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Monday, Mar. 03, 2003
A two part story about a little slice of life from not so long ago

It was the usual notice, put in the usual place on the sign outside the local library. The sign they use to alert the parents of children who find some sort of joy in the use of a bat to swat at an oversized ball.

KRA Softball Signups End Feb. 28

Used to be I wouldn’t give the sign a second thought, I knew when signups would be over because more often than not I was one of the coaches who was patiently awaiting the list of girls who were new to the Recreation Association, the ones who hadn’t played the year before, the ones who would be assigned to the dozen teams in the Rec League.

It was Jerry P who started one of those teams back when his daughter was 7, and it was Jerry P who managed to continue acting as a coach throughout the years. I first bumped into him as a parent watching my own 7 year old play softball for him. He was shorthanded, and anyone who has ever had 14 girls herded onto one softball field knows the meaning of the term enthusiastic confusion. So I hopped the fence and just sort of wandered over to third base to act as a coach, since he had his hands full with a scorebook and he had elected to try to coach the whole show from first base when the girls were at bat.

It must have been one of the first games of the year, because Jerry P still didn’t have the names of the girls down pat. Beth was playing in the outfield and when Jerry hollered for the outfield to move back a little he did so by calling them by number rather than name. “Hey number 12! Take three giant steps back!”

So I wandered again, this time into the holy dugout area where parents weren’t supposed to go. Jerry was busy scribbling in the scorebook and picking up bats and trying to open a bag of sunflower seeds, and if he hadn’t been trying to do all three at the same time he might have actually gotten one of them done.

“Hey Coach P, that number 12 girl? Her name is Beth,” from me. He looked up with that dazed expression that I’ve seen on any number of parents, the one you get when the birthday party gets out of control or the phone rings at the precise instant that the baby starts screaming for the rattle that just tumbled out of reach.

“Oh, Jeez I’m sorry. That your daughter? Bit of a mess going on here I guess. I’m Jerry,” and he stuck out his hand with a grin and I guess that was the start of it, although neither of us knew it at the time. “Hey, thanks for helping out at third base, I really needed a hand over there. You uh . . .know what to do, right?”

And I suppose I lied a little bit, I knew enough baseball / softball strategy to make them stop at third when the ball was getting close and to wave them home when it was a sure thing that they would score. That’s all there really was to it, right? “Sure, sure I know. Let’s get ‘em to score some runs, eh?”

Turns out that neither of us knew what we were supposed to know. The opposing team was a well oiled machine, three coaches, coordinated uniforms, a real bat rack and somebody keeping score up in the stands and calling out vital statistics on our teams batters as they came up to the plate. This from a Rec League of 7 year old girls, I kid you not.

Inevitably, they kicked our ass. I mean the score was 30 to 3 or something like that. I think Beth and his daughter accounted for all 3 of our runs, they being the only two who had any previous experience with organized softball, and by all appearances, the only two who had ever held a bat in their hands before. This was the age group where a 7 year olds all-star status in girls softball could be confirmed by merely demonstrating that she could throw the ball from third base to first. Believe me, there weren’t many who could.

The whole act of batting was a thing of beauty as well. The wise coach would have his girl get the bat out there and just let the ball hit it, whereupon the ball would plop in the dirt about 5 feet in front of home and a small riot would ensue. The batter would drop the bat and start running for first in a cacophony of screams from the Moms in the Stands. The first base coach, using a curious series of gestures that suggested roping and hauling in a wild mustang, would by sheer force of will guide her to his station. The catcher, a girl of perhaps 4 feet in height and burdened with approximately 50 additional pounds of protective equipment and nearly blinded by the mask draped over her face, would make a diving stab at the ball, miss, and wind up holding it in her hand as the batter reached first. Occasionally the batted ball would dribble far enough for the pitcher to make a play at it. The pitcher generally being the best player on the team, who could be counted on to at least pick the ball up (sudden inhale of breath from the Moms in Stands), pivot slowly toward first and throw the ball (clasping of hands by the Moms in Stands) and have the first base player actually hold the ball for a two count (wild joy and raucous applause).

When you’re 7 years old, you’re playing for fun. At least that’s what the adults kept reminding them. The girls themselves, they were playing to win. It was a curious thing, that balance you had to keep as a coach. You had to constantly remind them (and yourself) that this was a fun thing, “Let’s go have some fun” we’d say as the rumpled crew of blond and brunette moppets went out on the field with a rousing group cheer. “We had fun,” in the aftermath of a defeat as they sat dejected, mollified only by the soda from one of the Moms coolers and a mini-bag of Doritos for a snack. You had to balance that with showing them some tricks, some skills. Some things that would actually give them a chance at not only having fun but actually doing well.

You can carry the fun argument but so far, and a few of the parents could be heard mildly objecting as the season went on. Those first cautious whispers from the stands. “You know, we might have actually won that game if they’d held ‘em to 10 runs in the fourth inning”, or “Oh no, she overthrew the girl at second.” That sort of stuff. When you’re coaching, even a team of 7 year olds takes on a pride of ownership. You see other teams come on the field and the first thing you look for is skill position players, how well disciplined their warm-up routine is, what sort of color coordination is going on with the uniforms. Is the other third base coach a Dad who just got off work and still wearing his tasseled loafers and button down shirt? Or is he clad in black coaching shorts and a matching team shirt? Just how serious is this team? Do we have a chance?

All through the season of the 7 year olds our balance was tipped strongly in favor of the fun factor since we weren’t truly serious about it. I mean, we couldn’t be. We had no idea. But we were learning.

We kept right on learning as the girls turned 8, then 9. Every spring the same ritual started all over again, with many of the same girls coming back to the same team. Jerry P and I would get out of our cars at some muddy and cold field, put on cleats, and await the arrival of the ever more tall and less awkward girls of spring. The same scenario in a different year. Beth and Jerry’s daughter would throw the ball back and forth and he and I would stand back and try not to embarrass them by watching too closely, but you know we were. “Hey, Beth’s arm is getting really strong, didja see her wing it in from the outfield just now? Holy cow!” And every few minutes another car would pull up and a pony-tailed lass would issue forth, trailing a Mom with a permission slip in hand. Favorite bats were leaned against a backstop fence, softballs would tumble from a bucket, sweatshirts would be donned and we were off to the races. For another year, the girls would get the bug. Another spring of that first few cold weeks of practice, another first game. Gloves would change, arms and legs would change, the girls were getting smooth and confident. Slow pitch softball was gaining a few artists.

A core group had emerged by the time they reached 12 years old. Other than Beth and Jerry’s daughter, a few faces seemed to come back every year. Amanda was tall even by adults standards, towering over even some of the Moms by the time she hit 12. The Twins, so alike in every way until they came to bat, where Sherry would hit savagely and for distance and Shannon would lay back and spray grounders to every corner. Meghan, the stocky one who begged to play catcher and could slam the ball at any given moment. We had a third base girl, who took particular delight in “pulling” toward left field (and dangerously close to my head as I lounged at my third base coach box) whenever she came up to bat. We had girls who could throw. Hard. Girls who knew how to win, and came to games with serious faces and scuffed batbags.

We had Maggie, my middlest girl. Maggie who had been playing sporadically for other teams in other age groups for a few years. Maggie who came up to bat in the first practice and promptly blasted a line drive over second base. Then she did it again. And I watched with drool hanging lazily from my open mouth as my middlest daughter all of a sudden showed that she wasn’t the only one of the Outfoxed girls who knew what to do with a bat. And capped it by running to first. Or rather flying, because she ran like a deer on a sunny day, running so fast that she got to first safely a split second before her sister could throw her out. And in those days nobody, nobody beat out Beth on a throw to first. They still don’t. But Maggie did.

Then there was Rachel, a woman who just happened to be 12, a study in fluid motion, a girl new to the team. We liked her before she even picked up a ball at that first practice because for crying out loud the girl was big! Not big in weight, she was just . . well, she was a woman fully grown, she had biceps that rivaled my own, she walked with that grace that usually only comes at 18 or so. Every little nuance in her movements was athletic and controlled and suggestive of power. Lord, the first swing of her bat. A crack of ball on metal not heard outside of adult leagues and the ball sailing, with topspin, to some distant point of the outfield. I had to restrain myself from literally hopping up and down with glee.

Jerry and I were taking all this in from our studied and feet shuffling vantage point behind the backstop. I guess we could’ve taken notes, or jotted down names and stats like some of our contemporaries, we could’ve shown a slobbering ecstasy over the amount of pure talent on our hands. We didn’t and there was no need. We knew.

We’d spent 5 years together coaching, Jerry and I. We’d stood on innumerable ball fields in the heat and cold alike, Jerry at first and I at third, it was a comfortable sameness year after year. We’d developed little rituals and routines, little movements of head and hands to get girls of spring from first to home in a manner that was efficient and fast and overwhelming to our opponent of the day. We had power at the top of the order, we had speed. We had a solid defense, girls who knew from long hours of drill exactly what to do and where to go in any situation.

Think that 12 year old girls don’t know how to play, or play a brand of softball inferior to adults? You haven’t seen 12 year old girls play lately. It was intense, it was downright combative, there were moments of magic on those fields when Beth would spear a ball hit hard to her right, catch it on the fly while doing a full fledged dive, roll over and fire a rocket to first to make a double play. Or Maggie, all 85 pounds of her, hitting the ball at the precise sweet moment and in exactly the right way, driving the ball past a surprised outfielder who had crept up too close to the edge of the infield, not expecting power from someone who looked like she could barely get the bat up to a thin shoulder. Or Meghan the catcher, whipping off her mask and catching a pop fly in foul territory on a dead run.

Jerry and I saw all this at that first practice and saw that it was good, that it was fun. That it was fun to know that winning was going to be just as much fun as losing. We knew.

The girls of spring. There was beauty in sweatpants and muddy cleats, there was just of hint of a March warmth on an otherwise cold afternoon, on a ball field that could be anywhere. There was a look of brightness in their eyes, a fierce yearning to start something right now, to bring in an opponent and put them out there on the field. There was no thought of boys or cars or daring dresses, there would be time for that later. At 12, they had a ball and a glove and laughter, and it would have to do. Fittingly, it seemed to be enough.

continued next time

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