Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Fastpitch


“Run! Goddammit. She has to run in that situation. What the hell are these coaches teaching them?”

A woman shouted these words from the bleachers of the Benecia youth sports complex. It was 9:00 a.m. My daughter’s eight-and-under fastpitch softball team, the Tremors, was playing the Vallejo Hurricanes in the first game of “pool play.” It was already 92 degrees outside.

I’ve heard it said that being a parent brings out the best angels and worst devils of our nature. If this is true, then watching your child compete in a sporting event places those angels and devils under a neutron microscope. One moment you are blithely clapping for your child as she runs the bases in the wrong direction. The next moment you are angrily defending yourself to child protective services. 

There were 16 teams at the Benecia tournament, the first of the summer. The Tremors, like all the teams, played three games on Saturday to create the seeding for Sunday’s medal round. After a lackluster Saturday showing, our girls went on an improbable four-game winning streak to make the championship game in which they were thoroughly trounced by a group of eight-year-old girls who looked like they’d been created in a Soviet laboratory. There were tears. There was heat exhaustion. One girl threw up. Twice.

After a summer of 8-and-under girl’s softball tournaments, I have reached the conclusion that we need a special Amber Alert reserved for the unique brand of parenting on display at youth sporting events.

“For Chrissake, Mackenzie, you have to swing the bat. There are two friggen strikes! How do you stand there and watch strike three?” a father shouts through a chain link fence.

“(Holding back tears.)”

“Now drink some water and get out there.”

“I’m not thirsty.”

“It’s a hundred degrees out there. You gotta hydrate!”

“Can I have Gatorade?”

“No. It’s full of sugar. Now drink some water and get out there with your team.”

(Drinks water and starts walking to right field.)

“Left field, dammit! Left field!”

(Wandering dizzily in the direction of left field.)

“Hustle!”

I imagine the flashing freeway signs. Deranged man seen shouting at eight-year-old girl to get her butt down on grounders. Girl last seen wearing a sleeveless jersey and over-the-calf socks with bumblebees on them. Man wearing a Cutter & Buck golf shirt with Oracle logo. If seen, do not approach. He may be an asshole.

Did I mention this was the best summer of my daughter’s life?

By and large, girls who play competitive softball are not like other girls. My daughter is no exception. Though there is not a “type” and their personalities are far from uniform or universal, there are certain traits among softball girls that seem to come up again and again. They are largely uninterested in traditional little girl things. The eschew dolls and princess dresses. Wearing a ponytail constitutes “doing something with your hair.” They generally prefer eye black to make-up.  And they like to win. Which is not to say that these girls are tomboys; a thickly veiled descriptor from my childhood that now sounds as outmoded as “confirmed bachelor” or “crippled.” Softball girls giggle and skip. They talk about Disney channel shows and what color they wish their hair was. They do not pretend their bats are guns or swords. They worry about how their uniforms look. They also worry about how their clothes look. They like sports, but not to the exclusion of other interests, which include fashion, bad pop music, looking pretty, and, at higher levels, boys.

But the one thing all the Tremors seem to like is softball, which, to a randomly assembled and geographically diverse group of preteen girls, each of whom, presumably, feels ever so slightly out of place at her elementary school, is an absolute revelation.

These are the girls who play sports with the boys at school. Not because they want to be boys, but because they want to play sports. And Title IX notwithstanding, this choice seems only to guarantee that they will not be fully accepted into any social group. This is elementary school, after all. Eight-year-old girls can chase boys on the playground and still be considered “one of the girls.” But playing side-by-side with the boys has an alienating effect. By unwritten rule, they are never fully accepted as “one of the guys,” yet they their public declaration of interest in basketball, kickball, capture the flag, and soccer cleats places them subtly yet firmly outside the invisible circle of girlness. They are looked upon by their female classmates as “nice but kind of different.” Thus they are left in a nebulous state of non-belonging. They are not so much uncool as un-anything. Gender roles are defined early. And when an eight-year-old girl doesn’t accept the definitions, she is left to occupy the vast and lonely space between Cinderella and Optimus Prime.

Or, at least, that’s how it seems to me.

My daughter was one of the better players on the Tremors. Far from the best, but good enough to start and play every inning of every game at first base. She is a better hitter in practice than in games, but still managed to finish third on the team in RBIs. The fact that I know this may be an indicator that I am one more tournament away from my name appearing on a flashing freeway sign.

Irrational parenting aside, her transformation over the summer was remarkable. For the first time in her life, she felt as though she completely belonged. Her coaches were exceptional and consistently positive. She was praised by teammates and adults for doing something that she liked doing, which, as it turns out, has a much different impact than being praised for eating vegetables or reading a book. I sensed a relief in her, as if she could finally exhale.  After years of trying to be like something that other kids would include and respect, she was, for the first time, able to just be.

And so the Tremors again found themselves in the championship game of the final tournament of the summer. It was the fifth game of a blessedly mild weekend at a lovely field complex near downtown Sonoma. It had been a tight, back-and-forth affair, but the Tremors were trailing by a run heading into the bottom of the last inning. With only three outs remaining before defeat, my daughter was due up first.

I played baseball in high school and briefly in college. This summer, I learned that baseball and fastpitch softball have very little in common. Strategically and mechanically, the games are completely different. But one thing is absolutely true of both sports. If you are leading off the final inning of the final game and your team is losing by a run, you have only one job: get on base.

I recall my gruff, ex-marine, ex-cop, college coach barking at whichever player was in the on deck circle, “Find a way to get on.” Then a chorus of wintergreen Copenhagen scented voices would echo, “Take one for the team. We got ice!”

For the uninitiated, when you receive these instructions, you are expected to lean your shoulder into a 90-mile per hour fastball and deliberately get hit by the pitch.

I watched from the far left field line as my daughter took practice swings while the pitcher warmed up between innings. I knew how much it would mean to her to score the tying run and keep her team alive. Some of the pitchers at her level throw surprisingly hard, but none throws hard enough to do any lasting damage. I knew what she needed to do.

As the pitcher completed her final warm-ups, I got up and jogged toward the dugout. I reached the fence near the on deck circle where my daughter was timing the pitcher’s motion. She looked focused, yet surprisingly calm.  I called her name. She did not hear me. I called again, but she just walked toward the batters box filled with determination. I watched her with admiration. Suddenly, a thought flashed through my mind: What kind of a maniac tells his eight-year-old daughter to deliberately get hit by a pitch?

I called her name again.  Louder. This time she heard me. She looked at me from under her batting helmet. She was stone-faced.

“You got this, kid,” I said. “You can do it.”

A smile suggested itself, but she ignored it and took a final swing as the infielders threw the ball around.

I jogged back to my lawn chair down the left field line, proud of my better judgment, but ashamed that the thought had occurred to me. I sat under a shade tree, yelled her name, and clapped as loudly as I could. The pitcher went into her elaborate windup. The ball shot from her small hand toward home plate. My daughter turned her front shoulder and loaded her hands as the ball came closer to her. Her feet began to move. She leaned back desperately. But there was nothing she could do. The ball hit her straight in the head.

The large crowd emitted an audible shudder. The ball bounced off her helmet and she stood frozen at home plate. The kindly umpire said something to her and she trotted casually to first base where her coach put his arm around her and she nodded.

On the drive home, I asked her if it hurt.

“No,” she said, as if the question didn’t make sense.

She sat in the back seat, her second place medal around her neck.

“Dad?” she asked. “When are the tryouts for next season?”