In the bottom of the third inning on a recent cold evening in the Hyde Park section of Boston, the members of a softball team get ready to hit. If Angel, Duke and Jackie get on, they’ll be followed by Ben, Michelle, Liz and perhaps Matt.
Matt Englander’s the captain. He put the team together for his dad, Morris, who is called Mo. He used to pitch for a team of seniors in Quincy, Mass.
“It was so much fun, Sunday morning softball — I think it was Sunday,” Mo Englander recalls. “They disbanded. And I was in mourning, staying home on the weekends, really upset, and Matthew says that he formed the team in part to get me back playing.”
Kind of a nice Father’s Day gift, don’t you think — even if it happened well before Father’s Day since the season starts in May. Anyway, once Matt had gathered his group of 20-something friends around his dad half-a-dozen years ago, there loomed the question of whether Mo could still bring it. I wondered if Mo Englander, who will be 80 in July, felt any pressure to do so.
“I don’t remember any, no,” he replied.
“You probably just showed him you could throw,” I said.
“That was the thing,” he said. “I mean, if you can do it, fine. If you can’t, Matt, get him the hell out of here, eh?”
Matt’s team competes in a co-ed, slow-pitch league, where the pitcher’s job is to throw strikes and depend on his fielders. At the former task, Mo Englander has always been proficient.
“I’m hopeful that I can continue my unbelievable stretch of not walking people,” he remarks.
According to Mo, his streak has endured for years, since he argues every time an umpire calls ball four and considers each alleged walk an injustice. Matt quietly acknowledges that his dad may have given up as many as five walks a season.
“I don’t know how it happens,” Mo says. “The arm seems to know where the plate is.”On this particular evening, Mo starts out well, throwing strikes. Though his catcher, Erin, tends to let the ball bounce at least once before retrieving it, Liz makes an outstanding play at first, and the outfield is solid, especially Matt. When Matt’s team comes to the plate again, Mo quietly assesses his son’s strengths.
“Matt is our Jacoby Ellsbury,” he says. “When he’s in the outfield, he has no regard for his body sometimes. He leaps for a ball, falls on the ground. He is just one of the greatest players I’ve ever seen.”
“It makes me proud,” he says. “Makes me want to do good for his team.”
Mo is interrupted. It’s his turn to hit. The bases are loaded. But according to Matt, it’s a perfect spot for the ninth man in the order.
“I like our chances,” he says. “Bases loaded and the old man up. I think he could squeeze out a little single here. They’re doing a little bit of the Ortiz shift on him. Highly appropriate, I would say. He’s actually, honestly, looking for a walk. An RBI the easy way. Working the count.”
Sure enough, he bleeds out a walk. Mo trots to first, where he is replaced by one of his teammates. He gets the courtesy runner in recognition of the fact he’s run the bases plenty of times over the past six decades, and he sees no particular reason to do it again, thank you very much. It’s Matt who has arranged for somebody else to do it for him.
“I’m hopeful that I can continue my unbelievable stretch of not walking people.”
If you’re inclined to think that players on a team in a slow-pitch league with courtesy runners don’t take the game seriously, think again. Though the early spring games tend to be a little ragged, by season’s end, at least according to Matt, these games matter.
“We had one game a number of years ago,” Matt recalls. “It was a great season. We built all the way up, and we had a heart-breaking, walk-off loss. And my father, who was still driving at that point, walked straight off the mound, got in the car, and drove away.”
“I’m embarrassed by it sometimes,” Mo says. “Here I am, almost 80 years old, and I haven’t developed the amount — I mean, we still go and shake the guys’ hands, you know, before I give ‘em a kick. I wish I were — no I don’t. Hell, I’ve gone this far, and the guys love it when I do it, I think. They think I’m really funny because I’m scowling.”
That particular game did not end well for Matt’s team. Mo Englander kept tossing strikes, but the opposition kept hitting them, and Mo and his mates fell to the league’s mercy rule, which puts a stop to the mismatch when the gap between the teams is 12 runs or more after five innings.
But father and son took the setback philosophically, at least according to Matt. I didn’t ask Mo to comment on the loss. I didn’t want to see him scowling.