Gentlemen don’t play baseball with gloves. And they certainly don’t curse, kick dirt or tell fans to “shut ur mouths.” But should a gentleman on the field get out of line, the only way to remove him is by tugging on his earlobe.
These are the rules of base ball, and to see this particular brand of our national game, all you have to do is set up a picnic in the outfield.
“We re-enact the game as it might have been played in 1858 in the Midwest, which is different from the East Coast,” said Gary “The Professor” Schiappacasse, the manager and coach of the Chicago Salmon, our local club in the Vintage Base Ball Association. “We don’t play with mitts because they hadn’t been invented in the mid-1800s, and it’s pretty entertaining to see a guy catch bare-handed a ball that’s been hit pretty hard.”
The VBBA includes 250-275 teams nationwide, all of which play by traditional rules established in the 1850s: the baseman plays a step off the base, the behind plays a couple steps behind home plate to catch the ball on the bounce, and a ball is determined an out if caught on the first bounce or the fly. And those balls don’t fly as easily as modern baseballs. In Vintage they are known as onions, and feature a lemon-peel design with a rubber core. The sport also has its own vernacular:
The Boss Lady embraces the part.The Salmon have fielded onions since 1996, when Ellie “Boss Lady” Carlson founded the team. As centerfielder and hurler Bob “Zeus” Rzeszutko tells it, she started recruiting league players. “Boss Lady came to a Mount Prospect Baseball Association meeting, dressed in full costume,” he said.
“We call it athletic theater,” she said. “It’s sports, but it’s also entertainment.”
Dedication to the game
Zeus and Boss Lady are the last of the original Salmon to remain on today’s team, which draws its ballists from all over Illinois, including Vernon Hills, Lake Forest, Crete and Springfield. And with no home field, the Salmon barnstorm around the region, playing only six local games at the North Avenue Beach fields.
“We love talking to the cranks as they walk onto the North Avenue Beach area, and give them a taste of the game,” said the Professor.
“Last season I traveled 3,888 miles to 28 venues for 46 games total—ranging from Indianapolis and Grand Rapids to Rockford and Springfield,” umpire (also known as a barrister) Ray “Never Wrong” Grish said.
These ballists really do it all for their cranks, who can quickly become involved with the game. They aren’t simply fans—the fate of the game often rests in their laps.
According to the rules, as recited by Never Wrong, if a ball lands on a woman’s skirt, she determines whether it’s an out. Should she decide to throw it to the pitcher, the pitcher would have to catch the ball on the first bounce, striking the batter out. However, if the crank bounces the ball before throwing it back to the pitcher, the batter may advance to first base.
“One of the attractions to our team is that we are family-centered, so if there are family members that are watching and we need another player, [a player's] daughter is certainly welcome to play,” the Professor said. “That, of course, is breaking the rules of 1858 because women were not allowed on the field.”
Though both genders are now welcome on the field, the barrister will fine the team 25 cents, which was a day’s wages in the 1850s, for clothing violations. In the 19th century, men had to have shirts that covered their elbows, and women had to be in ankle-length dresses if outside the home. The barrister will fine the team a quarter if cranks playing on the field are wearing shorts.
In terms of field dimensions, the bases are 90 feet apart, the hurler pitches 42 feet to the dish, and the lines are infinite since there were no grandstands or fences in the 19th century. The entire field would have been in play, even if there were buildings, farm fencing, or any other obstruction in the outfield. This only adds to the drama and excitement of the modern recreations, Never Wrong said.
“If the cranks are 200 feet away from the base, the ballist has to back them up or play into the people,” he said. “We play all the time with people who are picnicking in left field.”
The short outfield, though, doesn’t make home runs any easier, thanks to the lemon-shaped ball.
“What keeps us from being really competitive is that we don’t have the ability to hit the long ball,” said Paul “Scooter” Zeledon, the hurler and second baseman.
“Being good and being successful in Vintage Base Ball are two different things. If you kill a ball to the outfield and someone catches it after the first bounce, it’s still an out—where’s the justice in that?”
The Salmon hit the road for their first game on May 18 at the Indianapolis Circle City Festival. Their home opener will take place the following day, May 19, at 1pm in Lincoln Park against Michigan’s Benton Harbor House of David.
“Our games are just like the modern Civil War recreations,” Never Wrong said. “Except when we take the field we don’t know who’s going to win in the end.”
On maybe the only warm day in April, a group of Northwestern athletic assistants parade a pair of oversized cardboard heads through the stands of Sharon Drysdale Field. A young girl in the crowd steps forward. She must choose: Which is Kate and which is Caryl?
“Caryl!” the girl shouts.
A loud “Yes!” booms over the loudspeakers. The crowd applauds as the young fan receives a goodie-bag for answering correctly. Despite the wild cheers coming from the stands, there seemed to be little, if any suspense beforehand; the Northwestern faithful know how to distinguish between Kate and Caryl Drohan by now. There’s little reason to believe this mid-inning act of crowd-pleasing is anything less than a subtle homage to Northwestern’s favorite twins, a dynamic pair of softball coaches whose faces have represented more than their Big Ten success over the last decade.
Like the cardboard cutouts, Kate and Caryl’s larger-than-life personas are as figurative as they are literal. Dynamic on the field, the two have done even more off of it. In 2004, John Drohan needed a kidney. His daughters—both organ matches—eagerly wanted to donate. Neither would relent to the other. Finally, a friend flipped a coin and Kate ultimately got the call. It was a trying time for the Drohan family, which also includes Kate and Caryl’s two older brothers. In the end, John was able to live a while longer thanks to Kate, giving him a chance to watch his daughters do what they do best.
And that’s win softball games.
Born to play
Born and raised in Connecticut, the Drohan sisters played together at Providence College on Rhode Island. As walk-ons, they helped lead the Lady Friars to an ECAC championship and a Big East title in 1994, followed by another ECAC championship in 1995. It was only after college that Kate and Caryl spent an extended period of time away from one another. Five years to be exact. Kate took an assistant coaching job at Boston College for two years, before landing at Northwestern softball as an assistant under former NU coach Sharon Drysdale. Caryl, at the time, coached at Providence before taking another coaching gig at Hofstra University on Long Island.
“It was good from a professional perspective,” Kate says later. “It allowed us to develop some different strengths and skill sets relative to the game, and work with some different people. But we talked every day.”
In 2002, When Kate was just 26, Drysdale retired and Kate became Northwestern’s head coach. It was “a huge risk” for Northwestern, she says, but a risk that athletic director Rick Taylor was willing to take. It paid dividends in the long run, but not without a minor bump in the road.
“The first thing I did when I got the head coaching job was ask Rick what the policy was on nepotism,” Kate recalls. “I wanted to hire Caryl as quickly as possible.”
What was Taylor’s initial advice?
“He said, ‘Don’t do it.’” There had been issues in the past with family members working together. It was an issue for about “half a second” before Taylor gave his blessing. Caryl came onboard as assistant coach, spurning top jobs from the likes of the ACC, SEC and the Big Ten according to Kate. She’s now the associate head coach. Even today, Caryl continues to spurn offers, saying she “doesn’t want to be anywhere else.” The opportunity to coach with Kate was an ideal situation she couldn’t pass up.
Years of success
Now in their twelfth season together, the Drohan sisters have racked up a .656 winning percentage, two Big Ten titles in 2006 and 2008, and back-to-back semifinal appearances in the Women’s College World Series in 2006 and 2007. In 2006, the NU coaching staff earned the NFCA/Speedline National Coaching Staff of the Year award, among other honors. This year’s squad is 30-21 and poised for a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament that begins on May 9.
“If you look at programs that have had success,” Caryl mentions, “they’ve had consistent staffs. And then you have the trust and confidence in each other. To have unconditional loyalty, you get to think about the things you really want to think about as a coach.”
As Kate and Caryl add to Northwestern’s winning legacy, they’ve quietly forged a path as one the country’s best coaching tandems. Being twins adds to the novelty, but to Kate and Caryl, it’s not necessarily relevant to their story. They’ve never known anything different. What they do emphasize, with players and coaches, is the family dynamic. No one need look any further than the experience Kate and Caryl had with their father.
“To have someone who I trust so implicitly, that builds a foundation of trust within the staff, within the players,” Kate says. “When we talk about how our program is a family, we really mean it.”
Strengthened by their differences
As it happens, the Drohans aren’t the only twins coaching in Big Ten country. One other team boasts twin coaches: Iowa wrestling’s Tom and Terry Brands. But while Tom and Terry are known for having similar personalities and being notoriously competitive growing up, to the point of fiery combativeness, Kate and Caryl are naturally Zen, finding strength as opposites. Where Kate tends to be all business, Caryl likes to crack jokes. Their individuality has proven a successful point of balance in their professional lives.
On the field, it’s hard to tell them apart. There are slight, subtle differences. For example, Kate’s facial features are a smidge sharper. Caryl’s skin, by contrast, is a shade darker. Kate likes to crouch on the dugout steps when the team is at bat, where as Caryl paces the outside dirt at the edge of the dugout railing.
“They’re very different,” says senior outfielder Kristin Scharkey. “They can be similar in a lot of ways, but they’re very, very different. I think Kate is a bit more serious. She’s the leader of our team. Caryl, I would say, is a little bit more fun, a little goofy. It’s funny, I play with them everyday and it’s hard to put it into words.”
Like many Drohan recruits, Scharkey was sold on Kate and Caryl’s family-first philosophy, something Scharkey says was different than other schools she visited.
“I came here and I felt like there was a family atmosphere. I felt like between the girls and the coaching staff—especially with Kate and Caryl—that Northwestern softball was a family, and that was what they were about. I didn’t feel like I got that strong of a vibe anywhere else.”
Perhaps to distinguish themselves during games, Kate wears a white NU cap and Caryl wears a purple NU cap. Senior Meghan Lamberth says later, though, that wearing different colored caps isn’t intentional. Kate’s white hat is precious. So precious, in fact, she once forgot it during a road trip and had someone Fed Ex it overnight before the team’s next series. All-business Kate also won’t trot out the opening lineup until the other coach has arrived at home plate before her.
Speaking of Kate, Lamberth says: “She, for sure, keeps us on task.”
This is where Caryl’s personality comes in:
“We call her Carly sometimes instead of Caryl, and that’s kind of when she’s joking around and in a good mood,” Lamberth says of the nickname, a consequence of an away-game announcer who mispronounced Caryl’s name during pre-game intros.
For seniors like Lamberth and Scharkey, the final act of their college softball careers is bittersweet. They’ll be leaving the field at some point, but, thanks to Kate and Caryl, they’ll always be part of the family.
“Kate and Caryl have turned into my second set of parents,” Lamberth says. “My relationship with them is never going to stop. It may be different once I graduate, but I’ll definitely be in contact with them for the rest of my life.”
The Wildcats are seeded fifth in the Big Ten tournament, and will play their first game against Indiana on May 9 at 11am.