We're in the final. God knows how we've managed it, but we have. It's tonight. It's not the World Cup, the Champions League or Wimbledon. It's the playoffs final for the fifth division of an advertising and media softball league. But it will mean everything to us.
It started as a bit of a laugh, a chance for us to dust off our disused trainers and haul our creaky bones to Regent's Park once a week. We jokingly named ourselves the 'Atoms' after the Simpsons' Springfield team. I don't think any of us expected much. If I'm honest, I nearly didn't make it beyond the first training session. Faced with legions of huge blokes throwing and catching like they'd been doing it all their lives, (they had), the sheer terror of school rounders sessions came flooding back in all its 'near-last-to-be-picked' misery. I can't catch. I throw 'like a girl'. I am basically useless. I'm a music journalist for Pete's sake. I'm not supposed to be good at sport. I'm supposed to be having a fag cynically on the sidelines.
But I did make myself go back, as did a few of the others, and week by week, we started to become a team. And despite being a raggle taggle bunch of ne'er-do-wells, we started to win - nine games consecutively at one point - which is how we have found ourselves in this position.
Earlier this week, Stephen Fry posted a beautiful paean to his beloved Norwich City Football Club, 'An open letter to all who despise sport and especially football' in which he explained, in spite of a family indifferent to sport in all forms, he's become obsessed with following darts, snooker, cricket and especially football. Conversely, I grew up around a sports-obsessive - my dad was always watching the F1, snooker and having baseball and American Football games shipped over on VHS by relatives. He even started dragging me to Loftus Road from the age of three.
And as the long-term girlfriend of the biggest Norwich City fan in the world (bigger even than Stephen Fry), I fully recognise the importance of following the fortunes of your chosen team. The civic pride, the highs and the epic lows are all laid out in their full agony and ecstasy with NCFC. From promotion to the Premier League, to double relegation, to the double promotion of the last two seasons - to describe following Norwich as a rollercoaster ride of emotions would be an understatement. And therein lies the beauty. As Fry put it: "For all that it [Norwich] only rarely has a chance to dine at the top table this is reason enough to celebrate its small victories."
As a fan, you follow your team in all weathers, through fortune and misfortune, and here lies the parallel with being in a team. The Atoms turned up to train in the pouring rain last night, we practise until the light gives out, and if it snows tonight, we'll be there.
So I get the power and the beauty in being a fan, but I'd never before experienced what an effect being in a sporting team would have on me as an individual, and on our team as a whole. As the Atoms face our final hurdle I've felt compelled to explain why this softball game has become so important to us, what it's taught me about the beauty of playing team sport, and why I'll be so sad when it's over. Here are the few things I've learnt over the past months:
It hurts. It's not a 'soft' ball at all. Over the past few weeks we've suffered two black eyes, a hip operation, split lip, smashed cheekbones, black and blue limbs and the world's most dramatic groin pull. We're well hard. Or just clumsy.
It's been emotional. There have been tears, arguments and sulking (and not all from the girls I might add). There have been 'mistakes' - one to-remain-anonymous team member realised that drinking seven beers during a game does not improve one's swing.
It's not you, it's me. Every single one of us has struggled with our own performance, with the frustration of not being able to hit home runs at will, with dropped catches and duff throws. And the thing we've come to realise? Anyone can have an off day, but the strength of the team has meant we get through it and move on. The team is greater than the sum of its parts. Always.
Oh captain, my captain. There are several talented players on the team, but in truth, we'd be nothing without our beloved skipper, Tom. Patient and encouraging always, he's coached and cajoled us to where we are today. Plus he flipping loves it - so we do too. We owe pretty much everything to him.
And tonight, as we face our final challenge, I am also leaving my place of work. And what I've learned this summer, is that no amount of corporate away-days, motivational speakers or enforced 'fun' (drinking) is a patch on a team sport. If you want a group of people to get on, stick them in a softball team and give them a great leader. So it may be the bottom division of a who-cares? league in a silly American sport, but tonight, our team will be fighting, one and all, for the most important prize of all - victory.
GO ATOMS!Suggest a correction