My lessons from the softball parking lot

The best lesson I learned about retirement didn’t come from a seminar or an AARP Magazine.

It came from a guy named Mike who was on my senior slow-pitch softball team.

I was new to the league and had just finished my first practice. Mike asked me if I drank beer, and I admitted I did. So we sat in the parking lot and had a couple Keystone Lights apiece. Afterward, he offered this piece of wisdom: “From now on, bring your own six-pack and a camp chair.”

Over time, I realized this wasn’t about quenching a thirst or getting a little tipsy. It was about having tools to build yourself a new community after you retire.

I’ve known people who have hated retirement. When you leave your job, you often lose access to coworkers who, frankly, were the most interesting people you’ll ever meet. They’re the people who told you about the best movies to watch, the best books to read and the best places to go on vacation.

They fed you the new ideas that kept you from growing old. Big question: After you’ve cleaned out your desk or locker, who will be doing that for you?

Sadly, for a lot of folks, that answer is, no one.

My approach, nearly a dozen years ago now, was to try out a lot of new things. I volunteered in some local schools, at the Notre Dame performing arts center, at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore and at Unity Gardens. I caddied at the Symetra golf tournament, drove shuttle vans at the Notre Dame alumni reunions and helped people fill out tax forms through AARP. Everywhere I went, I tried to do more listening than talking.

It worked well for me, though I’ve scaled back. Some of the volunteer spots took up too much of my time and wore me out. When I found myself referring to my afternoons as “jobs” or “work,” I knew it was time to move on.

Another important move for me was joining the Michiana Senior Softball League. I did it mainly because I enjoy competing but was putting my life at risk when I played against younger men. The line drives and one-hoppers were coming too quickly for my glove hand to respond.

The MSSL is a good league. It includes players ages 52 and older. A few of my favorite guys are over 75. 

I’m 67, and I realize we’re all playing on borrowed time. It’s common for a teammate to turn up missing at the first practice in April because he’s recuperating from surgery for a hip or knee replacement. The word is that he’ll be back when he’s at full strength again, which often means “never.”

We’re all just one slip or one collision away from being that guy.

For me, the league has been an opportunity to learn lessons I somehow missed along the way. Here are three of them, starting with the camp chair and the beer: 

It isn’t about beer, really. On a good night, I bring a six-pack and drink two. I give the other four away to guys who otherwise would get in their cars and go home.  

Each of these men, in their matching uniforms, begins as a complete mystery to me. There is no special pin or sticker that tells you whether they owned a factory or whether they swept the floors. On a softball field, all professions are equal.

If we sit under the stars for a while, we may talk about softball or beer for a few minutes. Eventually, we get to stories. Some are about jobs we had 50 years ago or concerts we attended or famous people we met. I may get a lesson in geography or politics or history. In any case, I find out things I didn’t know.

This lesson I learned from Mike is that we all may have softball in common, but our most valuable assets are the things that make us different. And we’re not likely to know that about each other unless you bring a chair and a beer, and a welcoming spirit.

A second lesson came from an old-timer who had been playing softball for 50 years. One night after his team had lost a close game, he guessed that he had played 2,000 games in his lifetime. If that’s true, he said, he probably won 1,000 of them and lost 1,000.

My question was, wouldn’t it be great if more of his teams had been winners. Wouldn’t he want to have 1,500 wins and 500 losses? 

Actually, the opposite is true, he said. Why would he want to spend his life playing against people who were worse than him? Where is the honor in that?

A third lesson came after a league championship game a few years ago. One of the players on the winning team was celebrating a bit too loudly, in my view. A thought popped into my head and somehow ended up coming out of my mouth.

I asked him if he remembered who won the championship last year. Sure he did. It was the Dairy Queen team. The year before? Putt Putt. And before that? He wasn’t sure.

I knew so I  reminded him which team it was, and I mentioned an infielder on that team. We both agreed the guy was a total jerk.

So, I said, three years from now, most of us won’t remember who won the game tonight, but we’re certain to remember anyone who acted like a real jerk.

In a lot of ways, I was saying that for my benefit, more than his. These lessons – find a way to welcome new people into your life, take on the tough tasks instead of doing the easy ones, and stop acting like a real jerk – are obvious to me now.

I just wish I had learned them earlier.