Bernie Lopez – Looking Back
I first visited Guernsey Island back in 1989. The group of Alconbury misfits I was playing ball with crossed the English Channel via ferryboat. In a borrowed Air Force van loaded with Spam, cases of Heineken beer and bags of old softball equipment, we were ready for battle. Looking back at my first summer in Guernsey seems ages ago. Meeting friendly locals for the first time and remaining friends all these years is one of the things I consider special in my life. And going back this year to celebrate their 70th anniversary of fastpitch softball on the Island makes me feel a bit melancholy yet excited, and happy for the locals who have preserved the sport and kept it alive since its birth on the Island 70 years ago, way back in 1936.
It all began in 1935 when Canadian Duncan McMillan moved to the Island and introduced baseball to the locals. They eagerly took up the sport and soon the “Big Nine Baseball Club” was born. A year later in 1936 the move to softball was made and the Guernsey Softball Association (GSA) was established. Currently it remains one of the oldest and longest running softball associations in existence.
Early GSA records indicate teams such as the Big Nine, Maple Leafs, Tigers and Casuals were early league winners. Even the five year German Occupation couldn’t prevent early hard-core fastpitch players from playing the game they loved. GSA annuls show the only years fastpitch was not played on the Island was 1940, 1944, and 1945. The German Military occupied the island from June 1940 to May 1945, and according to the book “Isolated Island,” written by V.V. Cortvriend, “sports were allowed to continue on a limited basis.” And play they did. For three of those years, fastpitch softball was indeed played in Guernsey – amazing! The Centrals, Casuals, and the Big Nine all were league champions during Guernsey’s dark period.
Because it was our first trip to Guernsey and we didn’t know anyone, the Alconbury boy’s game plan was to set up camp near the ball field. And because we were, for the most part – lowly minimum wage Airmen – we provisionally resorted to the cheapest and most filling food group we could think of – Spam. Cans and cans of the delicacy! Eventually we called the only phone number we had, of one poor Mick Taylor. I say “poor” because he took us in – all nine of us – in a move I’m sure he still to this day regrets! So now a Military team had arrived to do battle with the locals.
1946 saw the first visit from US Military fastpitch teams to the Island. Teams from the USS Houston and the USS Cone-Glennon played the Guernsey boys. In 1949 the USAF Gadgets and Jets became the first Air Force teams to play on the Island. The USAF Marauders, Raiders and Franco-Americans made their presence felt throughout Guernsey in the 60’s and 70’s. Soon teams from Prague, Czechoslovakia, Italy and England followed, as Guernsey became a hot bed for fastpitch softball!
Earl Hicks made his first visit to the Island in the early 80’s bringing along a talented and colorful group of ball players. I joined up and became “just another one of Earl’s Boys” in 1990. My first day on the team he handed me a long list of team rules, each rule coming with a 5 Pound fine attached to it. So naturally, of course, without hesitation . . . my goal was to break every rule within the first two games – I succeeded! Earl continues to visit Guernsey year after year. Now in his 70’s, the man still looks like he did when he would baffle hitters with his famous optical illusion pitch, leaving them muttering to themselves as they walked back to the dug out. He walks a bit slower now, still shows approval with that big wide grin, and every now and then, still looks over at me with his arms crossed in front of him, slowly shaking his head. Some things never change.
And now it’s 2006 and in a few weeks I’ll be in Guernsey amongst old friends. Yes, some of us are a bit grayer, the kids I remember my first year are young adults and Mad Max is no longer around, only in spirit. Oh, I didn’t mention Mad Max before? While we were placing that initial phone call to Mick Taylor, I looked off to the side and I seen the biggest, nastiest, biker I had ever laid eyes on! He and his buddies were staring at us as if we were their next pub meal. I’m thinking, “Great, I’m going to die in Guernsey!” The next morning I went out on my own for breakfast, sat down in a café and who should walk in? That’s right, Mad Max himself, and sits right next to me! I look over, says hi, and the next thing you know we’re deep in conversation. He told me his dreams of someday taking his Harley to America and cruising this great land of ours, and then heading down to Mexico to raise tequila induced hell. I don’t know if Max ever made it over because he passed on a few years later. The last time I saw him was in 1991, right after my stint in Desert Storm. I gave him my desert floppy military hat. I was told he wore my old hat with pride, I’m not surprised.
Who knows how long Guernsey can continue its 70-year streak of playing fastpitch on the island. It can’t last forever, can it? Soon the Beau Sejour softball pitches will be chalked, umpires will brush up on rules and visit their optometrists, and the GSA will once again give away Thousands of Pounds in prize money. As usual the tournament is open to any men’s fastpitch club willing to make the trip to the Island.
People talk of men’s fastpitch dying, and I don’t believe it for a minute. Of course it’s not what it used to be, but nothing is. Yet there are still guys here in America and Europe and New Zealand and Australia and Japan and Mexico, throwing nasty rise balls and killer drops. And fastpitch certainly isn’t what it once was in Guernsey. But a few diehards keep it going, as their fastpitch ancestors did before them, for the past 70 years. Here’s to you Guernsey, to another 70 years of fastpitch softball on the island!
And this summer, one last time, I’ll come out of retirement to play in Guernsey’s 70th anniversary. And for one weekend in August, this 51 year old will be back in 1989, just like it was my first summer in Guernsey, smiling and having fun, the way life and softball was meant to be.
Bernie Lopez 2006 (firstname.lastname@example.org)