Why you should care
Because you might have to duck when taking that Washington Monument selfie.
The game is tight, the tension palpable on the field as the slugger digs in. The pitcher sets, and a cry comes from the outfield: “Hold up!” Yet another oblivious tourist is wandering through the field of play, eyes trained up at a massive phallic symbol. Impervious to shouts in a foreign language, the man continues his leisurely stroll until play can resume. It’s just part of the game when you play softball in front of the Washington Monument.
Summertime in the nation’s capital is slow-pitch softball season. There are real diamonds throughout the region, but for many, the nation’s monument-stuffed front yard is the spot to play ball. You can find a cross section of professional Washington tossing in the twilight, from Senate offices — Pennsylvania’s Democrat-Republican duo stages a heated game each year — to nonprofits to consulting firms. In my league, you team up by the college you attended. North Carolina versus Duke turns out to be just as fierce when contested by 30-somethings with questionable hamstrings. The pastime is such a D.C. fixture that Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper even dropped by to pinch-hit one day during his rookie season.
We all know that kickball is lame.
The Mall comes with peculiar ground rules. There are no fences, so home runs simply roll forever, unless a mountain of a Georgia Bulldogs hitter launches one over temporary bleachers erected for Independence Day fireworks. The U.S. Park Police has been known to strictly enforce open container laws, so drinking beer — softball’s performance-enhancing drug of choice — is a risky but still common endeavor. Life finds a way.
A simmering intersport rivalry remains between more established softball leagues and those who play kickball, who tend to be younger. They jockey for space on the fields and elbow room at postgame bars. The two tribes should be natural allies in their search for light physical activity, social bonding and maybe even love in a transient city, but we all know that kickball is lame.
The greatest feud is with outsiders. Many Washingtonians try to avoid the Mall, the Smithsonian and the monuments this time of year, when sweaty visitors clog sidewalks and Metro escalators. But for Mall softball, the two groups are forced together, with friction inevitable. It led one former teammate of mine to semi-seriously propose a point system: one bonus run if you hit a tourist with a ball; three runs if the tourist is from a hostile nation. Others are more sympathetic.
“Something that has always fascinated me is what the experience must be like for a foreign tourist who inadvertently meanders through a game, and all of a sudden has two dozen Americans in matching shirts yelling and gesturing wildly at them,” says B.J. Talley, who has been taking cuts on the famous grounds since 2000. “Even for those who speak decent English, it must be confounding to be chastised for invading an ambiguously marked-out area that you didn’t know you were supposed to avoid in the first place — especially given all the visible police and security presence around the Mall.”
Despite the occasional nuisance, when you take a moment from the heat of battle to glance over at the Lincoln Memorial at sunset, it’s a reminder that you do live in a pretty cool place. Just hide the beer.