I was not an athletic child. I grew up in the 60s when clumsy children like me suffered greatly on the playgrounds. Choosing teams was the order of the day and there was no greater humiliation than being chosen last. Unfortunately, it was often my fate to be the last one chosen. On one particularly shameful day, neither team wanted me and argued over who would have to take me on and what handicap would be applied to the losing team. If I was lucky, my best friend Corinne would be chosen as one of the captains and would pick me early, out of a confusing mixture of love and pity.
My first experience with an organized softball team came at the age of twenty-five. The company I worked for started up a women’s softball team and I gathered up all my courage to join. After all, I was the manager of some of the players so they could not mock me—to my face anyway. My then-boyfriend took me to his parent’s garage where he rifled through a surprisingly large and dusty pile of sports paraphernalia to find a glove for me. We proceeded from the garage out to the back yard to hone my skills.
The day was warm and dry and my throat felt the same. He stood a distance away and threw the ball to me in what he considered a gentle lob meant to boost my confidence. What I saw was a dirty round missile being fired at my head intending to undo three years of expensive and painful orthodontics. I instinctively threw my hands up over my face while simultaneously closing my eyes so I would not have to see the blood and teeth spurting from my mouth. The ball sailed past my head landing harmlessly in the dirt behind me.
My boyfriend regarded me like I was an alien life form and asked with incredulity, “Why’d you close your eyes? You can’t catch it if you can’t see it!” Apparently having decided that this closed-eye-thing was a major factor affecting my athletic performance, my soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend proceeded to fire ball after ball at me while shouting, “Don’t close your eyes!” After about fifteen minutes of this, my heart was racing and my hands were sweating, when an upstairs window opened. My boyfriend’s brother stuck his head out of the window to inquire, “Who’s going to pay for the plastic surgery?”
Fast forward a dozen or so years and it’s no wonder that, when my own daughter announced her desire to sign up for softball, my reaction was less than exuberant. I actually felt a tightness in my chest and a large lump in my throat as I assured her that I would sign her up on Saturday. My husband was thrilled with the idea. He spouted on about the value of teamwork and the pride of sharing in your team’s victories. He did mention possible defeats but only as they related to one’s triumphant battle back from the brink. It’s not hard to tell that he was always one of the first picked on his playground.
I did not bring my child with me to signups. I needed to assess the situation. It was not too late to talk her out of it if I sensed impending humiliation. Sign up day was low key. The gentleman who provided my forms assured me that the girls’ softball association was all about learning and having fun—no pressure. I regarded him with suspicion. He looked naturally athletic to me and therefore, not trustworthy to evaluate what was fun and what was the cause of future psychiatric bills.
With the forms submitted, my husband and child set off on a daddy-daughter adventure to the local sports store and returned with an assortment of balls, bats, cleats, and a small black softball glove with a jaunty pink stripe. I liked the pink stripe.
Several backyard practice sessions ensued each followed by a secret and tense grilling session as I questioned my husband about our child’s chances of major injuries—physical and psychological. He was annoyingly optimistic.
As it turns out, softball has changed some since the days of my youth. First of all, my daughter’s coaches are women. They have children of their own and believe in positive reinforcement. So far, so good. The first few practices went well. I won’t say my child is a budding Manny Ramirez but there were other equally clueless kids on the field, a fact that mollified me.
Then came the last practice before the first game. At the end of practice, the coach lobbed pop flies into the infield for the girls to catch. Once a player caught the ball, she could sit down and her practice was over. I watched as child after child caught her pop-up fly and trotted off to relax on the grass. My child was the last one left. My heart was pounding as the patient coach tossed ball after ball into the sky. Each one fell with a thud into the dirt. I am sure the other parents were scornful, and perhaps a bit fearful, of the crazy women panting into a paper bag on the sidelines. I am equally certain that they were chosen a solid third or fourth in their neighborhood pickup games. Finally, after reducing my lifespan by about two to three years, my little girl caught the ball. Much to my surprise, her coach and assistant coach whooped and hollered their congratulations as if my child had performed a feat worthy of softball great Jenny Finch. I felt tears in my eyes—tears of gratitude. Clearly, these two women, who surely were first and second choices on their own softball fields, somehow understood. They got it.
I went to the opening game of the season only slightly apprehensive, paper bag discretely hidden in my coat pocket. The game progressed nicely with good sportsmanship on both sides of the field. My child’s first at-bat produced a well-hit foul, but no base hit.
On her second try, I observed anxiously from the sidelines. She looked the part in her team shirt and visor. She stood with her elbows up and her feet planted squarely at the plate, just as her Daddy taught her. The masking tape he had wrapped around the handle of the bat to show her where to place her hands was just visible at the base of her wrist. It struck me at that moment that baseball pants somehow emphasized how thin her legs are. I wondered vainly if they would have the same effect on me and if I could start a new fashion trend—not likely on either front.
The first pitch came in over the plate. She swung and missed. The second pitch produced the same result. On the third pitch, I watched in awe as my daughter swung the bat around, her slender frame mimicking the movement of the bat in a perfect arc. With a start, I realized, she hit the ball! I gasped in shock. The ball plopped onto the ground about two feet in front of her. For one long, awful moment she stared at it in wonder. Then the cries of her teammates penetrated her haze. “Run! Run! Run!” they shouted. And she did. She ran down the baseline to first base as the pitcher scrambled in the dirt by home plate. The pitcher grasped it confidently and threw it to the first base player just a hair too late. Safe! A small voice in the back of my head whispered that I was probably jumping and hollering with a bit too much exuberance for junior softball, but I didn’t care. My daughter had managed in that moment to achieve something her mother had never accomplished in her whole life. She had conquered the baseball field, for both of us.