“You wanna play?”
One step out of the truck and we were already being asked to join a softball game. Dan and I smiled at each other. What could we say? “Sure.”
We grabbed our cleats and gloves and wandered to the closest bench. We weren’t totally surprised—we knew there was a tournament going on in Fort Liard, a town of 500 at the NWT’s southwest corner, and we’d packed gear just in case. But we never expected an invitation so quickly.
Vince, the organizer, ran around the field with his scoresheet, asking and re-asking, “Are you playing?” and, “What team are you on?” The plan was to have a four-team tournament this Saturday afternoon. But he was struggling to find just two. It was the day after the high school grad celebrations: some were sleeping off a long night and for others, the night hadn’t yet ended. “I have to improvise,” Vince said.
Dan and I were put on separate teams. I said hi to my teammates: some young men, a couple women in their 30s, a bunch of kids who kicked a soccer ball around as the game slowly took shape. With small-talk exhausted, I stretched—or more accurately, pretended to stretch—near a set of bleachers to assuage the awkwardness.
“Play my song,” Robert said, walking to the plate. Ross obliged, turning out a fine rendition of the Mario Bros. Theme.
The ballpark was a true beauty, though the infield was a bit muddy from rain that had fallen earlier. What made it so special was the view of a large sandy bluff out at straight-away centre field, where the mighty Liard River takes a sharp bend. It was hard not to get distracted, hard not to get excited by the prospect of spending an afternoon playing ball in such a pretty place. And it was hard to miss the dinner-plate sized bison patties. We’d heard about how the bison come through town, rubbing up against buildings, knocking down fences. You should see the soccer field, Ross, friendly and dressed in a red shirt and track pants, said. The patties are everywhere. “It sucks when the ball lands on them.”
Robert, the jovial captain of Dan’s team, started pitching and had two strikes against A.J, a stoic kid on my team. As Robert lobbed one to the plate and A.J. reared back to swing, an RCMP SUV behind home plate honked its horn. Flustered, A.J. took an awkward cut, missing the ball by a foot. “Thank you!” yelled Robert as the vehicle pulled away, to riotous laughter from the bleachers and field. A.J. cracked a smile on the way back to the bench.
Ross, once the most eager player, quit after grounding out for a second time and began hammering out Nirvana riffs on his guitar. “Play my song,” Robert said, walking to the plate. Ross obliged, turning out a fine rendition of the Mario Bros. Theme.
Dan and I did our best to help our teams and the game continued with a few expert plays—a diving, then rolling, catch from Ernie in left field stands out. We took an early lead. But the more important game being played out there was the back-and-forth ribbing. Here, Dan and I were mere spectators: we had no ammo because, well, we didn’t really know anyone.
Robert ceded the pitching duties to his son, Chase, a slender kid who could crush the ball despite his diminutive size. At first, Chase couldn’t hit the strike zone, bouncing pitches in. “The ball’s too heavy,” teased Dad, from third base. Chase, embarrassed, tried to shake it off, but bounced another one in. “I can’t pitch when you make me laugh!”
In the seventh inning, I smashed a line-drive between second and third base. Chase, now playing shortstop, put up his twiggy arm and I thought it might be taken off. But no, he caught it. And held on. He beamed with a perma-grin, getting mobbed with congratulations for robbing the new guy. I walked off to some heckling. It felt really good.
We took to the field. A right-hander pulled the ball down the line, foul. He did it again. And again. I walked from my spot at third, leaned up against the fence in foul ground and said I’d play from there. It was weak, but we laughed. I was finally playing in the Fort Liard Invitational Tournament.