It might be just a game. A ball. A bat. A glove.
But for Drew Miller and others who grew up watching their parents round the bases every week, softball was tradition.
It was high-fives, dirt digs and cheers, the only place to be on Monday nights.
“When my brother and I were younger, we’d wait around until the end of the game so we could run the bases,” Miller remembered. “We got so excited just to run around those bases.”
Miller now plays alongside his father, Dave Miller of McHenry, a charter member of the McHenry Christian Fellowship Softball League. The league, which started with only 13 teams from McHenry area churches, is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year.
Now with 32 teams, its highest number yet, it has expanded with a new South Conference league based at Cary Lions Park. The original league plays at McHenry Township Park.
“The good Lord has really blessed us, and we’ve just really blossomed here and we’ve really expanded our reach,” said Doug Peterson, the league president for the past eight years and a player since 1993.
With about 500 players, the teams represent 25 different churches. Their religious beliefs might differ slightly, but denominations don’t really matter on the ball field. What does matter is a shared love of the game.
Pastors, parishioners, friends, husbands and wives, fathers and sons, generations of families and others come together to play. Yes, they want to win. But being together, friendly, neighborly and Christian is more important.
“We think the difference in our league is that we’re very purposeful in providing a family-friendly atmosphere for people to come out and watch the games,” Peterson said.
“We have a very high standard of behavior, a code of conduct that players have to sign off on every year,” he said. “We’re promoting fellowship and teamwork.”
Teams pray both before the game at home plate as well as after the game.
And they host an annual fundraiser for FISH of McHenry Food Pantry, a 9-inning, Good Guys vs. Good Guys game with raffles every third out.
The coaches from the church league will compete against players from the McHenry Police and Fire departments at 4 p.m. July 27 at McHenry Township Park. With donations, local celebrities can sign up to be a “Celebrity at Bat” and head to the plate once during the game.
Through the years, the league has welcomed all interested in playing, has had nonchurch-goers join up and find themselves swept up in the camaraderie.
“We’ve had people that weren’t necessarily involved in church and their lives were a little messed up, and they’ve gotten involved and have seen good things happen,” Peterson said.
Others join through their churches as something recreational to do.
What starts as a whim becomes a memory in the making.
Dave Miller has played since the league’s humble beginnings in 1978 and now plays first base for a team representing Anchor Baptist Church in Genoa City, Wis.
His son, a player for the past 12 years, is a pitcher.
“It’s just a fun thing to do,” Dave Miller said. “You’re out one night a week, and it’s not the big bar scene or whatever afterwards. ... And we’re pretty good. We’re not too bad this year.”
Drew Miller said it was inevitable he’d play, considering he started attending games while in a car seat.
“It’s been a Monday night thing for as long as I can remember,” he said.
Father and son have their quirks with one another and can be competitive, they say, but can’t imagine not meeting up on Monday nights.
Neither can the Talbots of Johnsburg. They make up nearly half of a team representing CrossPoint Church of Ingleside.
Nancy and Tom Talbot play along with their four grown boys, their youngest being 18 years old. The couple’s oldes son, Bryan, plays along with his wife, Amanda.
“They always tease us we can’t go on vacation,” Nancy Talbot said. “We have missed a game here and there, but never all of us.”
Nancy and Tom first began playing about seven years ago with two of their sons. When their other two sons became old enough – players must be 17 – they played, as well.
It was a refreshing transition from watching their sons play individually on teams growing up to playing together, Nancy Talbot said.
And because of the league, because of the game and the memories made, the family has remained close.
“It’s fantastic,” Nancy Talbot said. “You know every Monday night, you’re going to see them all.”