Glory Days on the bench
Johnson Park, May 1973. St. Mary’s vs. Cathedral, another match in that grand rivalry. Coaches Moe Moran vs. Stan Wilfahrt, the De Smet Conference title on the line. The ballpark is full, lights illuminating the spring evening.
It’s late in a low-scoring game. Cathedral ace Mike Wilfahrt is snapping his fastball and dealing his big overhand curve. Down by one, St. Mary’s has a runner on second, two outs in the sixth inning. Coach Moran needs a pinch hitter.
I am a junior sitting with my buddies down at the end of the bench. Moe steps into the dugout and looks our way. For some reason, I look up. That’s when I notice the others all have their heads down. He picks me. I think he takes my raised head to be a look of confidence.
He is wrong; I try not to look terrified as I step to the plate. Mike throws a fastball that explodes up in the zone. I swing and miss. Then, a higher strike and another miss. By now we all know what’s coming. A 200 mile per hour fastball, a big cut, and “Ye’r ooout!”
Back to my spot on the bench from whence I came, I hear my buddies suppressing smirks and snickers. It’s OK. These are friends; it’s what guys do. Stealing a moniker from the Pittsburgh Pirates bench of the time, I call us the “Irregulars.” Bart, Albino, Gus, Spin, Snorky are among my best friends, and we have a good time down at the end of the pine.
I thought of my time on the bench recently when I was talking to a friend who coaches girls’ softball in Burnsville. In this league, playing time is strictly ordered to be equal. Coaches are given some flexibility for tournaments, and one weekend a couple girls played less than the others. This being 2014, Lee got irate calls from the fathers of the girls, and “what was he doing not playing them more, and their daughters should quit right now!”
I would offer to the offended dads, “Relax, sitting on the bench isn’t so bad.” In high school, I spent time as a backup player before playing my senior year. Then for a few years of town ball, I was a part time player. Sure, I wanted to play more. But years later, I have fond memories of my days on the bench.
We manufactured endless ways to entertain ourselves in the dugout: seed spitting competition, putting contests with baseballs using bats as putters, betting on where the ball would end up after getting tossed in between innings. Coaches Moran and Pelzel found us to be entertaining as we bantered about the game, classes, girls, and life.
As benchwarmers we were role players, members of the ensemble. We were the back ground vocalists. Occasionally we were thrust under the spotlight as in my at bat vs. Mr. Wilfahrt. More often, we were there to fill in for some one who pulled a muscle or for the final inning of an unclose game.
The Apostle Paul addressed sitting on the bench in his letter to the Romans. “For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” Paul knew that some of us would play shortstop and bat third. And that some of us would be late inning defensive substitutions.
I was talking to fellow Irregular Dale Berkner, and he remembered having to pinch run for the pitcher. Not only was it tough to jump into the game after sitting for ninety minutes, there was a lot more downside than upside. He could score or get left on base, and no one would notice him. Or he could get picked off or caught stealing, and everyone would notice him.
Sometimes I thought we were having more fun than the starters. It always looked like they were under such stress. Baseball is a game where one fails more than often than not. The Irregulars were constantly being exposed to the cuss words and thrown helmets and gloves of the starters.
Dale and I agreed we did not have one pressure that players face today. Back then, parents didn’t come to every game. Our parents lived on farms where the work never had an end. Dale said, “They kind of thought sports were a waste of time.”
Today, if a parent misses a game, you assume they are in the hospital. You can debate whether the Burnsville dads are simply being supportive parents or whether they are being obsessive “helicopter” parents. But it adds a level of pressure to the proceedings. Now, the coach has to please the players and try to win the game AND please the parents.
Since my own playing days, or non-playing days more accurately, I’ve had a warm place in my heart for succeeding generations of benchwarmers. Benchwarmers are people, too, and just want a little respect. Herewith, the Benchwarmers Manifesto:
To the coach. We are on the team, treat us like it. Don’t bury us deep on the bench, and then expect us to be ready when a starter breaks his wrist. Remember, we are the ones who truly love this game. Anyone can get ready for a game knowing they will be starting; commitment is getting ready for a game when you are not starting.
To the starters. You are the starters; we get that. You don’t have to be snotty about it. Appreciate your gifts for what they are, gifts from a generous God. Also, we are watching the game. You can’t watch the game from where you are. We might see something helpful, so pay attention if we tell you their shortstop is cheating to his right on off-speed pitches. And one more thing. We are NOT the water boy; don’t even think of asking.
To the girls. OK, the starters are athletic and generally handsome. But we know the starters and they’re not that interesting. We benchwarmers have more time to be reflective and thoughtful. Sitting here on the bench, we are able to develop our interior lives more fully. Trust us. You’d rather date a benchwarmer.