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Monday, Mar. 03, 2003
2nd of two parts about a slice of life from not so long ago

Coach Jerry P and I had talked at some length before the season began, we rarely saw each other from July until February but when the very first hint of warmth began to hit the air in pre-spring, I was bound to get a call that started off with “You know, it’s not too early to start thinking about the team this year . . .” And there was never any question about what team he was talking about, there was only one team. THE team. The team called Marlins who went quietly into hibernation for the fall and winter and re-emerged on clay fields made wet by a March rain. We talked, and it was concise and to the point. We decided that this would be the year.

I don’t suppose it needed to be said, but we both knew that the next year would be the one where we started losing them. On a purely athletic level we would be losing them to school fastpitch teams who took a dim view of their charges being subject to anything as demeaning, in their eyes, as slowpitch softball. Or on a more practical level, the siren song of boyfriends would take their toll. They were already moving into Junior High and we were not foolish enough to think that games with bats and balls would be enough to retain the whole group for much longer. I think we even said as much to them. That this was the glory call, the season that could be. For all their giggling and smartassedness, it’s entirely possible that it sunk in. This was a team that tended to turn practices into all out laugh fests, but when the time came for a game, there was a seriousness that belied their 12 years and their waifish physique.

We started the actual season the first week in April, and it was cold and damp as April tends to be around these parts. But it could not possibly be as cold as the approach 12 girls were taking to this game. Jerry and I strolled out to the plate as the umpire conducted his usual small ceremony of introductions to our opponents, flipped his coin and we came up with the choice of being home or visitor. I suspect the opponent was a little surprised when Jerry called visitor, since this would put us at a technical disadvantage of having to allow the home team last at-bats. I wasn’t surprised at all. We wanted to bat, by all the saints. I was having a hard enough time trying to control the eagerness of the 12 girls of spring as it was.

I remember thinking, as I took the short walk over to my third base coaches box, that this might well be the last time for this. It might well be the last time I would have both daughters on the same team at the same time (as it turned out, it wasn’t), the last time this core group of girls had this chance (it was). I turned to Ally, perched high in the stands and shivering in the cool breeze and caught the two pieces of gum she always tossed me in the first inning. Adjusted the Marlins baseball-style cap, hiked up the black coaches shorts and kicked the dirt around in the box a bit. Rituals. Superstitions. Turned around in time for the first pitch.

It was Maggie who lead off the team, we had come to the not-so-hard to figure equation that her speed and dexterity with the bat made her the logical choice for a lead off batter. She came up to the plate and gave her cleats a whack with the bat, whirled it in a menacing way, scanned the outfield and dug in.

First pitch. I knew Maggie was going to hit it even before she did, if that’s possible. The zen between father and daughter might have had something to do with it, or maybe just the fact that I’d watched her do the same thing thousands of times. CRACK! went the bat and everything was motion. Maggie seemed to not even touch the ground, she just gave compact strides toward first and took a look at Jerry, who windmilled his arms to send her to second. The ball had gotten slightly behind the centerfielder and even a slight misstep for the defense, for Maggie, was a sure extra base. She pulled into second cleanly, watching me stand with both arms upraised to stop her.

The largely Marlins crowd stood and applauded, a few whoops mixed in for good measure. I clapped a bit myself and fixed Maggie with the evil eye, the one that said “Watch me, don’t jump too soon.” Our next batter watched a couple of pitches go past with a critical eye, then leaned into one and sent a towering fly ball to short left. Maggie held, eyes on me, as the left fielder adjusted, made a stab at it, and missed. I came alive with the go go go! thing and in less time than it takes to tell, Maggie was next to me on third and we had a runner on first. No outs.

Then came Beth.

It could probably be safely said that Beth was the heart of the team, its captain, its pitcher. She had no fear whatever, would taunt opposing defenses by getting way off base and daring them to try to throw her out, would occasionally play her own brand of defense by pitching the ball and literally darting backwards as the ball was on the way just to increase her field of coverage. I’ve yet to see anyone, adult or kid, who did this in quite the same way, it would devastate a good hitter who liked to go up the middle to have Beth snag an easy grounder by serving as an “extra” middle infielder.

But what she really saved her soul for was the hitting. With two runners on, Beth was a terror.

She is what is known as a very tough out. I don’t think I ever saw her strike out (a thing which would have burned itself in her memory as the most mortifying thing ever for slow pitch). She would draw a walk or a weird grounder but strike out? Unthinkable.

She kind of toyed with the pitcher for a few minutes, dug in and swung at the first toss. BOOM! The ball was high and long, and the outfield had still not adjusted to what was obviously a hitting team. I saw it over the head of the centerfielder immediately, and gave the typical ”move!” command to Maggie. She scored before the ball hit the ground. The runner from first dashed around and I had her on full motor all the way, even as Jerry pointed Beth toward second and the outfield became a mad confusion of girls running after a ball that was still heading away from them. By the time Beth got to third, it was plain there would be no play, and I slapped her hand on her way past me and her team lined up to do the same. After 6 pitches, it was 3 to 0.

I guess it would be dramatic to say that the other team came back and it was a see-saw battle to the end, but it was not to be. We scored about 12 runs on them in the first inning, and the game was essentially over right there. Jerry gave me a sheepish grin as we made our way to the dugout and said “Not too shabby for the first inning.” And so it went. Rachel the woman-child hit 3 home runs and a couple of triples, Beth had a second homer and every girl on the team was hitting the ball. The defense was sound and the other team was not doing well. It was one of those games where the score was soon forgotten, it was a whole helluva lot of runs for our team and not very many for the other.

The whole season went that way. There were times when I would get bored out on third, lazily pointing waves of runners in to score at a trot as ball after ball went flying out to the next softball field, as even our poor players found a stride and began to emulate some of the others. It was a fine thing, a machine of players who came to show just how good 12 year old girls can play.

I’d catch my gum at the start of the game and give Ally a wink, a smile, and basically stand back and watch. There wasn’t much of any coaching going on in those games, Jerry and I would talk tough about playing “our” brand of ball before the game but even the girls knew it was just so much rhetoric. Theirs was a contest above what Dads or Coaches could ever show them.

Theirs was a smiling purity at the love of attacking a ball with a bat, the clean zipping sound the ball can make when it flies off a bat and drones past your ear, hitting a newly mown grass outfield and sending a small spray of dew in its’ wake. It was the coming of the heat of summer, and shedding the sweatpants for black shorts, of filthy batting gloves identifiable only to the player using it. They drank water in long, sweaty pulls from plastic bottles, letting the half-empty ones roll under the bench onto dusty ground, where it dribbled and made small rivers to toe with your cleats. The concession stand was muted, half unheard above the crowd noise and chants of the players, breathing the aroma of hot dogs and mustard from a steam vent on the side.

It was the end of being a girl. The last free time before cutting classes or rides in cars became more important than wrapping a ball glove with a rubber band every night to get the shape you wanted. The last time they might actually look at a male coach without that smirk of teenager superiority, might listen to a curt command and just say “Okay.” Or get all the players to sign a ball, just to have something to have. Something for the top of the dresser in her room. Something for later, when sunlight and ponytails became dress shoes and leather jackets.

It’s hard to envision twilight as a thing for a 12 year old, but it was the twilight of their day. The season rolled to an end, and they actually lost one game in the middle of the season, but were the destroyers for all the rest. They were simply unstoppable. They accepted their championship trophy and threw me in the pool at the party afterwards and screeched and giggled. Giggled like mad.

There was not another season like that Oh, we played on a couple of years, but the predictable happened. Maggie took to playing without her sister as Beth went on to another glory of another kind in Junior High softball. There were enough of the core left over to form a very good team indeed, but the perfection was gone, the look of eagles was gone.

I look back on that now, sitting in the stands as some other coach (one eminently more qualified than I) stands at third and I wonder, who is suffering the most loss here? Is it me, and do I truly miss that spot out there with them, with girls on high school teams who I helped to coach when they were 7, or 12? Are the 12 girls downhearted about that one and only season? I can tell you that I still feel the swell, the adrenaline rush when Beth pounds a ball into the nether regions of a softball field, or when Maggie turns it on while running the bases and just finds one more gear. I jump up faster than anyone to yell when one of their teams wins, and am probably just as inconsolable as they are after a loss.

But my girls, or any one of the 10 that played with them will tell you. With a little prompting. They’ll tell you of the sweetness that being the best at something means, being a part of a group of kids that managed to taste that marvelous thing that we call talent. I doubt that the first thing they would say is “We had a lot of fun” when asked about that year. It might be the second thing. The first thing they’d probably say is “We kicked everybody’s ass!” accompanied by a crafty and very satisfied look. They might laugh at it, now that they are 18 and the whole thing is that far in the past for them. Might even blush a little at the memory if it were brought to light for them.

But they weren’t embarrassed then, and they shouldn’t be now. The girls of spring.

They absolutely did kick everybody’s ass.

I was pretty darned happy to share that with them.

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