IT’S KIND OF embarrassing to have to go up to home plate and introduce the team as ‘Matt’s Team,’ ” Matt Englander was saying. “It makes me sound as if I have the biggest head in several counties.”
On a spring evening just a little too cold to comfortably play ball, Matt Englander, his father, Mo, and I were standing in the outfield of a dusty ball field in Hyde Park, where Matt’s Team would shortly compete. Matt, who is the director of tax policy and communications for the city of Boston Assessing Department, was explaining how the team had come to be named.
“ ‘Matt’s Team’ was a place holder,” he said.
He had to call the team something when he told the guy in charge of the Boston West Coed Softball League that he intended to enter a squad. He signed up the only four players he had. One of them was the pitcher, Mo.
Mo, who turned 80 this July, had experience on his side. He’d begun pitching in the 1970s for a team representing General Cinema, where he worked. He said they were successful.
“If we weren’t first, we were pretty close,” Mo told me.
When Mo was in his 70s, he found a team in Quincy that didn’t care how old he was, as long as he could throw strikes.
“It was so much fun,” he told me. “Sunday morning softball. I think it was Sunday . . . ”
“Yes,” Matt said.
“Anyway, they disbanded,” Mo said. “And I was in mourning, staying home weekends, really upset.”
Not that Mo Englander was without a reason to get out of bed in the morning. His volunteer history includes working at the information desk at the Museum of Science as well as helping out at FriendshipWorks, the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, and the city of Boston Elderly Affairs Commission’s Retired and Senior Volunteer Program.
Still, Matt Englander decided his father should be back on the mound.
“So I was talking to my father about getting him back into softball, and I told him, ‘I don’t have a team for you to play on right now.’ And he said, ‘Well, make one.’ So we made one.”
Mo smiled, nodded. “And it worked, didn’t it?”
Had it happened in June rather than a little earlier in the year, it would have been a case of “You’re on the roster. Happy Father’s Day, Dad.”
THAT WAS EIGHT years ago, and they are still Matt’s Team, though sometimes they wear jerseys that read “Beavers.”
“Awhile back, a gentleman on the team created the uniforms for us,” Matt explained. “The older version had a big Bucky Beaver with buckteeth, and it seemed to fit.”
“We’re very eager,” Mo said.
“Yeah,” Matt said. “Sort of like the Island of Misfit Toys, all bound together by softball. So we are the Matt’s Team Beavers.”
Matt’s Team plays in the division designated DA, which is one level higher than DB, which, according to Matt, includes “people who have never played before and lack athleticism.” DA players, on the other hand, have either played in Little League or high school or college, or they have played more than four years of softball or baseball anywhere at all. So the range in talent among the players on Matt’s Team and throughout the league is considerable.
Mo’s approach to hitters, whether they’ve played college ball or only kicked around on the fringes of somebody’s softball team for a while, is always the same: He throws strikes.
“I’m hopeful I can continue my unbelievable stretch of not walking people,” he told me. “I don’t know how it happens. The arm seems to know where the plate is.” (Matt said his dad, in fact, does walk batters occasionally, but blames bad umpiring. “In his mind, he has never walked anybody.”)
In slow-pitch softball, the arm better know where the plate is. The game is not devoid of defense, but pitches required to come in on an arc tend to get hit, and a lot of them get hit hard. Even if nobody walks, games are high-scoring. The league in which Matt’s Team plays, like lots of slow-pitch leagues, features the mercy rule, according to which a team ahead by 12 runs or more after five innings is declared the winner, perhaps so that nobody on the other team will feel too discouraged driving home.
Though Mo Englander is proud of his ability to lob strikes, he has no illusions about surprising hitters. They know what’s coming.
“This league is high-arc slow-pitch,” he told me. “The arc can’t go more than twelve feet, I think. That’s illegal.”
That would rule out Bill Lee’s infamous high-arc eephus pitch, the “Leephus,” but Mo’s fine with the restriction. He said no umpire has ever objected to his arc and that he’s never tried to mix in a fastball.
“You can go to sleep while it’s coming in,” he said.
Mo was smiling when he told me that, but according to Matt, Mo takes his work on the mound seriously. Mo didn’t deny it.
“Our guys are such that, even if they lose, they’re great sportsmen,” Mo said. “But not me. They laugh about it. But I go home, and if I had a dog there, I’d kick him. You know, they always laugh at me. I’m the worst.”
Matt found no reason to disagree. He shook his head as he remembered an especially tough playoff loss several years ago.
“My father, who was still driving at that point, walked straight off the mound, got in the car, and drove away.”
Mo shrugged. “I’m embarrassed by it sometimes,” he said. “Here I am, 80 years old, and I haven’t developed the amount of . . . ” He stopped, as if surprised at what he’d discovered about himself. “I mean, we still go and shake guys’ hands, you know, but I wish I were . . . Ah, no, I don’t. Hell, I’ve gone this far, and the guys love it when I do it. They think I’m really funny, because I’m scowling. But what the heck? Somebody has to do it.”
BEFORE HE BEGAN to warm up, Mo Englander told me that he’d recently had some physical therapy on his pitching shoulder.
“A couple of weeks ago, it started to feel bad,” he said. “It happens when you get older. This was the first time. But I don’t think I’m going to have a problem tonight.”
That optimism seemed reasonable. Longevity on the field runs in the Englander family, at least according to Mo. “My brother-in-law living outside Washington, D.C., still plays,” he told me. “He’s 85.”
Then he looked across the infield, which was still empty. “I’m going to be very, very upset when the time comes, if it comes, when I can’t pitch anymore,” he said.
When the game began, Mo Englander threw as if that day might not come any time soon. He walked nobody. The context may not have been glorious by most baseball measures. Mo’s catcher, Erin, stood upright several feet behind the hitters and picked up most of his pitches only after they’d bounced at least once. But behind Mo, Matt’s Team made at least some of the necessary plays. A first baseman named Liz picked up a bad throw on a short hop as well as Mike Napoli might have done it. Matt himself showed excellent range in center field. This did not escape his father’s notice, and as Mo waited his turn to hit in the bottom of the first, he said so.
“Matt is our Jacoby Ellsbury,” he told me. “When he’s in the outfield, he has no regard for his body. He leaps for a ball, falls on the ground.” Mo spread his arms to demonstrate the scope of his son’s effort. “He’s just one of the greatest players I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It makes me proud. It makes me want to do well for his team.”
A couple of batters later, it was Mo’s turn to hit. The bases were loaded, and Matt was confident that his father would take advantage of the opportunity.
“I like our chances,” he said. “I think he could squeeze out a single here. They’re doing a little bit of the Ortiz shift on him. Highly appropriate, I would say.”
A couple of pitches later, Matt’s assessment of the circumstances had changed. The opposing pitcher seemed to be in the process of doing something Mo Englander never did, at least according to Mo Englander, and as a hitter, he was taking advantage of it.
“He’s working the count, looking for the walk,” Matt said. “An RBI the easy way.”
Ball four came in high. Matt’s Team scored on the walk, but rather than trotting to first, Mo returned to the bench.
“He gets a courtesy runner,” Matt explained. “He’s one of the few who gets it. It’s kind of an honor for whoever gets to run for him.”
As it turned out, even Mo Englander’s experience on the mound and good eye at the plate were insufficient to the task on that particular evening. Matt’s Team, a.k.a. the Beavers, had the dreaded mercy rule invoked against them in both games of the doubleheader.
And as it turned out, those results hinted at the disappointments of the season. In July, Matt told me his team had failed to make the playoffs for the first time in years. Looking for a bright side, he figured his father’s arm could use the rest before games started up again in August, though he was worried about declining attendance among the players as the losses mounted.
For eight years, the group had been “95 percent intact,” according to Matt. Yet on some nights this summer, Matt’s Team barely had enough players. Injuries piled up, but Matt said there was no decline in eagerness among the veteran Beavers.
Certainly his veteran pitcher was as ready to go as he’d been for the past 40 years and looking for an even brighter side to a different story entirely. When he heard that perhaps Matt’s Team would be the subject of a magazine article, Mo wanted to know if that might lead to endorsement opportunities.