I play competitive womens softball tournaments with the most talented team that I have ever been lucky enough to be a part of. Almost all of the women on my team are former All-Americans, some of them several times over. They have won national championships together, traveled across the country together, and spent long, hot summers suffering through broken fingers, torn up legs, and 14-inning-nail-biters.
The team has been together, in some form, for twenty-some-odd years. And throughout those years the same coach has steered them to victory over and over and over again. He’s a short, round man with black-framed glasses, a sharp wit, a little hat that says, “Find a Way”, and a mind that memorizes every softball game he sees down to every inning, every pitch, and every crack of the bat.
Jerry can tell you exactly how the ball was pitched over the plate when so-and-so drove in the winning run in that big game in 1985. His mind is a trap for softball memories and statistics. He lives, breathes, and dreams the game. Constantly.
And trust that he is loved.
I found these women last year after placing an ad on Craigslist to try to find a place to play pick-up games: “Good Female Sub Seeking Team for Pickup Games: Have Gear, Will Travel”. My ad was straight-forward and specific. I’m talented but not arrogant, I value the nuances of the game when it is played well, as a team. I hit a small ball, run well, and have experience in the grass. I want a team that’s good, but also down-to-earth. I want to be competitive but I don’t want softball to run my life.
I only got one response and it was from the left fielder of Jerry’s team.
Fast-forward one year and I am now playing alongside her in left-center field. She is one of the most talented fielders I’ve ever flanked. She can track a deep fly to the fence in her sleep. She dives and digs out the low stuff like it’s just another day at the office.
The truth is, on this team, I am somewhat out-matched.
I was never an All-American and I never would have been an All-American. I’m damn good, but these women are some of the best around. They define the game. They own it.
But the other truth is, they are getting older. And in softball, no matter what you do, there’s no getting around the fact that everyone has a shelf-life. When played well, it’s a high-impact, grueling sport. It’s hard on your joints and hard on your body in general. Our team boasts a long list of injuries sustained and then rehabilitated: knees reconstructed, rotator cuffs torn, ankles broken.
This weekend, over the course of 5 games, I solidified my place amongst these women. I came to an important realization about my own game: I am the legs.
I can run. This year, even more than ever, I feel like I am really flying. I’ve spent the last six months in Boot Camp running intervals and sprinting up hills and, by god, it has made me faster. There’s a chance that, at 29, I am as fast as I have ever been. There’s even a chance that I may run my fastest mile this year – faster than high school when I weighed a-buck-ten and thought I owned the world.
The speed now defines my softball game. Jerry is brilliant and bats me in the ten spot. What this means is that I’m going to run the bases basically whether I get a hit or not. If I’m the last out, I qualify to courtesy run for Nancy, who plays in knee braces and can’t run much, but bats around .900 and is almost guaranteed to basehit.
My bat started out slow this weekend but I was hitting the ball better than I have been and I stayed focused, relaxed, and kept my head in the game.
The bat came around.
In game two on Saturday I crushed a fatty pitch into the gap between left and left-center and sent the outfielders scurrying to the fence to chase it. As I rounded first I heard the pitch in Jerry’s voice rise as he hollered at me to Goooooooooooooooo! and I knew I had a shot at the whole tamale so I gassed it and got the green light to go all the way as I came flying in towards third base.
The throw to the plate came in high at the same time that I came in sliding low and hard. She never had a chance.
There is only one way to hit an in-the-park homer on a field that small.
On Sunday in the championship game I found my stick again and unleashed back-to-back triples as we cruised to a first place finish, handling the competition (whom we’d beaten by only one run in a nail-biter earlier in the day) with poise and confidence.
There is only one word to describe our collective defensive effort over the weekend: mastery. Pee-wee hung in and sucked up everything and anything that came anywhere near the left side of the infield and was awarded the Tournament MVP award by the umpires. Mel was back in her first tournament since recovering from knee surgery last year and didn’t miss a beat – turning double play after double play and making it look easy.
Cathy pitched strategically to the point of brilliance, Bev bounced off the back fence while reeling in a long-ball during one of the biggest moments of the game, Shawna sat on third base and ate up everything that they drilled down the line at her like she was 21 years old and fearless (she’s in her forties). Cheryl, our 52 year old, (FIFTY-TWO!) batted me under the table driving basehit after sweet-lovin’ basehit until you just didn’t think it was possible anymore.
Our two newbies, Julie and Katie, filled key roles in right field and catcher and stayed in it even when the stakes got high and the pressure was on. This is not an easy team to walk onto and they both proved that they are going to be good fits: they did what the team needed them to do, took orders from Jerry unflinchingly, and got vocal in the dugout.
And me? I just stood in left-center next to Tracey, sucked up whatever was punched my way, and watched in awe as we executed the most seamless, masterful, steady domination of a tournament that I have ever witnessed.
We kept our composure through three miserable innings of a torrential downpour (welcome to Oregon softball… they didn’t stop the game) during Sunday’s first game, remained calm when we had to defend a 9-8 lead in the bottom of the 7th in game two, and then stuck in as huge wind-gusts moved the ball unpredictably during game three.
Throughout it all we communicated, took care of each other, and asked each other to give just a little bit more. Softball is a team sport. And it’s won by a group, not by individuals. It’s a collective effort and the teams that win tournaments are those that are able to find that special place that exists beyond the individual.
You put yourself aside and become something else altogether.
You put yourself aside, check your ego at the door, swing your bat, throw the ball, and put a first place trophy in the hands of a coach who loves you as if you were his own daughters.