Joe Paatalo is a lucky guy. He knew when he walked off the field in 2011 after helping the River Falls Fighting Fish win the Wisconsin Amateur Baseball Association state championship that it was the last baseball game he'd ever play.
"I did," he said. "I knew I wasn't half the player that I used to be. But to be able to be on the field with those guys when we won it was a great way to go out. One of my best experiences in baseball."
That's saying a lot considering Paatalo helped Cretin High School win a Minnesota state championship in 1981 before going on to play Division I baseball at Wichita State University. His first collegiate at-bat was against a young, hard-throwing pitcher from Texas named Roger Clemens.
"How'd that go?" I once asked him.
"How do you think?" he snarled back.
In my prime, I was never half the player Paatalo was when he was half the player he used to be. My high school coach once told me they should name the playground after me because all it had in it was three swings and a bench. But that didn't stop me from playing. After high school I played in the local park and rec league. I played for my base team in the Navy, then returned to my hometown of Bayonne N.J. and joined E.J.'s Tap Room, a New Jersey version of a local town ball team.
But I never got to experience what it was like to know that THIS would be my last game. When the summer season ended in New Jersey in 1987 I packed up my bags, including my glove and spikes, moved to Wisconsin and enrolled as a "non-traditional" student at UW-River Falls. I had visions of trying out for the Falcon baseball team but talked myself out of it when I thought they'd never want an old guy like me. I was 26.
And that was it. From then on it was bar league softball and beer trophies. Kind of the same but totally different. Like craving filet mignon and getting olive loaf. Eventually taking a curveball the other way or getting a jump off first became just faded jumbles of fuzzy memories. If I knew back on that August day in 1987 it would be my last baseball game ever I might have been content with it. But I always thought I'd have another chance. Another at-bat. One last opportunity to lose myself in the dreams of an 8-year old during a summer that never ends.
So when River Falls Fighting Fish player-manager Josh Eidem suggested I play a game with the local town ball team, under the guise of "participatory journalism," I jumped at the idea. I'm 58 years old now. I've spent the last 32 years wishing I could have walked off the field one last time on my own terms instead of because life got in the way. This was my chance. No matter what happened I'd leave that field knowing it was my last game. It would be one final gift to me from the greatest of all games.
Eidem gets it. He was on the UWRF baseball team when the university suddenly dropped the sport in 2002 and has been playing town baseball for 20 years. He loves it so much he even wrote a book about it. Beyond the Fence is a fictional account spanning 30 years of St. Croix Valley League baseball, on and off the field, centered around the annual Plum City Memorial Day Tournament.
In one chapter a character talks about why he loves town ball, or as Eidem describes it in the book: "The last pure form of the game on Earth."
"I'm sub-par at my job, an average husband, skip my family reunion each year to be here in Plum City, and barely graduated from college," the book's hero says. "But every day I step on the field, I have a chance to be great. I never want to give that up."
That's one of the running themes in the book; when to walk away. It's been eight years since he wrote about it but Eidem, now 38, is still no closer to answering that question.
"I don't think I'm going to know," he said. "My last game is probably going to be when my hamstring blows up for the last time and I can't rehab it anymore. I've got a quad thing right now so my last game could have been last Saturday, who knows?"
But he said it makes him appreciate the game even more.
"I don't think I'll be able to get up one morning and say, this will be my last game today," he said. "Some guys have a ticking clock that they know is going to strike midnight at a pretty defined time. For me it's like a ticking time bomb that somebody else has set. And I don't know when it's going to go off."
If Eidem's baseball career is a ticking time bomb, mine is Chernobyl. Yet here he was asking me if I wanted to play first base for the Fish.
"Sure," I replied, ignoring the fact I hadn't worn a first baseman's mitt since Little League.
So it was set. I was going to start at first base and bat sixth in the Fighting Fish's game against the Red Wing Aces Wednesday, June 12, at First National Bank of River Falls Field. Thirty-two years later and roughly 20-pounds heavier than my last at bat.
It didn't take long for me to wonder what I had gotten myself into. Most of the guys on the team weren't even been born when I last played. I'm old enough to have an AARP card and shop at Family Fresh every Wednesday for the senior discount. I once threw out my back putting on my socks. But I needed to know what it felt like to lace up those spikes and put on a glove one more time.
I knew I'd need some help if I was going to pull it off, and legendary Plum City Blues pitcher Tony Garner was there to give me some advice.
"Stretch early, stretch a lot and have lots of ice ready after the game," he said. "LOTS of ice."
Garner just turned 49 this month and has been playing town ball since he was 17. That's 32 years, just as long as it's been since I played my last game.
"I like to think it keeps me young," he said. "I can still throw the ball and enjoy being at the park. And I like being in this atmosphere with all the kids around."
Those "kids" Garner was talking about were his Plum City Blues teammates. And it's the same with the Fighting Fish. When I walked into the dugout before last Wednesday's game, there were guys like Dylan Penny, Jaxin Larson, Lucas Luedtke, Trey Larson and Mitchell Feyereisen-all "kids" in their late teens or early 20s who come back from college each summer to play for their hometown team. And there was Adam Feyereisen and Charlie Griffin, making their Fighting Fish debuts fresh off helping their River Falls High School team win a Big Rivers Conference championship. I was the "old guy," but that night they made me feel like just another ballplayer, reinforcing my belief that nobody ever really grows out of baseball.
And then there was Joel Schafer. He's another guy who's been playing town ball for over 20 years, and this was his 43rd birthday. Every year at the end of the season for the last three or four years he's told me he was done. Yet here he was, leaning pensively up against the dugout railing wearing his familiar No. 14 Fish jersey as the infield sprinklers did their jobs.
"So what keeps you coming back? I asked him.
"This," he said with a wave of his arm. "You could have a really bad day at work but you come out here, and the dirt and the grass, and everything's OK."
As I jogged out to first base at the start of the game I understood exactly what Schafer was talking about; I didn't care about anything else in the world. I was playing baseball again. I was back on the sandlot 50 years ago and back on my high school field 40 years ago. I don't think there's any other sport that encourages that sense of fantasy. And right then, in that moment, I owned it.
I somehow managed to get through the first two innings in the field without having to make a play and found myself leading off the bottom of the second for my first at-bat in 32 years. I watched the first two pitches go by for balls before a pathetic swing for the first strike and a foul tip to make the count 2-2. I held up for a check swing ball that moved the count to 3-2 before laying off an outside pitch to draw a walk.
Red Wing must have had a scouting report on me because despite the fact I was on first base with nobody out they didn't even bother to hold me on. I drew a laugh from the peanut gallery when I faked a steal on a 2-0 pitch to Dylan Penny before Penny hit a ground ball to third. I was forced out easily at second but Penny beat the throw to first to avoid the double play.
I grounded out to kill a two-run rally in my next at-bat in the bottom of the third, and was charged with a throwing error when I flipped a ball behind pitcher Jaxin Larson covering first in the top of the fourth before Schaffer replaced me one pitch into the top of the fifth inning.
That's when it hit me. THIS was my last game. I was leaving the field to high-fives and hugs from my teammates and cheers from the crowd. All the what-ifs and wish-I-could-haves of the last 32 years were gone. I had gotten the chance to play the game I grew up loving one last time.
And even though it wasn't a state championship game like Paatalo's, it was my best experience in baseball.
Now I was the lucky guy.