9 innings, 20 years

Pub date March 12, 2013
WriterL.E. Leone
SectionCheap Eats


A giant hawk swooped down from the tall trees along the right field line. Against the blazing white San Francisco sky, it seemed all wing span and tiny-headed. And jaggedly, viciously beautiful.

The pickoff play was on.

Greg Snyder, caught completely off guard, dove back to third. Lucky for him, third-baseman Johnny Bartlett was also caught off guard, and the throw glanced off his glove and rolled to the chain link fence in front of the third base dugout, West Sunset Playground.

So I guess that means the pickoff play wasn’t on. Except in the pitcher’s mind. And maybe the hawk’s.

Eskimoed inside my furry-fringed corduroy coat in the stands, I watched with the hawk as Bartlett retrieved the ball. Snyder, with no thought of advancing, knelt on third base and looked at his fingers. The first joint of his right pinky was bent away from his hand at an unnatural angle. He’d jammed it on the bag. First Bartlett, then Sean Paul Presley, the pitcher, came over and had a look, and both turned away, wincing, while Snyder calmly torqued it back into place.

Then, yeah, the game went on.

When we talked later, in the stands, top of the seventh, Snyder had the pinky taped to the ring finger of his throwing hand with a thin strip of dirty white tape.

“Can I get you some ice?” I said.

He said, “Nah.”

“I have ibuprofen,” I said, reaching into my purse.

“No thanks,” he said. “I have some in my car.”

But I never saw him get it. Although he had pitched the first few innings for the visiting team, by the time of the finger thing, he was catching. And continued to catch — six more innings, to the end of a wacky, back-and-forth, 11-inning game.

In the bottom of the tenth, he threw out a runner trying to steal second.

Greg Snyder is 47 years old.

Carter Rockwell, 24, picked up the win in relief, and also hit a home run off his older brother, Will.

Doc Magrane, 69, did not play. But not because of age. He and chemo have recently whipped a little bone cancer into complete remission. He still suits up for pick-up games, puts on some of the extra catchers’ gear, and umps.

Tony Rojas brought a sweater for his dog, Dee Dee. He showed me before the game: black with white skull and crossbones.

“Nice. Does she like it?” I said.

“No,” he said. “She hates it.”

The sweater went on and came back off of Dee Dee, and then she started to shake and shiver and Rojas became worried, which affected his play. He threw high to first, swung at bad pitches . . . had she gotten into something? he wondered.

“We could use a field ump, too, you know,” Doc Magrane called out to me, between innings.

I didn’t know yet that I was a sports writer.

“No thanks!” I hollered back anyway.

It’s been twenty years now since the Mission Baseball Club, as it has come to be called, started. Maybe 21.

In 1992 (or 3), four or five Mission District musicians and poets, myself included, gathered at Jackson Field at the foot of Potrero Hill one day a week to play catch, field grounders, and take batting practice.

Six or seven, eight . . . Once there were nine, we could split into threes and play tiny three-way games, with right field foul and “imaginary runners.”

At twelve we opened right field, and any more than that meant we could have a catcher, so we bought some catchers’ gear.

For a few years there in the mid-90s, the Mission fielded a team in the city’s Roberto Clemente League. We were a ragtag crew, and the only team in the league with women on it. No one asked. We just did it.

Twenty years later: this. Eye black and uniforms. Field reservations. An umpire. As it turns out, a reporter . . . Two teams of 11, arbitrarily decided, share one dugout each week. And the range of play varies. Widely. Some have played college ball. One played in the minors.

Jen Ralston (a.k.a. Hedgehog, a.k.a. my Hedgehog), who at 42 is playing the first baseball of her life, lined a two-strike curve into shallow center: her first hit ever. I asked for the ball.

Eventually she came around to score, and commented later, over fish, that the bases had been softer than she’d expected.

“Are they always like that?” she said.

I said that they were.