Dispatches from the Swamp: The Absolute Necessity of Softball


It’s 5:30 p.m. on a sun-baked Wednesday afternoon and I’m spread out on the grass on the National Mall, between the Washington Monument and the World War II Memorial. I am not sunbathing. I am vigilantly watching out for anyone who looks like they might try to horn in on my space, for tonight’s business is a spiritually urgent one: softball.

In the warmer months of the year, from 5 p.m. until dusk on weekdays, the hallowed lawns of the Mall are colonized by orange plastic cones and white rubber bases, as the young professional dynamos that make this city go turn out in neon-shirted droves to play unrefereed sports. Being deeply unprofessional in both my character and my career, I don’t usually get to participate, but tonight a friend, let’s call him Nacho, who plays for a political consulting group (read: jaded liberal attack ferrets) asked me to use my freelancer powers to arrive early and plant my flag on a field. These leagues are loosely organized, so this is a crucial task, one worth rewarding with the leadoff spot and a position at third base. I asked Nacho whether this would really work, my squatting in the middle of a very large expanse of National Park Service-administrated grass and claiming it belonged to me.

“People respect the field-saving,” he said. “It’s the one norm Trump hasn’t broken.”

I said yes because if there is one truth that I know in the world, it is that you always say yes to softball. But they won’t be here for an hour, so I am sitting on the scruffy grass and braising in my own sweat, reading a book and watching people go by. Alas, DC is one of the lamest people-watching cities on earth. Everyone looks the same. Even the people who look different look the same: regardless of ethnicity or age or size, we are clothed somewhere on the spectrum between work or workout, carrying anything from a bike messenger bag to a Longchamp to the standard-issue Hill staffer backpack.

But lo, here comes a man riding a fat-wheeled bicycle, with a backpack, and in this backpack is a full-grown Shiba Inu. Its front paws are on his shoulders and his mouth is open, tongue lolling, happily looking around as the man bikes toward the WWII Memorial. This city loves to prove you wrong.

Another thing: As I was biking down here today I pulled up at 16th and U to let a motorcycle cop whiz past, sirens flaring. And after him another, and another, and eventually the whole Presidential motorcade. You see it from time to time here, and we treat it the way New Yorkers treat celebrity sightings, with practiced indifference. No one bothered to raise their phones to get a picture. Traffic resumed, and a woman turned to me and said, “Damn. I didn’t even think to flick him off.”

At 6:30 p.m. the team begins to arrive one by one. We are still short a girl, and Nacho, who is the coach, which means he has to deal with all the emails and is therefore entitled to order everyone else around, is trying to find her number. “I found it!” he says at length. “I searched my texts for ‘FOIA.’” One guy says that after the last game he got into a Twitter fight with a player from the other team. Another wound up on a date with a girl from the RNC. I can’t tell you their names, nor even the team’s name, because the comms people at Nacho’s firm are apparently nervous about how bad the team is. This is standard operating procedure, though—there’s no such thing as an innocuous story here. Journalists are the bees of this swamp: Essential to the whole ecosystem, rapidly disappearing, and never to be handled without head-to-toe protection.

We lay out the rubber bases somewhat haphazardly and someone yells, “Play ball!” The batter has to face due west, toward the WWII Memorial and the setting sun, so everyone is laying off the really high parabolic-arc pitches. We are hitting the ball hard, but right at them; they (a notorious public relations group) are hitting the ball hard and our outfielders’ gloves might as well be made of brown paper. At third base I go into a crouch on every pitch, feeling the same hit-it-to-me-don’t-hit-it-to-me nervousness I did when I was fourteen, which is the last time I was a baseball team.

It is wonderful.

By the fourth inning we are getting thumped like an old carpet. The score is “God knows what” to “Is that all?” We switch up our defenses; the shortstop and I move to the outfield to try to cut down on the home runs. It’s too late. The girl in charge of FOIA requests socks a line drive to right field, but she’s so hobbled by a leg injury that the right fielder gets her by five feet at first.

As dusk settles on the longest day of the year, a hard-hit grounder catches a piece of grass and pops up and drills our second baseman in the nose. Play is suspended for a while. It’s less grass, really, than dense stubbly clover. True grass would never survive on the Mall. Too many people, too many events and marches and inaugurations. That’s the trade-off we live with. That’s why in other national capitols like Paris there are huge signs in every park saying STAY THE HELL OFF THE GRASS (a liberal but accurate translation). Their grass is beautiful and green and soft, because they suffer no human foot. Certainly not in cleats.

But the Mall is not fenced off. There are no signs. No one will come to kick you off at the first show of frisbee throwing or ball playing. Sometimes you have to sit out in the heat-shimmer to hold your spot. This is the deal that Washington, DC offers us: The fields are open to all, but the grass is lousy and hard. And when you play, grounders will take bad bounces and hit you in the nose and manholes come out of nowhere. But everyone gets to play.

This league, like all DC recreation leagues, isn’t partisan—there are Democrat teams, Republican teams, bureaucrat teams, journalist teams. The Insliders, the Tax Dodgers, the Fake News Bears, the Gold Standard. Everyone plays. Everyone gets along and agrees on “safe” and “out” calls and when the game is over we form lines and high-five and say “good game,” because it’s softball. If anything is outside politics, it’s softball.

But of course, nothing is outside politics anymore. Less than two weeks ago, as the GOP baseball team was practicing for the annual Congressional baseball game—the last bastion of bipartisan decency in Washington—a serial, domestic abuser walked up to a baseball field in Alexandria with an assault rifle and tried to murder as many Republicans as he could. The Associated Press alert that pinged in everyone’s pocket read: “GOP Congressman, Capitol Police, Others Wounded in Shooting.” That congressman was Steve Scalise of Louisiana, and by “wounded,” they meant that the high-caliber bullet exploded on impact with his pelvis, smashing the bone to dust and liquefying the surrounding soft tissue, causing internal hemorrhage that but for the finest emergency care on earth would have killed him and left his children fatherless, yet somehow the first thing the Associated Press needed us to know in this moment was which side of the aisle Steve Scalise sat.

As if that made it better…or worse.

And it would be easy for my teammates—professional cynics—to joke about it tonight. To make a crack about hoping the other team’s best hitter gets “Scalise’d.” But no one does. Not because there is an abundance of respect for GOP members of Congress (there’s none. this isn’t The West Wing). It just… wouldn’t be funny. They know these people. And they may spend their every waking minute thinking of ways to beat them, but at least they know they’re people.

A guy on the other team crushes a no-doubter to deep right field. As he wheels around the bases I notice he doesn’t touch second—or third. And I don’t mean he steps over it, I mean he doesn’t even come close; he just curves his run. This shall not pass. I motion to the shortstop to cover second, collect the ball, and toss it to him. Under the US Constitution, the Geneva Conventions, Vatican II, and every law of human decency, he is now out at second, but of course this is DC, so here comes the litigation. The other team argues that it would have been a home run regardless, which is true; he damn near hit it into the fountain at the WWII Memorial. But the fact remains: stepping on the bases isn’t optional. And then one guy on his team yells, “You have to touch the bases, buddy! This is still America!”

That is all it takes. For one guy on the other side to put country over party. And in its demented way, this city still believes in that possibility—that people, once every other option has been exhausted, will do the right thing. If not for the sake of the country, for the sake of the game. In the end, we forge a compromise: Mr. Corner-Cutter will stay at third base and the run won’t count. And of course, the very next batter hits a double and they go on to win by a margin unprintable on any website, literary or otherwise. But the rule of law has been preserved. The rules that make the game possible remain in place, and that is victory enough. For if softball isn’t sacrosanct, then what the fuck are any of us fighting for?


Logo artwork by S.D. Photograph provided courtesy of author.

Samuel Ashworth's fiction, essays, and criticism have been published in Barrelhouse, Catapult, Hazlitt, Nylon, the TLS, Roads & Kingdoms, and many others. He is currently working on a novel about the life and death of a chef, told through his autopsy. Find him being overenthusiastic on Twitter at @samuelashworth. More from this author →