In the 1950s if you were an American abroad you were a big deal. If the old movies are to be believed, people would give up their seats or buy you a drink without asking. Those days are over. However, when I heard there was a softball team where I live in Galway, Ireland, maybe I was hoping for one more chance to live out American imperial dominance in Europe. I took the glove from under the bed that I haven’t used since I was fourteen and went to the field.
Before this year, my previous experience with baseball in Ireland was coming upon a group of small children playing on the campus lawn. Two adults were organizing the game, and had a child catching behind the plate without any equipment. The batter missed the first pitch and the ball hit the catcher in the face. The child fell down crying. An adult picked him up and moved him to the side. Another child was placed behind the plate. The next pitch hit him in the face and he collapsed, sobbing. They picked him up and placed another child there. I could have said something, but since they say Irish children are becoming more spoiled these days, I let them work it out for themselves.
Baseball is one of the few American sports that never gained any traction in Europe. Europeans find it slow and boring. When I took my housemate Tommy to the softball practice, he brought a soccer ball to kick around while he played in the outfield. Also, never having seen a game before, he started picking up the bases, thinking they were garbage someone left on the field. “Man,” he said, “someone could trip on these.”
When I was young, my love of baseball was only matched by how bad I was at it. I always wanted to play second base like Ryne Sandburg. Because I was awkward and uncoordinated, however, I ended up in right field, praying that the ball would not come to me. If you miss a shot in basketball it’s forgotten seconds later in the flow of the game. When the ball goes between your legs on the baseball field people stare at you for a long time. Usually I couldn’t wait for the game to end so I could go home and watch the Cubs play on television.
The Galway Tribes are an assorted bunch: a mix of men and women and in women in their thirties and forties who someone, somewhere had told them about the sport and they gathered together to make the city’s only team. I saw the looks of expectation when they heard my American accent. I was starting to feel like a big deal before I even went to the plate. All my coyness quickly vanished, however, when I swung and missed horribly at the first pitch. As I watched the ball hit the catcher’s mitt I immediately remembered the familiar gut-sinking feeling that comes with striking out. The Irish, however, didn’t jeer or laugh, and gently congratulated when I hit the next one into the outfield.
Because the Tribes are the only softball team in the West of Ireland, one of the big events of the year is an annual tournament in Dublin. The fact that we had to play on soccer and rugby pitches was emblematic of how softball was trying to carve out its own modest space in the world of European sports. There would be no diamonds, no bleachers, and no hot dogs being sold. The teams were quiet as they took the field, in their modest Irish way, without much cheering going on. I had always hated baseball tournaments when I was young because I usually sat the bench—a status made worse when family came to watch.
Still, this wasn’t the usual baseball tournament. This was softball, in Ireland. Looking around at the other teams, there weren’t the usual athletes that took the field. We were people not young enough or robust enough to play more intense sports, or maybe felt too socially awkward to fit into clicky activities like soccer or Gaelic sports. There were Americans displaced abroad or people who simply needed a way to get out of the house and be around other people. Much like the fields on which it is placed, softball in Ireland occurs in a liminal space that is between a serious competition and a leisure activity, accommodating everyone within its fold.
For myself, I was playing less against whatever Dublin team we were matched up against than the fourteen year-old who was so nervous before games that he didn’t enjoy them. I caught all the fly balls hit at me in the outfield and struck a few homeruns, even a grand slam. Even though it was against middle-aged women and overweight men and none of it mattered that much, it still felt good to do it. It felt like I redeemed my relationship with a sport that I loved. I took a childish joy in the outfielders backing up when I came to the plate. One wily old picture with white hair took a special interest in getting me out. He purposely threw the pitch high to see if I would chase it. I did, and grounded out, much to his satisfaction. However, that didn’t matter, because to me it meant that I was somebody. In this sparsely played game of misfits, I was a big deal.
This article is part of The Milk House column series, published in print across three countries and two languages. It can also be found at themilkhouse.org.
This article appeared in a similar form in Progressive Dairyman.