Tagged: Central Park

The Central Park Game

The last time I played softball in Central Park was on August 21, 2016. My team, the Ball Busters, had just won the league championship.

Four years ago today, I played my last softball game at Central Park.

My friends and readers of this site know that playing softball each summer has been a big part of my life for almost as long as I have lived in New York. This summer, however, I haven’t played a single game—partly due to the pandemic cancelling my leagues, but also mostly due to other emotional traumas that I’d rather not discuss here. Not playing softball feels weird, but only in moments like this when I reflect on how it is gone.

Starting in 2005, I started playing on Sunday afternoons in Central Park with The Bandits. We had moved to a Central Park league after playing a year in a league run by EMTs that played weeknights in Harlem. The league was a terrible experience, not least of which because of the sound of gun fire that I would occasionally hear during our games.

Playing softball in Central Park has a unique magnificence to it. Photo by me, June 5, 2005.

Playing in Central Park each Sunday in the summer was a singular experience. I loved having throngs of tourists watching us play, especially Europeans who posed many questions about our peculiar game. However, being on the Bandits was a tough experience. We were not a very good team, consistently finishing at the bottom of the standings. The only exception was in 2009, when we recruited a few players from my Brooklyn league and finished in second place and lost in the finals to the top-ranked team in a three-game series.

Despite the great finish, I was disappointed that we lost in the finals to a team I felt we could have beaten so bailed on the Bandits. I switched to a different team—the Ball Busters—run by my friend Johnny in the offseason. The Ball Busters finished 7th on 2009, but, as I looked at their schedule, I saw that they had lost a lot of one-run games. Three factors aided my decision: I had been pitching in McCarren Park for a couple of years and wanted to pitch more, the Bandits didn’t let me pitch, and the Ball Busters didn’t have a full-time pitcher. I figured that if I could pitch, I could help turn a few of those loses into wins. Indeed we did. In 2010, we finished in first place but lost in the first-round to the Bandits partly because I missed the game to attend my friend’s wedding in Connecticut.

The Ball Busters posted a winning record for several years, never finished lower than the second seed. We even won two titles: once in 2012 and again in 2013. I pitched almost all of our games, including the playoffs. I loved the pressure of pitching in big games, especially when I had pitched every inning of a triple-header. It took a while to learn to pace myself, but once I did, I relished the exhilarating combination of exhaustion and pressure. : why can’t I do this in the parts of my life where it matters.

The Ball Busters after our second championship. Photo by me, August 18, 2013.

After the 2015 season, my friend Johnny announced that he was moving to Florida and that the team would be run by Hermes, an affable teammate who quickly passed on the management to someone else, a guy everyone calls Cano.

The 2016 season was very different than the others for the Ball Busters. First, many of our teammates left for various reasons. Some went on extended vacations, some moved away, and others cut down to playing on Saturdays in a different league. Second, we had many new players that the new manager brought to the team. The biggest difference for me was that, after pitching in nearly every Ball Busters game since 2020, I didn’t pitch a single inning in 2016. I played a bit in the outfield and was the “extra hitter,” a unique softball position created to allow someone to play but not really play.

Our new manager took our team in a very different direction, including the new pink team shirts. Photo by me, April 10, 2016.

The 2016 Ball Busters were a force. We lost only three games in a twenty-four game season, but I didn’t factor in many of those wins (or those losses). We swept our opponents in the quarterfinals and in the semifinals, and if I played in those games, I don’t remember. I certainly didn’t pitch a single inning of these postseason games.

The finals were scheduled for August 21. The day before I had bought some oysters from the fishmonger at the local farmers market. In those days, I ate raw oysters all the time, and I even fancied myself a capable shucker. But this weekend, I think I failed to keep the oysters sufficiently cold. The next morning on the day of the 2016 finals, I woke up feeling sick, lying next to a puddle of vomit on my pillow. At first I thought I was hungover. I did drink quite a bit the night before, but after a while, it was clear that the oysters made me sick.

I told Megan that I was going to skip the finals games in Central Park that morning. I felt sick and didn’t have the energy to leave bed, much less take a five-mile bike ride to a game in Central Park. She tried to coax me to the game noting the magnitude of the game: “but it’s the finals!” But more important, as I remember telling her, it’s not as if I would play anyway. After a while I mustered enough energy to get out of bed and bike to Central Park. This was I could at least cheer on my teammates and sneak in to the team photo if we won.

The finals were to start at 10:00 am that morning, and I arrived on the field at about 11:15 or so. I figured that I had missed the first game and arrived in time for the second. I asked someone on my team for the score. “We’re up by a couple,” he responded. When I asked for the inning, he informed me that it was fifth inning of the first game.

“Wait, didn’t we start at 10 o’clock?”

“No, the fields were closed because it rained. We started really late. This is the first game”

The Ball Busters held on to win the first game. We lost the second game, meaning we were tied in the series and had to play a third game. Hermes pitched the first two games. He was drenched in sweat and looked wiped out, and I told our manager, Cano, that he was “done.” Cano looked around to see who could pitch the third and deciding game. He asked his wife, who is a really solid pitcher. “Nope,” she declined. Again, our manager continued to scan our bench and looked at me. Holding the ball, he twists his wrist, now palm-side up, and shows me the ball. “You ready?,” he asks me. Without saying anything, I take the ball and walk to the field.

As I watched the first two games, a guy named Tommy came to watch our games. He said hi to me, and asked if I wanted a steak taco. He had cooked the steak at home, packed hot tortillas into a styrofoam warmer, and even made a “cilantro pesto” for the tacos. The tacos settled my stomach, which had been wrenched the day before by rotten oysters and too many whiskey shots. Tommy was like the mythical Saint Bernard that nurses lost explorers in the unforgiving arctic conditions. Except here, he nursed me back into playing shape.

As I walked to the pitching plate, I realized that this was the first time I had pitched all year in Central Park. The Central Park fields are a bit different than others in the city. They are in much better shape and they also have a real pitching rubber that’s dug into the ground. But also, the infield dimensions are different than the infield at, say, McCarren Park: I think the distance from the pitching plate to home plate is about fifty feet, about five feet further than it is at McCarren Park and most other NYC softball fields.

It took me about a dozen warmup pitches to get the ball to reach the plate, and then several more to find my location. This league is a modified, fast-pitch league, meaning I can throw the ball hard, as long as my hand doesn’t go above my shoulder in the wind-up: no slinging or side-winding is allowed. As the game started, I was still struggling to throw strikes and to locate the ball. But I knew that this was a big game and that the batters would be as nervous to face me as I was to face them. I decided that instead of throwing hard, I would throw the ball as slow as I could.

Except for a sneaking in a few fastballs, I pitched as slowly as I could, and it worked. The batters all seemed very anxious and for the most part, didn’t hit the ball square. There was however one home run. Our team managed to scratch across three runs, but our batters didn’t produce much. The previous two games apparently wiped them out, too.

The game ended with a weak flyout to the outfield. As the ball was caught, I pounded my fist against my mitt and met all my teammates in the middle of infield for the obligatory celebration “on the mound.” We had just won the league championship.

It took three games, but we won the best-of-three final series to take the 2016 Heckscher Cup. August 21, 2016.

We celebrated for a bit on the field, drank a few beers and, yes, I ate another steak taco or two. Afterward, I biked Williamsburg to meet Megan and share my news with my Brooklyn softball friends. I remembering getting stares from everyone from looking soaking wet from sweat, drizzle, and who knows how many beers.

As I told the story, I began to realize that this might be the best softball outcome I could imagine. I had spent over a decade playing in Central Park—underneath the magnificent Manhattan skyline—and capped it off with pitching my team to a 3-1 title-clinching game. It was my third title with the Ball Busters, and I had pitched in each of those deciding games.

In the offseason, I told Hermes and Cano that I was not returning. I mumbled something about not wanting to play games so close to Trump Tower, but actually it was because I didn’t want to start all over—at the square one—to recreate this feeling of joy and accomplishment. Experiencing that was truly special, and it would be foolish to attempt to find it again.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is to appreciate those special experiences—be it a warm summer day, a well-made meal, a firm hug from a friend or relative, a smile from your true love—because just as sure as you found it, it will be gone. And you’ll be wasting your time trying to find it again.

Riding in Central Park

The fine folks at Travelzoo have posted a local deal for a Central Park Bike tour, through Central Park Sightseeing. It’s not a bad deal: $22 for a two-hour tour through the park’s major sites. Once you buy the deal, you get a voucher for the tour that’s good through next March.

The offer page shows an image of the Central Park Boathouse that simply screams “fall.” We see a young red-headed man, wearing a red sweatshirt, riding a yellow bike on a sparkling autumn day with peak fall foliage. Only the blue track pants clash with the autumnal colors. The location of the image, the Central Park Boathouse, is an especially familiar site because it’s where many club rides start and where we started our Turkey ride on Thursday.

The park, however, doesn’t resemble that bucolic image. Having been there two days ago, there is no foliage in Central Park. With the temperatures hovering in the 30s and leaves all gone, the park is bitter and barren. You may also want to look out for ice. The weather might change by March, when most procrastinators would actually use their voucher, but it could still be very cold. There might be blossoms by March, but I swear we didn’t get those until mid-April this year. Riding in the cold can be fun, but don’t expect the setting of a rom-com.

An NYC Rom-Com subsidized by tax breaks

Back in March, I had a beef with the image used by this same company posting a similar offer through Travelzoo. This image peeved me because it shows some pretty terrible bicycling behavior.

Although Central Park sightseeing provides a helmet, these riders aren’t wearing them. I’m not one to scream at people for not wearing helmets, but these riders don’t seem to have the best bike handling skills. I can’t tell if the guy on the right is turning or about to jerk his front wheel so he can fly over the handlebars. Helmets are designed for this very type of rider (also road cyclists traveling at 30 mph and mountain bikers who are one downhill away from eating it).

The biggest offense in the image is actually their chosen terrain: the pedestrian paths. Why is this ad encouraging casual bike riders to take to a pedestrian path in Central Park? The park has over six miles of perfectly good road to ride around in circles. Rather than create a hazard for people walking on a pedestrian path, these novice riders can anger runners by darting into their paths and spandex-toting roadies, who made the mistake of doing laps after 8:00 AM, by clogging up the fast lane or riding the wrong way.

And you’re robbing them of the true Central Park bike riding experience.

Six Guidelines for Central Park Cycling

For anyone who has ever been in Central Park knows, the drives in the park are almost always overly congested in the warm months. There are walkers, runners, cyclists, and during rush hour, there is the added danger presence of automobiles, and each is competing for precious space in which to move. Moreover, the NYPD had been ticketing cyclists who ran red lights while riding on the park drives. As someone who used to ride a lot there, I can tell you that stopping at each light is not only impractical but a little dangerous as there will inevitably be either another cyclist or car zooming past you while you’re stopped at the light. The cycling community has come to an agreement with the Department of Transportation and the NYPD to not ticket those who go through a red light. But, of course, there are a few who could ruin it for everyone.

Earlier today, the New York Cycle Club emailed its membership asking everyone to abide by six guidelines to ensure that cyclists don’t lose the privilege of rolling through red lights in Central Park. If you please, allow me to reproduce those guidelines.

  1. When approaching a crosswalk, particularly if there is a red light, slow to a speed that will permit you to maneuver; look both ways for pedestrians; always yield to pedestrians who are in or about to enter the crosswalk. Park use is extremely heavy now, even in the very early morning hours.  Be alert; be conscientious. Your actions will determine our future use of this precious resource.
  2. Although you may be comfortable passing within six inches of a runner or walker, they will not be comfortable with that clearance.  Give them at least 3 or 4 feet.  Whenever possible and practical, cross behind the pedestrian. “Yielding” does not mean racing through because you’re confident you won’t actually hit the pedestrian.
  3. When passing a slower cyclist, give sufficient clearance.
  4. Don’t ride in packs.  Keep the groups small and ride in a single paceline.
  5. Get a bell. It is the law and is a useful tool in a densely packed park if used judiciously.
  6. Above all be courteous. Creating goodwill here will go a long way towards helping our cause.

Having been in a number of collisions, though none in Central Park or anywhere with a decent bike lane, I think I already follow most of these rules, and I agree that these are prudent measures to take ensure safety in a congested shared space, such as Central Park. These guidelines provide pedestrians a measure of security when cyclists are riding in the park, and they also protect other cyclists, particularly the inexperienced ones who are out in the summer.

However, it seems like I have to buy a bell now.