By Michael Lewis
One of the striking traits about Berkeley is the competitive spirit its residents bring to seemingly uncompetitive activities. They may not be playing the same game as everyone else, or be willing to admit an interest in victory, but the games they play, they play to win.
In addition to a lot of obvious intellectual and artistic achievement, our population can go head to head with any in its capacity to find what is morally objectionable in common foodstuffs; in its ability, as pedestrians, to make life miserable for automobiles; in its sensitivity to the presence of petroleum in products; and in its willingness to express political opinions, especially on bumper stickers. If the Olympic Committee ever were to replace cycling with recycling, our residents would not only take home all the medals, but know exactly which colored bin to put them in. And of course our tree sitters would kick the butts of tree sitters in any other similarly sized city.
That other people — people who do not live in Berkeley — not only fail to recognize a ferocious search for excellence in any of this behavior, but actually mock it as “liberal” or “pinko”, is simply a failure of their small imaginations: in a world that appreciates only track and field events, we’re the curlers.
But, because Berkeley so often feels as if it is winning at games others do not play, it comes as fresh and surprising when Berkeley plays, and wins, at games that others do play. Softball, for instance.
The Albany Berkeley Girls Softball League is approaching its 30th season. By the American standards of girls’ softball leagues, it is, as people who do not live in Berkeley might suspect, a little quirky.
No toleration for cliques
It places great importance on having fun, and developing skills, and making friends, and little on personal triumph. Official scorekeepers keep official scores but only to make sure that no team wins too often. Opposing coaches collaborate. Players rotate around the field; the best players are as often found standing in right field as they are on the pitcher’s mound. Superstars receive no special treatment; cliques are not tolerated; every season, girls form teams with people they have never met, and learn to play together. At any given time, during any given softball game, a co-op is in danger of breaking out. All in all the league is a rich and delightful experience, and girls come back to play in it year after year after year.
(Spaces are still available for the upcoming season, for girls from the first to the eighth grade. You may register your daughter on the league’s website)
What it isn’t, at least to the untrained eye, is a breeding ground for big-time softball players. The experience it offers appears far too relaxed and pleasurable. The players seem insufficiently competitive. In short, the whole scene strikes the casual observer as way too Berkeley.
And yet, over the past six months, a dozen girls, aged 12 and under, plucked from this sweet-natured league and molded into an all-star traveling softball team, turned themselves into a softball force terrifying to behold. The so-called ABGSL “Sting” team played in nine tournaments, from Lake Tahoe to Santa Clara, against teams from Reno to the northeast to Santa Barbara to the southwest.
In six of the nine tournaments — tournaments which hosted as many as 24 teams in their age group — they played their way to the championship game. Three of the tournaments they won outright.
Where even predators are vegetarians
Raised in a safe and protected environment, this island on which even the predators are vegetarians, they ventured out into the wider world and not merely survived but triumphed. Their season had many defining moments but here is one: after a game they had won by a score of 21-0, the umpire complained that the kids and coaches from Berkeley needed to learn how to go easier on their opponents.
There are at least two mysteries here. The first and most obvious is how a group of children who are raised in a putatively uncompetitive environment can become so conspicuously competitive. The Albany Berkeley Girls Softball League obviously gave them certain tools. It taught them how to play softball, and how to enjoy doing it. But it did not teach them to stand up to girls twice their size and trained to go for the jugular. Yet somehow they did that.
The other mystery is what has become of their trophies.
Our local softball league was, in one way, unprepared for success. The parents of the players had no problem with it, of course, and neither did the league officials. They may have started out cheering equally hard for both teams, but they wound up longing for more success. But, after their daughters had returned with six gaudy trophies, they had no place to put them.
There was one old equipment shed beside Fielding Field, and another, newer one beside Cougar Field, behind the Albany High School, but neither had room for this kind of hardware. And so the trophies were passed around from girl to girl, without ever finding a final resting shelf. No player wanted to keep a symbol of an achievement that belonged to all — and the truth was that they now shared an important quality with all great competitors. They were all more interested in future challenges than in past triumphs.
One day the trophies simply vanished. A rumor spread that league officials collected them and, in the dead of night, buried them under one of their softball fields.
Who knows if it is true? It should be. It would be very Berkeley.
Michael Lewis is the author of the best-selling books “Boomerang”, “The Big Short”, “Homegame: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood”, “Liar’s Poker”, and others. His books “Moneyball” and “The Blind Side” have been made into movies. He lives in Berkeley with his family, including Quinn, who is a pitcher and outfielder on an Albany Berkeley Girls Softball League team.