirt with his pink polo collar popped. Ram runs the bases in doctor scrubs–after rushing to the field from the hospital. (Which is fortunate especially because normally when you hear about rushing and hospitals, it’s the other way around.)

Jimmy created hats for everyone. Jeff brings homemade cider. Tom even films and edits mini-movies about each game to document the wackiness.

Some of us can crush the ball really hard. Some can barely swat a mosquito but can just run fast enough to leg-out a ball that drools off the bat. Some have never played before.

Last week, we welcomed Cecilia, a Swedish girl who steps up to bat and stood on home plate only to ask how one holds a baseball bat. She makes contact on one hit, eventually reaches second base, but we find it hard to coach her when to run as she’s standing out on the lonely island that is second base. She just hears a barrage of sideline screaming and isn’t sure if the message is hers or for the batter who just smacked the ball.

And we still win by 20 runs.

My sister Katie and I first joined the league in the summer of 2006. We were interning at Sports Illustrated and an editor there, who played on the company softball team, invited us to also come play on this hodge-podge league for his team called the Consenting Adults.

They’re all editors and psychologists, intellectual yet self-deprecating, over twice my age but very good at softball. They’ve played together for nearly 25 years. The team motto is, “Don’t Throw the Ball” and awards are given for dismal baserunning. When Commissioner Ed invites new people into the league, he reminds everyone that we’re not that interesting individuals, that we only play softball to have something to talk about later at the bar.

One night at McAleer’s, Cathy of the Consenting Adults suggests that I wait to break-up with my then-boyfriend until September because (even though he’s supremely passive-aggressive) he is exceptionally talented at softball. And I should take one for the team. I assure her that in his place, I will bring Henry–a 6’6’’ tall stud who can cover half the outfield with his wing span.

It’s my first summer in New York and I enjoy being welcomed into this whirlwind social network of purposeful playing with seasoned New Yorkers, on these ramshackle improvised fields, and visiting local pubs after the games to grab wings and beer after the games.

Eight years later, the league has morphed into four different teams and I branched out from the Consenting Adults to form a team with Commissioner Ed’s nephew, his wife, my sister, me, and a son from a Consenting Adult member. We ditched the Consensual Adults and switched to being the Barehanders.

After each game, we all still gather at a bar on the Upper West Side to share guacamole burgers, catfish sandwiches, big plates of fries, shots of picklebacks (whiskey and pickle brine). We play games that when you lose, you have to drink tabasco and mustard-tainted beer, ramekins of warm ranch dressing, and sometimes have to pass a chewed up hamburger from one mouth to the next. We’re animals.

Actually, I imagine some animals at the Bronx Zoo eat their food much more civilized than we do, act more intelligent than us after 7 pm and go to bed much earlier than we do.

Vinny stepped up to drink the ramekin of warm ranch on my behalf, seeing my queasiness. We run for each other when we have knee injuries and go camping with each other on weekends. Some teammates share beds with each other and take half-days on Thursdays during summer months, to extend the magic of the night and avoid a wicked, weekly Thursday morning hangover.

I bring boys to vet their potential but my mom reminds me, “Kristy, you need to have other criteria than being tall and good at softball.” Then again, there’s nothing romantic about a guy who turns his body away from a hard line drive. But there’s definitely a libido surge when a man crushes a ball deep to center field, so hard that the ball is still missing.

I feel fond of boys who spend Wednesday nights with me in Central Park, playing ball until the fireflies come out, drinking Jeff’s homemade cider, laughing about errors, and busting up a pinata that we hang from a tree every year for Tom and Jimmy’s birthday.

Many are eager to be a part of an exuberant mid-week summer’s bacchanal, noting, “I’m really good” or “I played in college.” And that doesn’t fit into the requirement for the roster. Paul and Erik consistently smash home runs, and we usually win by large margins. Katie, Irit, Sydney, and Wendy can hit the ball. Some people who aren’t even good at fielding will stop the ball with their bodies.

The question is, can you bat 15th in the order, barehand a ball out of the tree in left, endure the snarky dogging afterwards, and chug a pitcher of beer that’s sullied with tabasco and cupcake icing, with a french fry floating on top? Will you share your sandwich and fireman’s carry a teammate to a taxi later that night?

Can you ride to the pub in the trunk of Paul’s Dodge Challenger, singing along with the stereo blaring “We Are the Champions”?

We sing loud and proud on the sidewalks of New York, together, champions of our own summers.

For more, check out Kristy in conversation on BTR Sports, every Sunday on BreakThru Radio.