It was the top of the second, two outs, and 77-year-old David Ross stood firmly on first base, insisting that he be allowed to stay.
Though his captain, Chris Fure, had cheered on the league’s oldest player with a “Way to go, kid!” and Ross himself had sliced his hands through the air, signaling that, in his opinion, he was safe, their opponents cited “the rule.”
According to the rule, if the batting team does not have a first or third base coach, the call goes to the nearest uninvolved defensive player. That should have been the pitcher, who said Ross was out, but he was overruled by his shortstop, who insisted he had a better angle, tipping the call in Ross’s favor, at the expense of his own team.
“This has been my 25-year bane,” said Raymond Weschler, the opposing team’s captain, who founded the weekly co-ed pick-up Berkeley softball league in 1997. “We have rules, and sometimes new facts emerge.”
Welcome to “Rayball,” as its players affectionately call it, a nine-inning alternative universe where rules can be subject to interpretation, bent or broken. Games take place religiously at 11 a.m. on Sundays (save for a brief hiatus during the pandemic), usually at the home field at Codornices Park, which closes each winter for reseeding. On Feb. 12, the league was still at its alternative location at Willard Middle School.
Weschler said the goal of what he once called “The Finest Unaffiliated Email-organized Softball League West of the Sacramento River” is “to have a super fun, close game that everybody can enjoy and get away from things going on in other parts of their lives, that’s always there for them and consistent.”
Read two Weschler emails of average quality
Over its quarter-century history, however, the game has evolved into something more, with Weschler as its quirky chronicler whose weekly email recaps — charmingly deranged exercises in comic writing more likely to riff on molecular phylogenetics than identify the pitcher — amuse a far-flung fan base.
On the softball diamond, Weschler comports himself with somewhat more restraint than his post-game emails. Obsessed with creating evenly balanced teams, he has created a playing field more forgiving than real life, an atmosphere players described as “democratic” and “egalitarian,” where socializing and collegiality, along with the occasional jab and one-liner, remain more important than the win.
“Ray has attracted a really kind group of people,” said Romeo Ponsaran, a middle school English and history teacher from Alameda. “For me, playing softball creates the same experience as doing yoga. Playing with good people, you are all trading good energy with each other.”
Weschler founded the league after being frustrated by the cost and commitment required by traditional leagues. Last year, for example, Berkeley Recreation charged $640 for an eight-game softball summer season. Weschler charges $5 a game, which pays for field rentals and equipment and gives players flexibility. They sign up when they want — and are able — to play.
Weschler also deviates from traditional softball by adopting the nine innings of baseball over softball’s five. “A baseball game should take two hours,” he said.
“The rules are debated like the Constitution,” quipped Erica Riggs of Berkeley, who plays in the league with her husband and two sons. She was on Team Fure the day of Berkeleyside’s attendance.
“Where can a player come up to bat after three outs?” asked Fure, a financial and business strategist who’s usually pitted against Weschler as the opposing team captain. He’s been playing with Weschler for 21 years, yet still finds such quirks entertaining. “In what baseball game are you allowed to have more than four balls and never have to take a walk? Only in Rayball.”
“His rules don’t give an advantage to any team,” added Ponsaran. “That allows us to have varying levels of players and still be competitive.”
Rayball is such a draw that getting onto the field can take months because Weschler’s Google Groups list, with around 500 subscribers, is, by his own admission, “oversubscribed” (he asked Berkeleyside not to link to the list). He uses the list as “a weekly shout-out to family and friends to let them know that I’m still alive.” About half the subscribers have played at least one game over the past 25 years, and out of that 250 or so, at least 30 play about 10 games a year. Two-thirds of players at any given game have played the previous week.
“There’s a constant churn of people coming and going,” Weschler said.
Joining is by word of mouth. Over the years, the roster has drawn heavily from Cal faculty and staff and included professors of law, the former dean of the journalism school, doctors, office workers, entrepreneurs and janitors. About four women play per game on average. It’s “a little of everything,” Weschler observed, though “we’re way too many old white guys.”
Weschler once apologized to Kira Abrams because she was the lone woman player, but “it doesn’t make a difference to me,” she said, “I just want to play ball.” Abrams, the publisher of student law journals at Berkeley Law, has been in the league since around 2005. “Ray tirelessly gets these games going,” she said. “He puts so much of his soul into this game. It makes my week.”
Outfielder Olivia Beckley of Albany, who played in the Albany Berkeley Girls Softball League for a decade, added, “I always laugh. The guys are ridiculous in such a good way.”
There are no standings and, while runs are counted and winners declared, Weschler’s record-keeping is nothing short of sketchy.
Asked during fact-checking for this story how many outs there were at the time of the contentious David Ross play, Weschler responded: “I have no idea. … I suggest you just fill in what reads well, which is what I have done for every drivel letter for the last 25 years. Accuracy, schmacuracy — it’s a softball game.”
The drivel letters
The emails go out on Wednesday mornings, usually around 12:05 a.m. Intended as summaries of the previous week’s game, the emails are discursive and tangential and widely dismissed by players as works of “fiction.”
In them, Weschler’s been known to reference 16th-century theology and Charlemagne’s death. His syntax mixes words like “flibbertigibbet” and “fecklessitude” with “shitshow” and “peeps.”
Even the titles of his electronic missives are entertaining and Victorian in their length and wit. Among them are “The Problematic Nexus of Athletic Dominance and Natural Philosophy,” from 2015; “A Pseudo-Hegalian Take on the Troubled Athletic Condition,” from 2014; and “A Huxleyan Gloss on Cosmology, Sport and the Hinge of Fate,” from 2013.
A recurring ruse is the mention of nonexistent books, like “D.K. Slater’s compelling new treatise, When the Village Idiot is Chancery Clerk: A History of Societal Decay among Northern Frankish Towns that Inexplicably Abandoned Labor Specialization, 814-1066.”
“His writing is brilliant,” observed Burt Dragin, a former journalism professor at Laney College and league member for about five years. “It’s comedic writing you never see. I compare it to Thurber and Benchley.”
“One of the things he does is insult the players who did badly, but in an affectionate way,” said Ross, a Berkeley clinical psychologist in private practice who’s been playing with Weschler for 20 years.
See his Dec. 19, 2021, sendup of one Dr. Alan Shabel, who “bobbled admittedly sucky throws to 2nd.” Or his Jan. 18, 2022, demolition of a boy named Holden, who “had become a veritable sieve at short in an unseemly cleaving of potential from execution.” Or — turning the pages of time back 15 years — his Jan. 9, 2007, revilement of the Miller Lights, a team “obviously … not drafted for their hitting or fielding prowess. Nor their speed.”
Equally effusive in his praise, the Miller Lights’ rivals, the Jeffreys, are hailed as “hitting fools,” and Dr. Shabel is hyped as a “power-slugging evolutionary biologist.”
One hallmark of a post-game Weschler synopsis is the swift shift of register from a moment of incidental glory to another of abject calamity. “To be clear,” he wrote on Dec. 19, 2018, “neither Jim McGuire nor Matt McElroy are trained in acrobatic ballet, and yet both made it safely to base as Alan bit hard on the degradation dust beneath him.”
Above all, the summaries serve as a playground for Weschler’s experiments with language. He’s often said he enjoys writing about softball more than playing it.
Reporting on the Feb. 12 game, Weschler called the argument over the first base call “Tertiary Bickeritus … a capricious mistress,” but concluded that “in the chain of call-making authority, the weight given the opinion of the base runner in question always lies somewhere between the opinion of the most distant non-attentive player on the field and that of the sleepiest cashier in the pizzeria down the block.”
When he isn’t organizing games or writing his summaries, Weschler works from his Elmwood home as a self-described information broker, researching and finding documents both online and in print, a spinoff of the work he did for 18 years at UC Berkeley’s law library. He also acts as a ghostwriter/editor for his sister, Toni, helping her update her book Taking Charge of Your Fertility. His brother, Lawrence, is an author and former New Yorker writer.
Though he received a law degree from UC Berkeley, he never wanted to practice because “it’s too stressful.” He also has master’s degrees in library information science and linguistics, the latter at least partly explaining his affinity for writing.
Back on the field, two hours in the sun on an unusually balmy 71-degree day for Berkeley was having an effect.
“Does anyone actually know the actual inning?” asked the aforementioned Jim McGuire, a UC Berkeley biologist.
It was the top of the ninth. By the bottom of that inning, the score was 13-12, favoring Team Fure.
“I’d rather lose by one than win by two,” Weschler proclaimed.
Two typical post-game emails from Raymond Weschler
Subject: Softball: 77 (Credit where Credit is Due)
Let me confess right here and now that as Saxon’s team floundered against my own under a staggering 6th-inning 31-16 deficit, I discreetly pulled him aside and mentioned that given this was his last game before he moved to LA, I’d probably have no choice but to tell both his mom and his new supervising attorneys at Sidley-Austin of the calamity at hand, for it was quite apparent by then that his four year reign as the moral backbone of this entire league was inexorably imploding in a tragic shit-show of unprecedented managerial failure (Yeah, cheerily yelling out “Come on team, we can do it!” just doesn’t cut it when you’re down by 15). To be clear, it’s not that I was ‘enjoying’ any of this, but rather it’s just that I tend to think that the entire gamut of a man’s kinesiological journey should be open to appraisal for both employer and kin alike, and if that makes me a busy-body, a weirdo, or even a flibbertigibbet, then so be it.
In any case, here’s the thing: Something happened.
Perhaps Romeo expanded his repertoire of suggestively juicy ‘hit me balls’ after tiring of his usual curves and sliders, or perhaps it was one of those insoluble shifts in the aerobic zeitgeist that sweep in from out of nowhere and hint at the presence of the Lord, or a lord, or some kind of lordy thing. Or perhaps, in fairness, it was just Saxon’s understated leadership that suddenly congealed in its previously hidden potency. Whatever the reason, the jaw-dropping reality is that in the top of the 7th, the Saxter and his peeps exploded for 20 runs on 17 hits, five errors, four mercy-rule outs and an ego-shredding ’tude of totally revitalized kick-ass. I’m still reeling.
Fortunately, we had regained our equilibrium by the top of the 10th, and with the score now tied at 36, the fantabulous Stefano Moscato assured me that even though he hadn’t pitched since the pre-Covid Holocene, he was now tanned, rested and ready to hurl. I was wary, of course, but my God, the man is an Associate Dean at Hastings Law, and if anybody was going to stop an opposing captain with less than two piddling years of litigation under his pre-LA belt, it was going to be Mosquito Boy. Of course you can probably see where I’m going with this, and while one would think that a three decade advantage in basic legal seasoning would seal the deal, the fact is that good ol’ Malaria Feathers gave up five quick runs himself, and thus, when it was all over, the great Saxon-Cropper Sykes, barrister extraordinaire, had led his peeps past my own, 41-36.
To be clear: SCS will now head off to SoCal having managerially triumphed in the longest, most grueling and highest scoring match in the nearly 25-year history of this league, and if that isn’t enough to make him full partner at Sidley by the end of this April, then the founding directors of that firm will obviously have some ’splanin to do. Yeah, I, too, am a member of NAYCLAWDIS (The National Association of Young Commercial Litigation Attorneys Who Dominate in Softball), and therefore there will be a game at Willard Middle School this Sunday at 11, IF I get enough commits by this Sunday morning . . . Raymond
Subject: Spycraft (The Further Seepage of Societal Issues into the League)
There was a moment in the top of the 4th when Jim McGuire’s team jumped out to an ominous five-run lead, and as captain of my own struggling contingent, I began to have that gnawing sense of imminent collapse. My innards were onto something, fer sure, but not in a way that I had expected, for just minutes later, Chaz unleashed a blistering hopper straight up the middle toward the great Aaron McQuade in shallow center-left. In theory, it should’ve been a routine stop and throw-back, and yet for reasons I don’t pretend to understand, he appeared to try and snag the rapidly advancing orb with his dainty little zygomatic bone, just below his right eyeball. Needless to say, that’s actually not an effective way of stopping anything, and sure enough, a ghastly black eye, a reddish Rothkoesque cheek, three ibuprofen and an hour of chemical ice later, the lynchpin of Jim’s contingent drove himself home just as they crumbled into the Aaronless despair of a 7th-inning 27-17 deficit. Sure, there is no ‘I’ in team, and yet let’s not succumb to kinesiological correctness—individual athletes matter.
Or maybe not so much.
Over the next grueling hour, Jim’s team clawed their way back from the abyss, and thus by the end of the 9th, the game was tied at 28. Ironically, they seemed to flourish anew as they continued to lose players—the clearly dispensable Dave Ross and Paul Fine had to leave early—but at the beginning of the nail-biting 10th, the legendary Steve Lind was suddenly lassoed in as an imperative replacement part from a restless pool of post-softball softball-hating turf-craving frisbee players. From my interactions with him, I knew the Lindster as kindly, warm and of generous athletic spirit, but certainly not bi-sportal. Yet in the top of the inning, he caught a high fly to deep center-left, and then in the bottom, with one out, a runner at second and the score tied up again, the little bastard unleashed a jaw-dropping walk-off rocket to the Derby Avenue fencing of Willard’s deepest tundra, and thus my team went down, and down hard, 31-30. Pardon me, 31-30*.
To be clear, the asterisk—stark, shameful and necessary— is not because one could make the argument that good ol’ Lindy-Lips was technically present as a treacherous and illegal Putinian batter from the other side of the aerobic border. In fact, it seems kind of obvious that he was, but to be clear, it’s just not my scene to go there (on the other hand and for a germane point of reference, see D.K. Slater’s masterful new treatise, Studs of Disgrace: The Imported Teutonic Stickball Players of Licentious Post-Roman Florida, 476-732AD).
Rather, I would simply point to the fact that my peeps were clearly sabotaged by a well-placed mole, and while I admire and respect Erica as much I do anyone on my team, the bitter truth is that she was the one who recruited Steve for Jim’s side with inexplicable alacrity, and she was also the one who had hand selected the nuclear-tipped bat for Kira that she used in both the 8th and 9th innings to taunt our side with brutal multi-base RBIs, and yes, it was Erica again who told me that she had told Jim way back in the 7th, when his peeps were Aaronless and down by 10, that he needn’t worry because “you guys will win by one, just watch.” I don’t know if she winked, but my God, who says such things against their own side?!
Needless to say, the corrosive epistemological interface between treachery and kismet is never an easy one to understand, but perhaps Captain McLucky knows more painfully than all of us that when the evidence is so stark and so cogent, notationally tainted is forever the triumph. And therefore there will be a game at Willard this Sunday at 11, IF I get enough commits by this Friday morning . . . Raymond