My brother Mike and I weren’t super tight growing up. Likely because I took an inordinate amount of joy in harassing him insufferably. I distinctly remember the pleasure I’d feel when my teasing made him cry. I wouldn’t be surprised if he now discusses such things with a therapist.
But as they generally do, things changed as we grew older, and the beginnings of our adult bond took shape when our parents flew him to Washington DC to celebrate his high school graduation and my discharge from the Army. Plan was for us to do a little sightseeing before going full-Kerouac and road tripping back to Southern California in a giant yellow Ryder truck. The trip was epic—but before it could begin, Mike had to witness the normalized dysfunction between me and my live-in girlfriend. I was stuck, but I had a plan.
“As soon as she goes to work, you and I are packing up the fucking truck and ditching town,” I told him.
And what could he say? Even if he was the advice-giving type, I wasn’t the advice-taking type.
The next day I kissed her goodbye, then Mike and I scrambled to load my boxes. I blubbered uncontrollably as we drove away from my apartment. Took hours for me to stop my bellyaching. Pretty sure I’d have turned around if Mike wasn’t in the passenger seat. His presence alone changed the course of my life. For the better.
I’ll never have the proper words to express my feelings for my brother. All the niceties sound trite. But for sure he’s the guy I want to sit with on a couch and drink coffee. Make occasional dumb jokes and reminisce about our past. These days he’s one of the few people with whom I’m comfortable sharing my life’s nitty gritty details. I show him my ugly side, admit my weaknesses, express my dark tendencies. And just like he did when we exited the DC beltway, he doesn’t flinch.
Back when we were in our twenties, Mike and I played on a ton of adult sports teams together. Soccer, basketball, softball. He and I were responsible for countless highlight reels. Crazy header goals or rainbow kicks, layup-oops and no look behind-the-backs, diving catches and parking lot homers. With us on the roster, teams pretty much had top-billing in the bag.
Tonight, after a humid 25 miles of walking followed by a double-dinner, I accompany Mike to his 9:00 p.m. softball game. I’m usually asleep by 9:00, but I don’t want to miss my chance to spend some quality time with him. We arrive early to the fields and catch the tail end of the preceding game. It’s pure carnage—a middle-aged guy pops his Achilles while running to first, his teammate snags a hamstring while racing for a fly ball, and another fellow falls on his face while trying to steal second. Makes me wonder why they even bother.
“You sure you’re up for these old man sports?” I ask Mike.
“I don’t play as hard as I used to,” Mike says. “I’m just trying to have fun.”
I give him a look.
“Oh yeah?” I say sarcastically. “I thought it was all about winning.”
I’m joking. Kind of.
“Fuck that shit,” Mike says. “Winning is overrated.”
He’s kidding too. Kind of.
Today is day one of the recreation season. Mike’s team is made up folks who signed up as individuals hoping there were enough unattached players to fill a dugout. There were, and tonight is their first time meeting each other. A league-appointed captain distributes their dark green jerseys, and it’s immediately obvious the size inventory is way off. My brother is lucky— there are plenty of mediums. But the other guys have to casually scramble to find the last double and triple XLs. When the dust settles, most everyone looks a little uncomfortable in their skin-tight uniforms.
Green’s opponent is decked out in matching red and blue. Even their fans are rocking coordinated gear. The game is still fifteen minutes away but red and blue is already mad-dogging green. Mike and the other newbies do their best to ignore the opposition’s psyche-out as they try to get acquainted. You played before? Live around here? Outfield or infield? There’s no obvious alpha in Mike’s crew. Or maybe everyone’s killer instinct is in check while they feel each other out. Either way, I can tell my brother is the only real ballplayer out here. The rest of these guys are one sprint away from 911.
The game gets started, and red and blue immediately gets on the board. The guys in green keep switching positions, cordially allowing everyone to cycle through the key spots—first base, shortstop, left field, catcher. Before long a few guys’ egos start showing their true colors. Doesn’t take long for individual athleticism, basic skillsets, and personality quirks to become obvious.
While Mike is manning second, a quick tag on a runner snags his mitt and tears the webbing. Between innings he runs over to the stands to show me the damage. With the fingers suddenly loose from each other, his glove looks unusable.
“Dude, this thing’s totally vintage!” I say.
Mike’s glove is a late-80s era Dwight Gooden classic. From the days when Dr. K’s Topps rookie was worth more than our dad’s Ford Grenada.
“What you going to do?” I ask.
“Guess I’ll just tie it up best I can and deal with it later,” Mike says.
But when he tries to rethread the leather and make a knot, he breaks off another piece of stale rawhide.
“Screw it. I’ll be good,” he says as he runs from the bleachers, back to the action.
This, generally speaking, is how my brother rolls. He’s always the one to make the most of what he’s got. I’ve always been a little jealous of this quality. I’ve never been a make lemonade out of lemons sort of guy. If I were in his shoes right now, I’d be cussing out that goddamned glove. Probably make a scene and secretly hope my outburst conveys my prowess. Odds are I’d fit right in on the red blue team. Bunch of knuckleheads feigning toughness, flexing with snide comments and snarky glares. For most of my life I’ve been ruthless and bloodthirsty. I’d do anything to win. But as I’ve gotten older, I’m finally taking on the traits Mike has had his whole life. Traits that made me relentlessly bully him and others.
My brother cheers as green gets a couple base hits and rallies in a few runs. He high-fives runners as they cross home, clapping and banging on the chain links to get his team pumped. Occasionally someone on green says something that cracks Mike up. His unmistakable laugh transports me to days long gone. Makes me wish I could be out there alongside him.
With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, green is up by one and trying to clinch the unexpected win. Red blue’s batter swaggers to the plate chomping his gum. He taps his cleats with the aluminum bat and looks at the base runners on second and third. Mike stands wide-legged, a few feet off second. He squints toward home and punches his fist into his broken glove. He’s seen a million other batters like this chump. I know exactly what he’s thinking.
The pitcher adjusts his hat, then tosses a high arc. The batter’s posture ensures a swing, and Mike’s knees bend a little deeper. A tinny ding of the bat sends a rope skipping down the center of the infield. The pitcher jumps to avoids it before Mike scoops the laser with an upward fan. Mike looks at the ball and takes an extra moment before perfectly zinging it to first. Game over. They won.
Mike jogs off the field after lining up to shake everyone’s hands. He’s laughing as he climbs up the stands towards me.
“Dude, you’re not even dirty!” I joke. “I thought those guys were gonna whoop your asses.”
Mike unties his cleats and slides on his flip flops.
“Screw you,” he says without looking up at me. “Don’t you have somewhere to walk?”