On field, sharing softball, beer and memories of steel

True tales from everyday living

Real life


Baseball can have a peculiar hold on men of a certain age. My age. Men who grew up in the 1950s inhaling clouds of infield dirt, the pixie dust of our going-going-gone youth.

College also can have a peculiar hold on men of a certain age. My age. Men who pine a bit for the callow-fellow days when they didn't have to deal with mortgage payments or prostate exams.

Those two threads of my life intertwine one weekend every summer. It's not exactly Brigadoon, but the convergence speaks to the enduring, sometimes inexplicable, magic of friendship.

I attended a small college in Pennsylvania, where small colleges are a cottage industry. I opted not to join the animal house and instead pledged the relatively tame scholar-athlete fraternity, living cheek by jowl with future doctors and lawyers who generally refrained from breaking furniture.

We weren't rah-rah Greeks. We were just a bunch of clueless college kids with the same high-brow interests: keg parties, girls and staying out of Vietnam.

There were no grand expectations. Real life presumably would send us on our individual, merry ways after graduation, much like a Times Square cop dispersing New Year's Eve celebrants after the big ball drops.

Back then, many fraternity houses employed cooks. Ours was an ex-Navy hash slinger named Gilbert Strohm, a hulking, big-hearted grump whose idea of exotic cuisine was to boil hot dogs in beer.

Strohm retired nearly a decade after I left campus, free to travel the world on his fraternity-house pension. Because the payout was about $14 a month, word soon got around that Strohm was doing a lot of sightseeing at the local mall.

The brothers from my era decided to hold a fundraiser. A testimonial dinner was deemed too formal; a golf outing too yuppie.

We hit upon the pixie-dust idea of a marathon softball game. The "Strohmathon" concept is simple: 25 or 30 adults resurrect bats and gloves and return to their alma mater once a year to play some ball. To play some ball and eat beer-soaked hot dogs that get washed down with ... beer.

We paid for this privilege. The money went to Strohm, who used it, not to travel, but to buy more basic luxuries of retirement life. Like food.

Then an odd thing happened: Strohm died and we kept holding Strohmathons. This Saturday will mark 26 years of pulled hamstrings.

"Everybody I know who went to college is amazed we're still doing this, that so many of us have stayed in touch for so long," says Bunk, who started going gray at 20 and today looks positively ghostly, but thinks he can still play shortstop.

I'm amazed, too. Some of us now run as if we're slogging through waist-deep peanut butter. One pitcher has an artificial hip. One third baseman has eaten so well since college he appears to be smuggling illegal aliens under his shirt.

We don't care. We are great athletes where it matters most: in our minds, in the sweet spot of our fantasies.

Girlfriends, wives and children used to come to Strohmathon. We'd play three games of softball, then pickup basketball. At night, we'd go dance to a bar band.

Things have calmed down. The girlfriends and wives prefer shopping. Or staying home. The kids are grown. Strohmathon has become one seven-inning game of softball followed by a sit-down dinner. We're lucky if we kick a quarter-keg of beer.

But the tradition won't die. Why? It could be because we came of age during a war and a social revolution, the recipe for memories of steel.

It could be a baseball nostalgia. Or late-blooming bonds of brotherhood.

Of course, you can over-analyze these things. Strohmathon is a great excuse for ducking yardwork.

One of our stalwart outfielders missed Strohmathon 2001, his first no-show in 15 years. Dale had good reason: He contracted a rare pneumococcal virus and doctors had to amputate both legs below the knee. Plus all the fingers on his right hand. Plus the thumb and pinkie on his left.

During his long rehabilitation, Dale had a specific, some might say idiotic, goal in mind.

"There is absolutely no doubt," he told me on the phone the following winter, "that I will be at the Strohmathon. I'm sure I can modify my glove so I can wear it on my left hand."

In fact, he was already talking trash: "I know I can walk around the outfield as fast as some people."

Dale kept his word. He showed up at the next Strohmathon. And hasn't missed one since.

This has become my definition of courage: A man with artificial legs and battered hands -- my crazy, inspirational "brother" -- standing in a field of grass on a summer day, hoping to catch a fly ball that drops from the sky.


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