Sarah Shaffer enjoys both the competition and comedy. Lenette Hamm treasures the memories, both past and future. Lauren Trower cashes a paycheck, soaking up the atmosphere that only ag lime fields and aging major-league wannabes can provide.
And Amy Lee?
“It’s a change of scenery,” exhales the exhausted mother of Maya, 3, and Cami, 1. “It’s something to do. An activity.”
Welcome to the Clinton Lake Softball Complex, the four-field outdoor coliseum for weeknight warriors to clash in titanic battles for softball supremacy.
But for as many guys as there are battling it out on the field, there is an equally dedicated roster of diamond devotees: wives, girlfriends, mothers and others who observe the ball with interest, while managing to maintain a detached connection to the game that men clutch so dearly.
We checked in with four such women at the complex to get their take on the game that allows grown men to act like boys — often little boys — for up to an hour at a time.
Watching: James, her husband and right centerfielder for Kemira Phog Dogs.
Shaffer does her best to make it to all her husband’s games, not wanting to miss a chance to see some of the guys sporting their big-hair wigs, losing their youthful intensity and trying to hold on to their sports skills.
But 7-month-old son Elliott often has other ideas.
“It’s a little different now,” she says, feeding their baby a bottle, “because I’m not on my own schedule anymore.”
Shaffer figures that, before long, the little guy likely will be picking up a bat and glove, with city league softball to fill in once his youthful competition gives way grown-up reality.
James already gets it.
“As he gets older, he starts to realize it’s not life-or-death anymore,” Shaffer says, with a smile.
So a trip to the ballpark, instead, is a chance to relax and enjoy the company of friends and maybe, just maybe, get opportunity to catch a glimpse of an alternate universe where her husband no longer resides.
“You see guys in all their uniforms and all their getups, trying to relive the glory days,” Shaffer says. “Sometimes it’s a little funny.”
Watching: Casey, her husband and second baseman for Sky Kings.
Amy played softball in junior high school and went on to compete in soccer before turning her attention to her own grown-up matters, including the raising of two young children.
So forgive her if she’s not up to speed on the complexities of hitting a long, looping pitch speeding toward home about 8 mph.
“It seems silly to me, but I’ve been told that it’s more serious than I give it credit for,” Lee says with a shrug. “It’s hard to take really seriously. I don’t know why. Maybe I’m just not that familiar with slow-pitch softball.”
An evening at the ballpark gets her out of the house, and gives Maya and Cami “something to do.” And while Lee admits to wondering what it would be like to get back out on the field herself — “you have flashbacks” — she knows she’s got larger responsibilities than concentrating simply on her Casey at the bat.
“I feel like I could get out there and do OK,” Amy says, playfully corralling the kiddos. “You feel like it, but I don’t think that’s how it works. I know it’s more difficult than it looks.
“(Besides), I entertain the kids and try to keep things out of their mouths — like sunflower seeds that have been spit out of someone else’s mouth.”
Watching: Her son Justin and his friend Ronnie, who play various positions for Those Sons of Pitches.
Hamm may be 58, but she’s wearing a pink shirt just like all the other guys on her son’s team — and most of the fans in the stands, for that matter. Turns out a mother of one of Justin’s teammates is battling breast cancer, and everyone has agreed to sport the coordinated duds in a show of support.
Working together. Not forgetting what’s important. Maintaining perspective.
Even in softball, a mom can be proud of what her son has become.
“It’s the fun they have and the interactions they have, the camaraderie,” Hamm says. “It’s fun to be watching all their girlfriends or their wives or parents come out, with the kids. My grandson gets a big hoot out of it, just to be able to see his daddy out there on the field.”
One day, Hamm hopes, Justin’s son will emulate his 6-foot, 5-inch dad, the guy with big swing and serviceable wheels, even on a knee that needs surgery.
And maybe he won’t pick up any of the foul language sometimes surfaces after bad swings, overthrows and other blunders.
Not that Hamm minds herself.
“It kinda goes in one ear and out the other,” she says. “When you’ve raised three boys, you’ve heard it all.”
Watching: Everyone on the field, in the dugouts and in the stands.
Be warned, guys: When Lauren Trower pulls on her black shoes, blue shorts and light-blue shirt, she’s also keeping a careful eye — and ears, it turns out — on anyone and everyone competing on her field.
“They talk in the dugout and think I can’t hear them,” the umpire says, “but I’ve got really good hearing.”
As a 22-year-old woman overseeing four games played by men any particular night, Trower brings a unique perspective to the ballpark. She’s a former high school softball player who now pitches Monday nights for a coed club known as Glen McQuade Presents: Team Lonewolf.
The umpiring gig is a chance to earn $13 or $16 per game, and more.
“The reason I like to come out here is just the atmosphere,” she says. “It’s really nice. But sometimes the guys are caught a little off guard. … Sometimes they like to just harass me, because I’m a girl. They question my calls, even though they know I’m right, just because they can — or they think they can.”
Trower would prefer to see guys just play hard, hit well and not talk smack. It’s a downer when guys “get a little bit too competitive and forget that they’re not in college anymore,” she says, and when they “get into little fights and act like babies.”
“Just keep it fun,” she says. “The way it should be.”