The Bosnopians

“Remember that this clincher ball is hard as a rock and can do some serious damage to your body if you’re not paying attention when it comes your way,” I reminded my team as I made an attempt to give them a Knute Rockne-like pep talk as we stood on the beautifully manicured infield of Thillens Stadium before our big game was about to begin.
I had personally witnessed a lot of strange happenings in Thillens Stadium over the years having grown up in West Rogers Park as a kid. I watched a couple of surreal donkey baseball games there. I witnessed in awe how Eddie Feigner and his four man softball team known as “The King and His Court” could handily defeat a respectable team of ten players. But none of these was as strange as the event that was going to unfold before our very eyes this warm summer evening in July, 1996.
I took a visual survey of this hastily concocted team that I single-handedly recruited from the two refugee agencies in the building where I worked at 4750 North Sheridan Road, in the multi-cultural and ethnically diverse Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. Ten refugee men, four Ethiopians, four Bosnians, as well as a single Congolese and a lone Somali. None of them had ever played Chicago-style sixteen inch softball before and their acculturation to life in our city was about to advance to a completely new level.
At the time I was managing an employment program for the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago, and on occasion I assisted the agency next door, the recently established and understaffed Bosnian Refugee Center. Both agencies were housed on the second floor in this cavernous building, with long corridors, dim lighting and leaky plumbing that was located on the corner of Sheridan and Lawrence. The building was owned by a group of urban do-gooders who formed a non-profit organization known as the Institute for Cultural Affairs. They leased offices in the building to other non-profits dedicated to programs in the community that advanced the greater social good.
Two days before, on a hot summer Wednesday afternoon, Big Eddie, a tall and husky Chippewa who worked at the Native American Center on Wilson Avenue, on the western end of Uptown, came to my office, clearly agitated and frustrated. He set his huge body in a chair by my desk, and pleaded with me to do a big favor for him. You see, Big Eddie had booked Thillens Stadium and scheduled a fundraising softball game for the coming Friday night, two days away, with another Native American organization from Wisconsin. “Now they’re reneging on us, giving no rhyme or reason,” he explained angrily. “It was going to be a 50-50 split of the profits. I’m really pissed about it, but I have a plan that can save the day and I need your help big time.”
Our two agencies were both experiencing budget crises, due to huge caseloads and limited funding. The number of refugees from Ethiopia was leveling off, due to some stabilization in the nation after two brutal decades of oppressive government rule, civil war and external wars with neighboring Eritrea and Sudan. However, hundreds of new refugee families from the horrific civil wars in Somalia and Congo were arriving in Chicago and being served by the Ethiopian organization due to its expertise in resettling Africans in the city. Additionally, Bosnians had been fleeing the genocidal war in their country that had occurred from 1992-1995. Chicago had become the main destination among American cities for Bosnian refugee resettlement, and in 1994 the Bosnian Refugee Center came into being.
Big Eddie urged me to recruit ten able players from the pool of staff and clients at both agencies to field an opposing team to play against his Uptown Native Americans in Friday night’s game at Thillens. Fifty percent of the take would be shared by the two refugee agencies. Despite my better sense, I agreed to this preposterous proposition, warily shaking Big Eddie’s massive right hand to seal the deal.
There were a couple motivations going through my mind, besides the obvious financial one, as I shook Big Eddie’s hand. I thought, after all, baseball was our National Pastime, as American as motherhood and apple pie, and that my guys’ Americanization would be greatly enhanced by the experience of playing the game. Also, Thillens Stadium was the place where I experienced glory as a thirteen year old, when I smashed a double down the right field line for the game winning hit in a local softball league championship game. I was hoping that perhaps several players from my team could experience their own moments of glory as well.
Within three hours, after an amazing amount of pleading and imploring both clients and staff, I finally assembled my squad of softball players. Although many expressed serious concerns about the unfamiliarity of the sport and lack of athletic skill, I appealed to them about the importance of teamwork and volunteerism in the fabric of American life, and that the extra funds we raised by playing the game would allow us to expand our programming for children at both agencies. I encouraged them to invite their families to bring food and have a picnic at the stadium after we finished playing.
Given the short-time frame before the game, I called for a practice that night at Margate Park on Clarendon near the Lake. When my team arrived at the park, I explained to them that the purpose of the game that they were about to learn, was, according to the baseball legend Wee Willie Keeler, to “hit em where they ain’t.” I knew I was in deep trouble when Jacques the Congolese, immediately pointed out to me that his ESL teacher told him never to use the word ain’t in a sentence and so I might want to rephrase what I had just said.
Now for the Native Americans, some who grew up in the city and some on reservations, baseball was a sport that they knew well. Their families had been playing the game and enjoying it for generations. But to refugees from Africa and Europe, sixteen-inch softball, a variation of baseball found only in the Chicago area, it was a game of incomprehensible rules, sometimes defying logic.
There were some items called bases, three of them, square cushions strategically placed on dirt, shaped like a diamond called an infield. The goal of the game was to move players on your team, called runners, around these three bases on the diamond so they could eventually cross an object called the plate, which resulted in your team achieving a run. The team that scored the most runs won the game.
The plate was the place where the action began. On each side, of the plate were batter’s boxes where the hitters stood to swing at the ball and put it into play between the lines demarking the infield and the outfield. The hitter swung a two- pound contoured piece of wood called a bat to make contact with the ball.
I needed leadership on my ragtag team of refugees, and it came from Murad, one of the counselors at the Bosnian agency. Murad, an established and respected physician in Sarajevo, had lost his right leg below the knee in an explosion. He now had a prosthetic, but still he walked with a noticeable limp. Here in Chicago, Murad was feverishly studying for the exams that would qualify him to practice medicine in the States. Meanwhile to make ends meet, he was working as an employment counselor.
Murad had been in Chicago a year and watched baseball games on TV. He knew how important a pitcher was on the team, and he volunteered to be our hurler. I explained to him that in sixteen- inch softball, the pitcher lobs the ball slowly to the awaiting hitter in the batter’s box in an arc-like trajectory, unlike the overhead windups and speedy deliveries that he saw major league pitchers use.
Murad took to the game like a duck to water. Despite his disability, he hobbled speedily off the mound to catch up to infield taps and threw the ball to the man covering the base with intensity and accuracy. I wish I could say the same for the rest of my crew. Most of them couldn’t make a level swing at the ball. Grounders went through their legs; fly balls landed over their heads.
On Friday night at Thillens Stadium, our team, which I dubbed the Bosnopians, showed up with family and friends from their communities who came to cheer them on. Many of them were carrying baskets of food for the picnic after the game. That picnic came sooner than many had thought.
Before the game, Big Eddie and I agreed to adhere to a slaughter rule. The game would be over when a team first scores fifteen runs. In the first inning, the Bosnopians went three up and three down. The Native Americans pounded out ten runs in their half of the first. Murad slapped the ball into the outfield leading off our second inning, barely, but determinedly, making it to first base for a single. Unfortunately three consecutive outs ensued, and Murad’s was to be the Bosnopians’ only hit, as Big Eddie’s crew scored five runs instantaneously in their half of the second inning.
The umpires then mercifully ended the game. The Native Americans and the Bosnopians proceeded to give each other hi-fis and hugs. Then, all of us from both teams joined together in the stands, where the baskets were being opened and the smell of injera and shashlik wafted in the stadium air.

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