It was because of my daughters that I got to know and appreciate the game of softball. One of my daughters, Franny, played a lot over many years. What started out as a cute activity where she wore oversized shorts and a helmet that kept falling down over her eyes, somehow became something else entirely. Whether you already love softball or you’ve never played or watched a game, I hope you enjoy my take on how that can happen!
At first I thought the game of softball just consisted of nine girls, a bat, a ball and some bases, but there is so much more going on. It’s a microcosm of the larger world, a tiny village of constant action and dust in which life lessons, sometimes doubling as softball knowledge, are handed out more frequently than tournament MVP medals. Softball is an experience that starts with a drive on winding, hilly roads or through large sections of flat farmland to find a field or complex either so new or so remote that it can’t be located by a GPS. I always end up lost.
My daughter fires up a carefully selected three-hour music playlist to pass the time on cross-country drives and drown out my frequent outbursts of “Turn where?! Wait, turn now?!” I also learn words to songs from bands I would otherwise never know. I try to follow that blue line on my car’s GPS, praying for divine guidance and a sense of direction, but mostly I end up protected by an earthly mix of sweat, sunscreen and dirt. No amount of divine intervention will help me wait in line in front of a row of bright blue outhouses and pull up my sweat-soaked underwear in a 151-degree port-o-potty.
For entire softball games, tournaments, and seasons I am sustained by red licorice, diet soda and the knowledge that all this will come to an end: there will be a day when my daughter will no longer play softball. I try not to think about that but focus on some of the things I’ve gained from a sport I’ve never played.
In the Game of Softball, Coaches Don’t Just Coach. Sure, the things the coaches say (okay, sometimes scream) to the girls apply to softball, but really, it seems like much of their advice applies to life off the field. I try to remember these gems long after I stand up from the bleachers and the feeling comes back to my butt and legs.
1) Help Yourself Out. Coaches like to say this to a player when she is standing in the batter’s box. To clarify, the batter’s “box” is not a cardboard container at all but a two-dimensional rectangle temporarily painted on some dust. But defining shapes doesn’t seem to bother the players, rather they all seem to agree that they want to help themselves out and get on base or get a teammate to a base that is at least one base closer to home plate. In a split second, each player has to decide if she should help herself out by swinging harder or not at all, having “quicker” hands, turning her hips more or keeping her head down. The coaches notice those details and offer corrections, but the player has to translate the advice to the situation at hand and do the things that work in her favor and not do the things that make it harder. She has to help herself out.
2) Pick Her Up. If a girl strikes out or she gets a great hit, but then the defense makes an even more amazing play and gets the out, the coaches encourage the team to look to the next girl in the lineup. There is no need to dwell and criticize the player who just got out because the next batter now has the chance to get things going, to let the girl who is down on her luck, momentarily struggling, who just went through something rough in the world of softball, know that all is not lost. That player can look to other people to come in and help out. Her teammates won’t just stand there or laugh or walk away but, like Good Samaritans, they will grab their bats, get in the game and pick her up.
3) Be Creative. So many things get shouted during a 90 minute or 7-inning game that I sometimes think I’m in a foreign land or learning a new language: “There’s a duck out on the pond.” Huh? I don’t see any water on the softball diamond. I should have paid more attention to all those Star Wars movies and gotten fluent in Yoda to interpret this phrase more easily: “Second chance, protect now, you caaaaaan.” Sometimes creativity is delivered with vivid imagery: “You’re running so slow my beard had time to grow.” Sometimes simplicity is creative: “See ball, hit ball.” And finally, when things are going wrong, terribly wrong, and one of those pop-ups hangs in the air so long it seems like even I, sleep deprived and sugared-up, has time to get under it from the stands, yet it drops between two players, there are creative appeals to higher powers: “God Bless America!” or “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!”
In the Game of Softball, Players Don’t Just Play. Sure, softball players practice a lot (okay, maybe incessantly) to try and perfect their physical skills. But in the process, it seems like they develop so many other skills. I definitely need to practice.
1) Be Punctual. Almost every player has heard or been told by their coach that “early is on time and on time is late.” I missed that player meeting. For a long time, I thought a 9:00am game meant that my daughter had to be to the field at 9:00am and we could leave the hotel a few minutes before the coin toss at home plate. I didn’t factor in that the hotel is 25 minutes from the field, that pregame warm-ups last an hour and 15 minutes, that she has to change into and tie her cleats and that I always get lost. It took me several games (which probably seemed like several seasons of several games to my daughter) to understand that we needed to leave the hotel at 7:00am, probably 6:45am just to be safe, for a 9:00am game.
2) Handle adversity. Softball players deal with physical adversity; they handle a lot of discomfort, distress and outright pain. They also deal with mental adversity and handle a lot of disappointment, defeat and uncertainty. The unusually large hair bows some girls wear are only a bit distressing to some of us parents. But large bows can’t hide the fact that softball players are tough. I don’t know if they are just born that way, or if they are made that way by playing softball. I suppose that years of practice, wearing shoes that cause small and large blisters, getting hit by a pitch that causes a bruise to ooze down your arm, or sliding into a base and having a patch of your shin shear off will do that to a person. I suppose those same years of at-bats, defensive plays, ump calls and ends-of-games not going your way will do it, too. As a parent, I handle adversity, but it is usually only as intense as dealing with a concession stand that is closed when I’m tired and thirsty and all I really want is a diet soda in a large to-go cup with lots of ice and a lid with a straw. Softball players handle adversity that is much tougher.
3) How to Road Trip. Packing for a softball trip requires every square inch of the trunk, and possibly the back seat, of the car. I never know what we will need, so I end up bringing everything and try to live by the Girl Scout motto and always “Be Prepared.” Because the time I am not prepared is the time my daughter needs instant hot packs (not cold packs), a dress (in case the team eats somewhere “nice”), her red belt (instead of the black one), Fritos (not popcorn) and Gatorade (not water). The car bulges with bat bags that I hope she remembered to change out from the high school season that just ended, leaking coolers, unusually smelly cleats, stained blankets, nylon folding chairs that have holes where my diet soda should go, hats that smell worse than the cleats and tape (athletic, duct, masking and Scotch). It’s essential to load the car the night before leaving for a softball tournament because in the dark pre-dawn hours, no one is in the mood to double check and make sure the broken-in glove is the one that got packed.
4) Be Social (Even if You Don’t Feel Like It). Softball players are continually placed on new teams where they don’t know anyone or they know just one other person. And in that process they meet new coaches, make new friends and learn to respect what each teammate brings to the team, even if a player seems to only contribute those unusually large hair bows. As parents, every season we also meet new people and end up hanging out together for long stretches of time. It can be awkward at first but usually all it takes to break-the-ice on the second day of a four-day tournament in Kentucky is a six-pack of beer and a deck of cards. There are also the very generous, probably well-rested and highly-caffeinated, parents who will haul a faux-straw beach bag filled to the brim with snacks, share those snacks with all of us in the stands and then offer a moist towelette for our hands. Small things go such a long way toward making a new friend or keeping an old one.
5) Let Go. I’ve seen very skilled softball players step into the batter’s box and watch a pitch go by because she knows it is outside her zone and nothing she should swing at. But then… no! The ump behind home plate, the authority of all authorities on the field, calls it a strike! Parents erupt in disgust because this ump clearly doesn’t know what he or she is doing (Come on, Blue!) but also, hopefully, to soften the disappointment and frustration we think the player is feeling. But unlike those of us sitting in the stands, eating another pack of Twizzlers, the batter doesn’t have the luxury of analyzing what went wrong or how she is feeling, because in 10 seconds another bright yellow ball is hurtled toward her. Over and over in that rectangle of dirt outlined with white chalk, a softball player is forced to focus on what is next, on what she can do and what she can control – and let go of the rest.
I’ve also seen very skilled softball players swing a 33-inch stick of wood (or aluminum or some other composite) and send a 4-inch wide ball high into the air, sailing toward a fence that defines the end of the outfield. I mean, she really hits it, smashes it, ropes it, generally pounds the crap out of the ball, and everyone is sure it will clear the fence. Then we all watch in disbelief as the ball doesn’t go over the fence but hits the very thin, yellow-colored plastic cap that sits on top of the fence and bounces back into fair territory. What were the chances? If the fence didn’t have that cap, she could have had a home run. If the breeze were one mile-per-hour stronger or there was a little less humidity, the ball might have made it over the fence. But random factors, factors beyond the player’s control, factors beyond anyone’s control, really, prevented that player from getting the thing she wanted. And time and time again, she lets it go.
For a sport I’ve never played or coached, I am sometimes surprised at the level of connection I feel to softball. The coaches, the atmosphere, the other parents and the players (especially the ones I birthed) create a type of family in which everyone is welcome and you get to come as you are – smelly, sweaty, thirsty, with a trickle of blood running down your elbow, your cleats grinding on the pavement with every step, or showered, well-fed, stepping lightly in flip-flops or Keds, wearing ripped tank tops, collared shirts or maybe your winter parka – and just join in. You might not get an MVP medal, but ultimately that doesn’t matter as much as all the other things you can take away from the great game of softball.