A friendly round of late night beach volleyball at Angelo State University, circ. 2012
When I was in college, we played intramural soccer on these awful practice fields – half dirt, half gravel, half patchy grass raised just enough to catch a cleat and send you sprawling. Our referees were also students and biased as hell when it came to calling plays or watching time, and the lines on our pitch were prone to being erased when the dust kicked up.
Because teams were all student organized, there was little coordination on what color the opponents would be wearing on a given night. More than once my Athenians (we were the honors program squad, of course our name was Athenians) showed up in royal blue only to be facing another team in blue.
When that happened the only recourse was to rock-paper-scissors over which team would wear the never-washed pennies provided for communal use by the intramural league.
One night we tried to convince the refs that we’d rather play shirts and skins, instead of dealing with those jerseys and their stink. We even volunteered to be the skins, but alas, I didn’t attend a school progressive enough to allow co-ed intramural soccer teams to field one team half-naked.
Or maybe promiscuous is the word I want, not progressive…
Whatever the phrasing, we played late into the night, we played with flexible rules, and we played full-contact with no cards thrown unless there was also a flat-out punch involved. I hazily remember one particular midnight game that rattled my head hard enough to worry my friends. When we left the fields after the match, they had me set an alarm to call them every other hour for the rest that night, just to reassure them that I wasn’t bleeding out my ear.
Honors and intelligence don’t always go hand in hand.
But boy did we have fun.
There’s a mystique around sports, athletes, coaches. We make prestige documentaries about them, nominate them for awards, we devour sports memoirs and mythologize the greats of the past.
We canonize the rules, the laws of our given game. We boo bad calls and rewind milliseconds of footage to scrutinize the lift of a foot, the angle of a ball, the distance of a throw.
We pay a lot of people a lot of money (too much money? Maybe. This isn’t the place for that discussion) to play and coach and narrate and analyze these games. We pay support staff maintain these athletes and their stadiums. We pay to tour the modern-day coliseums that we’ve built, true monuments to the weight of our rapture with the great game.
Whichever given game you choose to call great.
And there is beauty in that.
I might think people get a little too serious about their sport (I’m guilty of that too, you don’t want to sit next to me at a game I’m invested in because things can get ugly…), but there is beauty in the way a team can bring a community together.
But then, can’t it also be fun?
Baseball was never the go-to sport in my house growing up. We watched football on TV and in person on Friday nights. As a kid I played soccer in the peewee leagues, and then transitioned to running track as a teenager. Occasionally a volleyball got beaten against the shingles of my father’s roof, but I never served well enough to make the team.
Volleyball would have conflicted with cross country, marching band, and FFA anyway.
Living in east Texas, I made the pilgrimage to Choctaw Stadium in Arlington a few times for Rangers games as part of various school and church outings. Senior year of college a few friends, the same ones who’d worried about my rattled head that time, realized we had free entry into home games and attended a couple for the heck of it. I have a certain, inherent American fondness for the sport, but no particular love of it.
I think it dramatized nicely in the tragically short-lived series Pitch (2016-2017), I will always have a soft spot Chicago Cubs because of a very specific, very warm memory from the 2016 National League Championship Series, if one day there are children in my orbit who play baseball, I will attend their games and wear their colors gladly.
But I never thought I’d tune in to a baseball game from my home for anything other than background noise to a nap.
But this week I discovered Banana Ball.
A minor league team—maybe not even minor, what’s the step below minor? – out of Savannah, Georgia is out to make baseball fun.
Now, it should be noted, this is not exactly my discovery per-se. Thank you to the New York Times for finding them first and spotlighting them on Instagram. If you have a NYTs subscription, you can read their article on the Bananas here, or see their Instagram blurb here>>>
Even as I write this, I’ve got the Bananas v. Party Animals match from April 1st of this year up on another screen, and half an eye on the boys in yellow. I might be a bit of a convert.
They have a strict two-hour time limit, a whole batch of rules designed to make play faster, and a team of serious athletes who don’t take playing too seriously. They’re there to have fun, and make sure the crowd does too.
That’s an ethos I can get behind.
Sports can be serious business, sure.
They can be a career for a few people. They can bring acclaim on a national and international stage. They can be an opportunity to go to college, to see the world, to lift the spirits of a community when they need it most. They can be the inspiration for great art.
But they can also be barely clothed midnight soccer matches, and Hail Mary passes to the endzone, and they can be a bunch of off-season college athletes in yellow making sure that a night out at the ballfield is exactly as fun as it should.
Peanuts and Crackerjacks and all.
PS: Heretic is currently available in paperback! No clue why (there were internal reasons why we published in digital first), or how long it’ll last, but get your copy here: