After a long hiatus, it's good to be back with friends

  • Daily Herald sports writer John Dietz (back row, third from left) with his Clarendon Hills Knights teammates after a game last week at Hosek Park. The "Mistfit Toys" of a team also features manager Craig Felde (front row, third from left), former Tracy's Tavern co-owner Hunt Tracy (front row, far right) and Ed Henning, a 1999 Hinsdale Central graduate and Ontwensia Club golf course equipment manager in Lake Forest (back row, third from right).

    Daily Herald sports writer John Dietz (back row, third from left) with his Clarendon Hills Knights teammates after a game last week at Hosek Park. The "Mistfit Toys" of a team also features manager Craig Felde (front row, third from left), former Tracy's Tavern co-owner Hunt Tracy (front row, far right) and Ed Henning, a 1999 Hinsdale Central graduate and Ontwensia Club golf course equipment manager in Lake Forest (back row, third from right). Courtesy of Kathleen O'Brien Dietz

 
 
Updated 6/13/2021 9:04 PM

The boys of summer are back.

No, not Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Jose Abreu and Tim Anderson.

 

I'm talking about my 16-inch softball boys. After a year away due to COVID, our Clarendon Hills league and dozens of others like it reconvened this year with a full slate of games.

It was great to see our eclectic group back together. You don't realize how much you miss something until it's yanked right out from underneath you.

The screaming singles. The towering bombs. The sensational catches. The gut-busting laughter after some good-natured ribbing. And so much more.

There are those who loathe 16-inch and can't fathom why anyone would try to catch or hit the cement-like orb. But to me it's the greatest recreational sport ever invented.

Sure, there's the 12-inch alternative in which you use a glove.

No thanks. Too wimpy.

I've been happy to suffer ankle sprains, a broken finger, a busted toenail, a pulled quad and a nasty concussion with this same Knights team every summer since 1989.

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So, man, did 2020 stink.

Now we've got the band back together. Our ragtag group is like the Island of Misfit Toys -- good, decent and average athletes who would otherwise never meet each other, let alone become good friends.

Our manager is 61-year-old Craig Felde, a preacher who does plenty of charity work but swears like a truck driver during games and loses a year off his life after every loss.

There's the handy, dandy Ed Henning, who is the golf course equipment manager at Onwentsia Club in Lake Forest. Henning hand lathed two wooden bats in the off-season, one of which I've gone 5-for-5 with in the first two games.

We've also got an electrician, a Wheaton firefighter, an owner of a painting company, a digital marketer, a health care sales rep, this 50-year-old sports writer and my 19-year-old son, who makes me yearn for the speed I used to have.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Our team sponsor was Tracy's Tavern in Clarendon Hills until it sadly closed on March 6, 2020. The iconic little bar opened in 1985 and was frequented by thousands of Hinsdale Central and Hinsdale South grads over the years.

Then there are the opponents, some of whom you curse but some of whom you respect, admire and even chat with after a hard-fought game.

When word circulated that Joe Punda, the 40-year-old pitcher on the Rovers, was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer earlier this year, many of us immediately reached out to lend support. Their team hosted a supportive get-together before he began chemo.

Punda, who has worked for the Illinois Tollway for 21 years, is hoping to play catcher for a few innings and possibly get an at-bat or two in this season -- something that will likely bring grown men to tears were it to happen.

A new generation is coming, too, as I found out after Thursday's game when a young man I coached in Little League came through the handshake line and said, "Good game, Mr. Dietz."

Time's going too fast, I tell ya.

So enjoy this season, everyone.

Enjoy it by running out every ground ball, hauling butt after every fly ball and keeping those fingers out of harms way. By not moaning to the umps or screaming at opponents. By hanging out a little longer after the last out is recorded. By cherishing your friendships.

Have a blast out there.

We're back. Finally.

Hopefully today and for always.

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