Monday, October 4, 2010
So I have written about softball in Goranboy before, but the most epic event since the addition of our two stop lights in spring (with countdown clock action!) has happened in this small-time town. This past weekend we hosted the kick-off tournament for the Peace Corps Azerbaijan Softball League (PCASL?). It was a fight to get this tournament on the agenda because at the time games were being scheduled, Goranboy hadn't had what critics would call a “real team” yet. However, in full faith of the two experienced managers of the Goranboy franchise, the date was set and funds were allotted for a Sunday Fall Spectacular in G-Town.
The date was set three weeks in advance of the game. Kate and I panicked a little hearing that. After we had put up so much of a fuss about not having a tournament in Goranboy, they were giving us the kick off tournament, and we didn’t even have a team put together. We had also had trouble in the past to gather kids even to play pick up. We dropped our other projects for a week and just went on a recruiting spree. I went to school number 2 and tried to pick up some of our club kids, put up signs at my work and then I pleaded my soccer kids to try a new sport, concentrating on the weaker links who maybe be looking for a change anyways. I struck out on three swings (forgive the pu!). Kate was the Theo Epstein of recruiting. She went into the Russian school, a school we have previously avoided because many of the English teachers don’t know English and we unfortunately don’t speak Russian, communication has been an issue. But Kate got 8 young men to sign on to participate in the start-up team.
Our first practice was one week before the tournament. We taught the kids how to field the ball and what to do with it after you had it in your hand. We taught them about half of the rules of softball. I am now convinced softball and baseball are the most complicated sports in America. They have about a million rules and some of them make no sense. I began to fear the question “Why?” from these kid because I honestly did not know the answer. I remember some of my first softball moments, and one of them is playing catch with my older sister Lisa. She told us never to catch the ball underhanded when it is near our face. I asked “Why?” and she replied: “Because you will break your nose”. I thought my sister was so experienced in the ways of softball because I had seen her break her nose that fateful day when she tried to snag a line drive with her glove underhanded. It made perfect sense to do the OPPOSITE of that. But try telling a bunch of kids with no reference to the game that they will break their nose if they catch like that, they will put the glove down and walk away. Who wants to break their nose for a game that makes no sense?
After a week of practices and an Azeri ringer brought in from Baku as a translator (Dice-K watch out, the new field of international stars is coming from Azerbaijan with translators!) we were as ready as we could ever get for the tournament. The kids were excited to play, but after the last practice before we played, I was cooking dinner when I heard Kate shouting from her room “Tell the other coaches to bring their bench players!”. We weren’t too confident that the kids could even play the game, never mind go up against the 3-year veteran giants of the PCASL: Mingechevir
So game day comes and it is raining. I made the executive decision to PLAY BALL! and amazingly all the kids showed up. We had 12 kids wanting to play that day. Kate and I had the great idea to call the kids the Goranboy Goats. We had sheep and goats grazing on our practice field all week, and it sort of just rolled off the tongue. I also reminded Kate that like LL Cool J, Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali; we were the G.O.A.T.s. Mr. Cool J is known as the Greatest Of All Time, and that is what Goranboy was soon to be known as. So when Kate informed the kids that our team name was the Goats on game day, they naturally asked what that meant. She told them “Kishi”. The actual name for goat is “Kechi”, Kate was a little confused and neither I nor the translator were there to correct her. “Kishi” is the word for “men” in Azerbaijan. So the 12-13 year old boys puffed out their chests, called themselves the men and proudly cheered GO GORANBOY GOATS!
We saw their tiny chests deflate when the other teams walked into the venue. The Mingechevir and Ganja teams consist of university students, while Tovuz is all 15/16 year olds. They were all huge compared to our goats. We really had a bunch of kids (hehe). We got crushed by all the teams, but the other teams learned a lot too. They learned to teach while taking the goats under their wing. The older kids taught the younger kids the ways of the game, like my older sister taught me how not to get my nose broken (even though years later on a Fourth of July my dad would slightly break my nose with an epic pop fly). When our guys would run past second base into centerfield, the player out there would gently remind him that there is a crucial 90° turn to third base. When our tiny player (7 years old swimming in his uniform) got up to bat, the pitcher would fumble the ball to give the kid a chance, and when our guys made a good play, they would cheer for the goats.
After one week of learning the game, their fielding skills were amazing. They did not allow too many balls through their legs, the pop flies were caught and they knew to throw the ball to first base. Unfortunately, they did not know to throw the ball to second, third or home. They concentrated so much on first that the other runners were still in sight, but out of mind. I tell you, just getting the out at first is not a winning strategy. Also, for as good as they were in the field, they could not compete at the plate. Their arms were ½ the size of the Mingechevir kid’s arms. They also did not have a great eye for hitting. Our 7-year-old had the best contact with the ball on the whole team!
Our guys impressed me that day. They took the other team’s instructions in stride, and were inducted into the PCASL culture of inter-region friendship and fun rivalry. After being crushed every game, they are ready for practice on Wednesday and want to play all of these teams again in the near future. With all this enthusiasm, natural talent and perseverance Kate and I think that by the end of our time here, we will really be the managers of our the G.O.A.T.s.