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Sticks and stones will break your bones, and so will 16-inch softball

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"We don't stop playing because we grow old," George Bernard Shaw maintained, "we grow old because we stop playing."

That may have been Mr. Shaw's experience, but I'd like to see the research. I've been conducting my own personal study this summer, and so far the results contradict the eminent playwright's findings.

But my problem may simply be the sport I've been playing, which is our city's macho pride and masochistic joy—16-inch softball.

Softball is a game of inches, and in Chicago I think there are four too many. Elsewhere, the game is played with the reasonably sized 12-inch ball and well-padded fielding mitts. Sixteen-inch is a terrific game for the entire body excepting the ligaments, tendons, and bones. Most men who grew up in Chicago become entangled when shaking hands because of their creatively contorted digits. The reason palms are greased here is because the fingers have trouble grasping envelopes.

Sixteen-inch softball originated in Chicago in the late 1800s and is still confined mainly to this area. How did Chicago end up zoning out gloves and requiring the use of a hazardously oversize ball?

The myth here is that the game was adopted because the larger ball didn't travel as far, which made 16-inch more suitable for Chicago's small playgrounds, and because gloves were a luxury Chicagoans couldn't afford. This explanation is dubious on its face: Chicago has always had a fair number of spacious parks and suffered no greater poverty when the game was instituted than many cities.

The actual story, unearthed by the Reader through an exhaustive investigation, concerns a plot that was executed decades ago by corrupt aldermen, park district officials, and lobbyists for a local orthopedic association. Sixteen-inch was established as Chicago's official sport, the orthopedists began cashing in hand over fist from the players descending on their offices in need of splinting and casting, and the docs kicked back some of their profits to the aldermen and park officials.

My recent personal troubles with the game began earlier this summer when the Reader decided to enter a 16-inch league with other media teams.

I can't really blame my initial injury on the nature of 16-inch; it was more the fault of my weekend-warrior condition (rigid). Late in our opening game, I smashed a roller to second, and thought I might leg it out. A few steps short of first, something popped painfully in my thigh. I made it to the bag, though not safely in either sense, and collapsed in a dramatic heap. Three dedicated Reader interns helped me hobble off the field and encircled me protectively while the game continued.

After the game, a player on the other team approached me and presented herself as a knowledgeable athletic trainer. She surveyed my thigh, touched it lightly, and informed me regretfully that I'd no doubt torn my quadriceps, an injury that would require an especially difficult surgery. A teammate drove me to an ER, where I learned to be more skeptical of knowledgeable athletic trainers. The quad was pulled, not torn. I was delighted by the news, if not the $125 co-pay. I chalked that up as the price for middle-aged sports participation; I think it was Governor Blagojevich who said that as we age, we must co-pay to play.

I recovered swiftly and made it through the next game without a single hospitalization. But then—game three.

The injury to my pinkie occurred when I snagged a screaming liner. Or that's what I wish I could say. In truth, it happened when a ball lobbed in from the outfield to me in the infield struck my fingertip at an unhealthy angle.

A day later, my pinkie now purply and fat, off I went to another hospital, this time for X-rays. The radiologist's report said I had a "comminuted" fracture, meaning the bones in the finger were splintered or crushed. I usually prefer shaken or stirred.

My doctor later pointed out the fractures to me on the X-ray: "It's cracked here, here, here, here, here. Look at how your joint is squashed." The good news, he said, was that the finger I'd broken was my least important, the pinkie on my left hand. "You could chop that off and not miss it much," he reassured me.

I have since seen an orthopedist, who said the break was not quite so bad that surgery was needed. He chafed when I told him my doctor's low opinion of pinkies. "Pinkies are people too," he said.

The finger splinted, I await the latest co-pay news. Despite my experience this summer, I do agree with the sentiment George Bernard Shaw voiced, though I suspect it might have differed had he ever played 16-inch. I've learned my lesson and plan to take up a safer activity, maybe rugby. —Steve Bogira

E-mail Steve Bogira at sbogira@ chicagoreader.com.

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