Purchasing my plane ticket to Las Vegas for the Senior Softball Championship was exciting. Packing for the trip was anxiety. I’m not an anxious packer, but I always feel a little unsettled when I volunteer my participation, especially when it’s for something as far removed from me as a men’s Senior Softball Championship. Yet, here I was, deciding between shorts and sports bras, and making The List; toiletries, glasses, charger, camera…I convinced myself that this was something worth seeing about.
About 30 minutes on the freeway to LAX, about one hour spent in the airport, about 15 minutes inching my carry-on to the plane, about 45 minutes of headphone time, about three bags of peanuts and three minutes of one Bloody Mary obtained with a drink ticket, about three shoves from strangers and countless mumbled, yet very urgent, “excuse me’s,” about two escalators and some steps through the airport and out the circle doors, and roughly four radio songs in a Vegas taxi was how long it took me to get from my apartment in Los Angeles to a “Las Vegas” casino. The Eastside Cannery Casino and Hotel is about 20 minutes off the strip. A 20 minute car ride off the strip is plenty of time to realize where Vegas really is.
It was easy to welcome the Eastside Cannery’s central air and overgrown seating. I took a seat and began scanning the room for Kevin, my mother’s boyfriend and captain of the Desert Dawgs Senior Softball League. Tomorrow marked day one of the championship. I’m not one for sports, just hockey since I watched my father watch it all my life, but other than that I have a hard time retaining the basics. The Senior Softball League caught my attention for reasons other than sports. I’ve always been interested in seniors — how they date, what their friendships are like, and their general continuation of life after being “young.”
Staying just a hair off the Vegas strip, one does feel the absence of those expensive looking suits, the ones that unravel a smell of cologne-glazed and sun-baked bodies. The women in small dresses and heels high enough to make them fumble like newborn wildebeasts were missing too. Instead I sat next to a woman who looked like she was around 65. She nursed a burning cigarette that stuck to her lips and shook when she mumbled orders to the slot machine in front of her. Her hair was light and frayed, her fat spilled around her and over her black leather stool. She wore clothes out of necessity. The Tweety Bird on her shirt meant nothing to her.
She felt me staring so I switched my gaze only to find another Eastside Cannery icon: the large family. This wasn’t a family of six, seven, or eight, they were, in weight and measure, individually large. There were only three of them. A mother, father, and their son. They were dressed accordingly in large box t-shirts, shorts, and broken-in sneakers.
The same Vegas elements congested the air — the sound of slot machines and stacking chips paired with the sight of debris-filled ashtrays, but the guests were calm and had nowhere to be. I even saw a stroller parked next to a woman who I assumed to be the grandmother. I watched her look down and smile at the child inside. There was time here. No rush.
Finally, there was Kevin with all the adults, 60-plus. They were celebrating. Most of the team members and their wives had at least 30 years on me. I grabbed my mother’s and Kevin’s attention and began a discussion about what I should drink. Mid-decision a soft hand snuck up on my shoulder. I turned around and faced a woman, a wife, a Desert Dawgs supporter. Her name was Tricia, her husband was on Kevin’s team, and she was one of those older types that gushes over youth. Tricia immediately loved me. She was drunk and slurring her words. She was a pretty and rounded woman — the kind that makes you want to get closer and chat. She was warm, her eyes doughy.
We gathered around the bar. All the “boys,” their wives, the girlfriends, a fiancé, my mom, and me. The boys were all beer and whisky and cigars and Marlborough Lights. The talk was all softball and “who needs another?” Mark, a Desert Dawg, looked at me and said “isn’t it amazing how long we can talk about softball for?”
They were raving about their win this evening that happened right before I landed. It was a fresh win and I could see their energy, very hyper and vibrant like someone who’s had just enough of a cocktail. There was talk about “83 runs in three games.”
They were so boyish in their excitement and their pride. They referred to each other as boys, they meant it endearingly or maybe they said it out of habit, but they really were boys in the best way. The camaraderie was tightly fastened, even the boys who no longer played with them — they rolled through and lit up a cigar and had a whiskey and a beer, all on Kev’s tab.
I burned out faster than most of the crew. I cheers’d the boys goodnight and shot an open smile to their wives and girlfriends swaying at the bar. We drank until 1:00 a.m. and the next morning brought game day.
The men looked good out there on the field all buttoned up in their matching t-shirts with the Desert Dawgs’ team logo on it. They had their hats on, pants fitted well, and a strong pair of baseball cleats to tie it all together. It’s a funny thing to see an older man in a uniform like that. Some of their bellies hung a little loose, and when the sun caught their faces they looked stoic, but more like the Marlboro Man baking in the sun, and not so much like the image of American Baseball boyish youth.
More than 1.5 million men and women over 40 play Senior Softball in the United States today. They split the leagues up into different divisions, like people ages 55-65 all play together. I’m not sure who decided 40ish was senior, but that’s the way it works. If you visit their official website you’ll see a NEWS button. The drop down for News reads Tournaments, Obituaries, Editorials.
Back before I decided to book a room at the Eastside Cannery, I found myself at a pool game on a Friday night at Kevin’s house. The entire softball team was there, plus me and my mother. I was doing some research. I drank wine, smoked a few cigarettes, ate too much cheese, and realized that Robert, also on the team, really was an alcoholic. He arrived to Kevin’s house that night with a red cup of Jack and Coke. They all yelled and screamed at each other, especially when they were drinking, sort of like overgrown siblings. I came there to research.
All the boys had something to say so I placed my recorder closest to Kevin, the team captain and the most sober. I knew I would inevitably catch the background shouts. Kevin began telling The Story, their story, but he was cut off frequently by loud anecdotes like that time Robert won a game when he was entirely drunk, and that time that Mark brought a woman he’d only met on a dating site to a tournament, and that time Robert and Mark almost got kicked off the plane on their way to a tournament because Robert decided that those who didn’t pack a carry-on should absolutely exit first.
“Some people we know have died on the field, playing the game that they love,” Kevin told me.
What? Kevin spoke with such passion about this game and here he was holding a glass of wine, pouring me another, and then — DEATH. I looked him in the eyes, what did he want me to say? I looked for too long because I was either going to say something out of custom like “wow, that’s incredible,” or… “shit.” Anything I thought to say sounded off. I felt unequipped to sympathize, and too shocked and irked to be agreeable. He scared me. As overexposed as the topic of death is, it is so because unlike those who experience it, death will never die. I’m a 25-year-old interviewing a group of old boys about their softball team, and without any hesitation Kevin saw the elephant in the room and called him over.
I knew they were old, but something that attracted me to this league was that it had me thinking that maybe they weren’t. Maybe not much changes with age. So what if you’re 65? If you can play softball all day after a night of drinking, what’s the difference, really? Well, the difference was both exactly what intrigued me about this league and what made me uncomfortable. I found it positive, and in a way it brought me relief, but the “Senior” part of it meant something. There were people on this team that wouldn’t be alive a few years from now, and not necessarily from some freak accident or shocking illness, but because their time would be up. I remember wanting to get out of that house and meet up with my friends, to see younger faces and smaller problems. It was like I suddenly needed to wake up from a nightmare. But that was my problem. There was no nightmare and there was nowhere else to go that would be any safer. I didn’t escape. I stayed well past midnight.
If you ever feel an impending sense of doom from natural causes such as age or heartbreak, I suggest you spend time in surrounding areas of the Las Vegas strip. Staying at the Eastside Cannery brought light on to much darker things than dying of old age.
We make time for the things we love because we know we have limited time. I don’t think we’re always aware of that, but that is our system. Yes, there was a higher chance of heart attack or dramatic injury at this particular championship, but that doesn’t mean the Desert Dawgs should step off the field, and just because they’re playing doesn’t mean they’re invincible. Death on or off the field, after that night of pool we all ended up in Vegas, me in the stands drinking a michelada.