On a cloudy Sunday in mid-May, Raymond Weschler chose Jim McGuire (Cal professor of biology) as his opposing captain, and teams were drawn up. Ray’s booming voice announced the lineup as chatting players finished stretching and headed out to the field. On the diamond at Berkeley’s magnificent Codornices Park, players are surrounded by towering oak trees, redwoods, walnuts and, lining the left-field foul line, Ponderosa pines, which are home to rowdy crows and, when struck by a foul ball, release a cloud of pollen.
It’s hard to imagine a game of softball more suffused in wisecracks and competitive grit, yet here too is an unmistakable undercurrent of affection. It’s not without its risks however, since the “softball” is rock-hard and can bounce crazily, leaving an unfortunate player calling for ice and Ibuprofen—both of which Ray keeps on hand. Pitchers of slow-pitch softball are akin to combat grunts: they’re always in harm’s way. Steve Bedrick and Chris Fure, today’s pitchers, stand a mere 50 feet from a batter who may launch a screaming line drive at their heads. Bedrick is stoic on the mound, while Fure keeps up a (frequently amusing) line of chatter.
Ray, longtime leader of the weekly softball game, could toss off career highlights if that were his style: J.D. from Berkeley Law in 1992; M.A. in Linguistics; B.A. in History; Masters of Library and Information Science; volunteer work in immigration and refugee law; teacher of ESL in the U.S. and France; and assistant editor to his sister Toni Weschler on her bestselling book Taking Charge of Your Fertility.
But what really gets Ray’s juices flowing is the community he has created in the rarified world of slow-pitch softball. He calls it the “Finest Unaffiliated Email-Organized Softball Game West of the Sacramento River.”
Ray—acting biographer, organizer, accountant, chief strategist, and cheerleader—launched the slow-pitch softball game because he was “dissatisfied with intramural games, which featured umps with an attitude and only lasted about five innings and 50-60 minutes.” And so, in the spring of 1997, he decided he could do it better on his own, including games lasting a full nine innings. He collected email addresses from interested players, a modest 15 at the time, and sent out his first official invitation.
Twenty years ago, Ray had to scour the town for enough willing souls. Now players can wait years to crack the email list, just to RSVP and hope for a spot. As of today, Weschler attests, “there are 500 people on the email list, of which 100-200 are Bay Area, 50-100 play at least once a year, and a core group of 40-50 who play several times a year—and about 30 who are core-core.” One Berkeley native is an attorney with the DOJ who makes for the game when in town. Other players reside in such far-flung locales as China, Belgium and Costa Rica. (Full disclosure: I’m an unheralded player in Ray’s community.)
When players assemble at Codornices Park each Sunday morning, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more eclectic array of ages, professions, garb, attitude, and talent. No doubt Major League Baseball would look askance at Ray’s version of the game: five balls for a walk; no lead offs from bases; always a force-out at home; and an allowed four outs per inning for teams falling ten runs behind.
Ray’s supreme goal in softball (and life) is égalité—preferring a tight finish to a blowout. He has that in mind when choosing an opposing captain and negotiating the rosters. Of course, as in life, there are no guarantees of a fair game.
On Ray’s team, Frank Cheung (a confessed kibitzer) led off with an improbable home run to right field. James Smith doubled, and Michael Sankur followed with a home run blast for a three-run inning. “I thought at the time that I had made my team too strong,” Ray would later note.
He needn’t have worried; the baseball gods are fickle. McGuire’s team notched 11 runs in the bottom of the first, with the team captain himself stroking a homer. What followed was an onslaught of hits, runs, and defensive miscues—five lead changes and a total of 53 runs.
On the defensive side, Cheung snagged a bristling line drive at third, and Mariko Inoue played second base like a veteran, fielding wicked grounders. The “speed on the base paths award” went to Sankur, who was frequently in danger of running down the base runner in front of him.
Fly balls pounded into deep left or center, forcing outfielders to disappear into the foliage in mad search of the bright yellow orb. You half expected “Shoeless Joe” to emerge as he did in Field of Dreams.
Final score: Ray’s team 31; Jim’s 22.
Players shelled out $5 to Ray (to cover the field rental), “taunted” and high-fived each other, and relived game highlights. As some departed the weekly communion, others stuck around for a game of Ultimate Frisbee.
Later, from his charming Elmwood domicile where Ray resides with his wife Wendy, and Moonie—a sweet long-coat Chihuahua-mix and frequent game spectator—the redoubtable Ray Weschler produced his quotient of Impressionist prose, in the form of a ritual, post-game email. Players have come to expect Ray’s midweek game summary in prose he calls “drivel” but which is engaging and witty, reminiscent of humorists S. J. Perelman and Ring Lardner, with Ray’s own characteristic flourishes. This week he talked predestination, invoking 16th century theology and some well-placed digs:
Jim McGuire’s team exploded for 11 runs in the bottom of the 1st, and so for a while there I was thinking that my own side was destined to endure nothing less than a dignity-crushing obliteration of both bone and soul. Of course the aerobic future is unwritten, randomly callous and based on the ricocheting antecedents of indefinite causal agents going back to the big bang itself, which is to paradoxically say that it’s not unwritten at all!
Nevertheless, even if all of sport is pre-determined in the most Calvinist sense of that utterly annoying belief, I just don’t think that “excuses” a captain whose team shows such staggering initial greatness and yet still goes down in flames, 31-22, and with all due respect, that’s something that Captain McLoser is going to have to think about long and hard in the contemplative years to come.
Ray concluded his game summary as he always does: “And therefore there will be a game at Cordonices this Sunday at 11 IF I get enough commits by this Friday morning…Raymond.”
Rare are the days when these commits fall short.