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Thursday, Nov. 15, 2001
Beth the eldest is off to California today. Flying 3000 miles. Orange County, LAX, swimmin' pools, movie stars.

All to play a half dozen games of softball.

Sometimes it's inconceivable to me how much money sports generates, in an age of multi-million dollar jocks and endorsements of footwear. Beth plays fastpitch softball, is pretty gifted at it, trains every day of the year at one place or another. The team that is flying to California is a tournament team, which mean a private, club-like affair that raises money by hosting and working a bingo session once a month. Big money in them bingo cards.

Someone once told me that a team like this, we're talking 14 girls here now, and 3 coaches, require an annual budget of $150,000.

Come to think of it, I've never seen very many scuffed or dirty softballs rolling about in the dugout for that group. Or any mis-matched uniforms, either.

Since the club has four ages groups, ranging from 12 to 19 years old, that's four distinct budgets. We're talking over half a million dollars per year for one group, playing softball. There are hundreds of teams just like this all over the country.

Pretty soon you realize that this is an industry, akin to most any other.

But my company never raised the funds to fly me to California. Even for a round of golf. I suppose if I actually played golf it might have made a difference.

What I do remember is this. A seven year old Beth and me, and a tennis ball, playing catch in the backyard on a summers evening. If you're a Dad, you probably already know the line of thinking that was running through my head.

"Okay, she's a girl, she's seven years old, but she wants to play catch with the old man. Cute. Better take it easy with her."

I lobbed an underhand throw to Beth, from about 20 feet away. She snagged it, gave me a peculiar look. Tossed the ball back, and retreated about 50 feet.

"Beth honey, where are you going?"

"Umm..., Dad? Could you like, throw the ball this time? I'm not little anymore."

I regarded my seven year old with a look then that I've reserved only for her, and have kept it polished and safe in my hip pocket for these past nine years, just in case I'll need it again.

So I rared back and threw the ball. At some seventy feet, it still wasn't all that hard a throw, velocity wise, but it got there. Pretty quickly.

Again, she one handed the catch without fumbling. Cocked her arm and threw it back. Flatlined. Hard. Right at my head.

I'm glad it was a tennis ball, because I didn't catch it. What I did see was how she had thrown it. She threw the ball like a boy. The full, and natural motion that a boy uses to pitch. None of the push style awkwardness that I, in my deluded thinking, believed was inherant to the female gender. I'm sure at that point I had my mouth opened far enough in wonder to have caught a tennis ball in that orifice anyway.

One thing led to another, and pretty soon Beth and I were playing quite a few games of catch in the backyard. With gloves and a softball. A pattern was established that continued for years, she and I. She had this habit, which still unnerves me, of never throwing a wild ball. You know, the one where your kid throws over your head or off to the side and you wind up chasing after it with a chirpy "Sooooorrryy....." from the tosser following your flight.

At eleven years old she was hurting my gloved hand from 100 feet away.

We tossed the ball for a while this spring, and at 17, she was murdering me from twice that distance. And we won't even talk about what she does with a bat. Mercy.

It stood to reason that I was not the only one to take notice of what she could do. She's been playing organized ball since she was 8. We were at a special, invitation only clinic once when she was 14, and I sat in the bleachers as Beth and two dozen others showed their stuff to 20 area high school and college coaches. A handful of adults happened to be sitting next to me. One of them was a college coach, very well known, picture in the paper sort of fellow, who watched as Beth pegged one in from deep center and one hopped the ball to the catcher, who never so much as took a step.

"My God, did you see the arm on that 14 year old?"

Since Beth was the youngest of the crowd, the only 14 year old, I had a pretty good idea who he was referring to. And an even better idea why.

She trotted off the field at the end of the session, having put on a show which left grown men groping for notebooks and straining to see the name and number on the back of her jersey. I walked her to the car, as it happened she was the only girl there who hadn't drove, because all the others were so much older.

"Daddy, how'd I do?"

She looked then as she does now, a sweet faced little lady with a blonde ponytail and red clay on the knees of her sweatpants. And I got that same heartswell as I always do, with her. My little Barry Bonds. A daughter from distant places. Whom I have trouble describing to just how damn good she really is.

"Sweetheart, you did just fine."

California is the place where the very best in the country play. I hope they're ready for Beth.

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