I’ve been playing rec league softball in the city for a while. I’ve met amazing people throughout the spring, summer, and fall seasons over the past four years, including my wife. I’ve played all over the north side of Chicago with great people from all kinds of backgrounds. The leagues, though, are mostly white and mostly in ‘safer’ neighborhoods. Our teams have been sponsored by bars (yes mom, bars… saloons… taverns) each season and again, the patronage at all of the bars could be described as mostly white.
This summer has been a bit different. For the first time, the best option we could find was a league in my neighborhood – a neighborhood that has a decent mix of ethnicities and a rough reputation for violence. There is some truth to the violent crime numbers in my neighborhood, for sure, but as with most things, perception is far from reality. Overwhelmingly, violent crime in my neighborhood are gang v. gang. If you aren’t looking for trouble, you probably won’t find it. Regardless, the perception by most fellow Chicagoans that I know is that my neighborhood is violent (not counting my fellow northwest folks).
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a bit of trepidation heading into the season. Most of my teammates are not from my neighborhood, and it felt as if I was opening up a piece of myself to them. I can defend my neighborhood against the negative characterizations most of them know, but now I actually had to show them there was truth behind my words. I started playing nightmare scenarios in my head – a teammate getting robbed, harassing onlookers, anything that would reinforce the stereotypes that my teammates may have.
Much to my relief, we were almost all the way through the season and it was going really well. We won most of our games and, as far as I could tell, it felt just like any other league we’ve played. From where we played we could see a basketball court with mostly young black men playing organized basketball, a mixed group of younger kids preparing for the upcoming football season, and lots of families of all ethnicities enjoying summer evenings in the park. We’d get the occasional passerby to stop and watch us play, but I can guarantee our skill level was nowhere near the groups playing on the fields just north of us. The teams playing just north of us were much more organized, much more competitive, and mostly Hispanic. They were playing underhand 12″ inch softball just like us, but it was fastpitch, they had full uniforms, and were built like real athletes. I mean these guys were really fun to watch, which was pretty obvious based on the number of people that turned out to watch their games.
Back on our field though, the crowd was usually non-existent. Any cheering came from one of the two teams playing (or both). The main exception came last Wednesday night – the final night of our league. We had an early game that, if we won, would lead to a second game: the championship. During our first game, a couple of Hispanic teenagers passing by decided to sit in the mostly-empty bleachers and watch for a while. They instantly took to our team, cheering for our good plays and giving us nicknames of real ball players. We had a good time joking around with them and ended up winning the first game pretty easily.
Now, to set the stage, I have to give a little background. We were really excited to be in the championship game, but it did mean playing a team we had lost to twice in the regular season. In a league with mostly fun, positive teams, we were going up against everything I hate about rec league softball. They were ultra-competitive and loved to talk smack. It was easy for them – they won every game by a large margin and I think they had fun trying to get a rise out of us. They made the girls on their team tryout and were often drunk by the end of their games. All in all, they were just not fun to play.
Fast forward to last Wednesday, the championship game, when we somehow score eight runs in our first at-bat. Scoring eight runs in the game against this team would have been amazing, but just in the first inning – that was unbelievable. I figured we’re going to head out on defense and give up just as many, if not more, but I was wrong. After a few innings of play, we were dominating this undefeated team, and their frustration was building. The kids I mentioned earlier were still yelling and cheering, and it was obvious this was getting under our opponents’ skin.
It started with friendly banter, but words and tempers escalated quickly between the two teenagers and the team we were somehow beating. The straw came from their catcher – a woman behind the plate that no doubt had heard everything the two kids were saying. She turned to one of the kids and basically said, “put on a shirt you fat wetback.”
A white woman with a Wicker Park bar sponsor had just called a Hispanic kid a wetback in Humboldt Park. The teenager was livid (rightfully so). He unleashed a barrage of insults on the player and didn’t let up. Some were funny, but most continued to escalate the situation. When the rest of their team found out about this, a few of the more vocal players decided to hurl back their own insults – mostly referring to the teenager’s chubby physique and, sadly, his ethnicity. I think you have to know Humboldt Park and the history behind the somewhat forced westward migration of Hispanics in this city to understand the tension in the air. A team of white softball players hurling racial insults against a Hispanic teenager in Humboldt Park.
The situation finally died down enough that we could get back to the game and try to ignore what happened, but it didn’t go away completely. After several of us talked to the teenager, he agreed to brush it off and keep his cheering to more supportive tones, but I’m frustrated we had to do that in the first place. Part of me wants to go back in time and completely stop the game – to go sit in the stands with the teenager and share in his righteous anger rather than ask him to brush it off. I wonder how many times he has been told to brush off similar situations – to stay quiet when his gut reaction is to unleash his anger at the harsh words pointed in his direction in our ‘post-racial’ Chicago.
I wonder what happens to that righteous anger and frustration after it has been kept down time and time again.
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