The other day, my Dad and I drove by a plumbing store. I pointed it out. The company that owned the store sponsored my softball team in 2002 when I won my first championship. We couldn’t help but reminisce. It was over 10 years ago.
On a bookshelf in my room are six trophies and a “gold” medal. The first trophy started to collect dust in 2001 and the last trophy joined the party in 2005. I haven’t moved them since.
I grew up playing baseball in the backyard with my Dad every summer. He would go off to work in the morning and I would spend the day preparing for our “game” that evening.
I would go outside on our deck at 10am in the morning and throw a tennis ball against the wall of the deck and it would bounce back to me. Essentially I was practicing fielding ground balls.
Then I would throw the ball against the house and play catch with myself.
Then I would hit the ball over my backyard fence and into the park behind my house. I did this repeatedly.
My Dad would come home, eat dinner, and join me in the backyard. Before each game, we always played catch. I always wanted to use the tennis ball. I was only 7. But no. He insisted we use a softball for catch. Despite their name, softballs are much larger and harder than tennis balls, so at that age it felt like a bowling ball was flying at me.
Then we had our game. With a tennis ball.
Sometimes, instead of a game, we’d go out to the park and I’d tell him to use a softball and hit ground balls at me as hard as he could. No mercy. I wanted to see if I could stop them.
Fast forward to the following year. My Dad told me that at the mall there was a table to sign-up and play softball that summer and he asked me if I was interested. I said no, and that was that.
The following year, he asked me again. I said yes.
I was 8-years-old (soon to be 9) when I played on a team for the first time.
At that age, we would play a different position every inning. So one game, as we were getting our positions from the coach, he told me I was pitching that inning. Pitching? Alright, I’ll pitch.
I remember taking my warm-up pitches and my Dad ran on the field to come talk to me. I found it a bit embarrassing. I didn’t want him out there.
He asked me if I knew how to pitch and put spin on the ball. I told him I did. Was I telling the truth? I have no idea. From the moment the coach told me I was pitching, to the moment I took my final warm-up pitch, I had never even thought of the fact that I had never pitched before. I just went along with it. And I was good.
Our team came in third place that year. I’m still not sure how the playoff format was set up. We played three playoff games and won all three, and they told us we came in third. What? Before our third game, our coach told us we had to win by 45 runs to advance. 45 runs? We asked why. He said, run differential. Run differential? This bothers me more today than it did back then.
My second year playing softball was incredible. My team was amazing, top through bottom. We won the championship that year and I won the Most Improved Player award.
I still don’t know how to feel about winning that award.
The following summer, I was on the best team I had ever been on. Even better than my championship team. We came in third place.
That season was the first time I started recording my own stats. After every game I would come home and fill out categories in a notebook. I did this for the next two years as well. That notebook still sits on my desk.
Our team had a lot of fun off the field that year. My best friend was on the team and between playoff games we went to McDonald’s for lunch. And of course we went to play in the McDonald’s Play Place. Well, we got stuck in it. We got stuck in the netting and were laughing too hard to get ourselves out. That is a moment we still laugh about.
Alright, so now it’s 2004 and my fourth year playing softball. We were the best team in the league. We just had to prove it when the playoffs came around. And we did. We won the championship that year. That fall, we also won an award for “Team of the Year” in our region out of all the different sports.
One memory still stands out to me from that season.
August 4, 2004 – A pitcher hit me right in the back with a pitch. He was the fastest, and hardest, throwing pitcher in the league. He was also very wild with his pitches. He didn’t even know where they would end up.
I hunched over to catch my breath. The crowd gasped. The coach came running out. My dad stayed in the stands. I’d been hit with the ball before in our backyard games and “no mercy ground ball sessions” in the park.
I went down to first base and hunched over as I waited for the next pitch. My first base coach asked me if I wanted to call time-out to recover. I declined. I was in pain, but I didn’t want to show it. Not at all.
When I got back to the bench, my teammates told me they thought there was a car crash in the parking lot because of the loud noise when the ball hit me. Then I went into the stands to tell my Dad I was fine and he rolled up my shirt to show the crowd the giant ball mark on my back. It was a bit embarrassing.
Now it’s 2005. My final year playing softball. It was the summer before I started high school. My Mom had made it clear that this would be my last year because the season starts in May and the following year, I’d still be in school for two months doing lots of high school level homework and have no time for softball. I disagreed, but that’s the way it was.
I was shocked when I showed up to the first practice and my teammates were almost exactly the same as the year before. That had never happened before. It had always been a new group. But this year, the core group returned.
I knew we had a good chance of repeating as champions.
At one point during the season when I was pitching, a batter hit a line drive right back at me. My biggest fear was now coming true. I had good reflexes, but I always feared a hardly hit line drive right back at me that I didn’t have enough time to react to.
The ball hit my right shin and I collapsed to the ground immediately. I wasn’t on the ground for one second before I tried to get up and grab the ball to throw it to first base. I got up and collapsed again. I heard a kid on the other team’s bench scream to the hitter, “you almost killed him!”
I never looked at who said that, or at the hitter who ended up on first base. I was too angry I didn’t make the play. I felt like he got lucky, and I didn’t want to see who he was.
The umpire called time-out and everyone huddled around me, except my Dad. He stayed in the stands. I stood up and could barely put any weight on my leg. However, I still had my glove and the ball was in it. I’ll always remember this – my coach told me to take my glove off and not to worry about it right now.
As soon as I took my glove off and put it on the ground I decided in the back of my mind that there was no way I was coming out of the game. Absolutely no way. They called to my Dad in the stands to come out; he reluctantly did. For the record, I didn’t think he needed to come out.
I told everyone I was fine and took some warm-up pitches. My leg was still throbbing and I’d end up with a nice bruise, but there was no way I was leaving the game. I had seen other kids leave games before with tears dripping off their face as they screamed in pain, right before an ice pack was immediately applied to their sore spot. I never wanted to be that kid, so I stayed in the game.
Another moment I remember from that year is this:
I was about to start my five warm-up throws before the first inning of a game and I heard the coach of the other team tell his players to “watch the pitcher.” This was normal. We always watched the other pitcher warm-up, just to see how they threw.
After I threw my first warm-up pitch, I heard a guy on the other team say, “okay we got this, we can hit off this guy.”
I didn’t look over to their bench or acknowledge that I had heard him, but in my mind I was thinking, “oh yeah, just wait.” I knew I was one of the best pitchers in the league; this team was about to find out. Don’t ever motivate your opponent kids, it never turns out well.
I didn’t throw as fast as other pitchers, but I was accurate. I didn’t walk many batters and when I threw the ball it had what I like to describe as a “heavy zip” to it. It wasn’t fast, it was heavy. As in, it would get to the plate faster than my throwing motion would suggest; It would also appear to be a hittable pitch, but wasn’t.
And by “zip”, I don’t even know how to describe it. The ball just moved on it’s own sometimes. I threw a pitch to a right-hander batter one time and as the ball reached the plate, it darted down and away at about a 45 degree angle, and then clipped back to the right ever so slightly. That’s the best way I can explain it.
The batter looked silly when he swung and missed.
I had never done that before. My shortstop immediately reacted to the pitch and said, “Oh my God, what was that?” I got the ball back from the catcher and the shortstop said to me, “Throw the funky one again.” I nodded at him. Meanwhile, I’m standing there thinking, “How did I just do that?”
For the rest of the game, he kept telling me to “throw the funky one.”
We went 26-3-3 during the regular season.
Right as the playoffs started, I pulled a muscle around my thigh and could no longer run…well at least not fast. I remember rounding third base in the first playoff game, already with the injury, and one of the mothers in the crowd was telling me to “run faster, run faster!” I scored on the play and walked back to the bench and she was still telling me, “you have to run faster!”
Leave me alone, can’t you tell I’m limping out here? I’m so happy my Dad just sat in the crowd and watched all those years. He just let me play for fun. He didn’t put any pressure on me, or tell me what to do. He didn’t panic whenever I got hurt. He was just there to watch me play.
We made it to the championship game again. Prior to the game, my coach called me and the other pitcher on the team over for a chat. He said we would each pitch three innings and whoever did the best would pitch the bottom of the 7th inning – the final inning. When he said that, I told myself that I wanted the ball in the bottom of the 7th inning.
I got the ball in the bottom of the 7th inning.
Earlier in the season I pitched the worst inning of my career. I didn’t get anyone out. The bases always seemed to be loaded. And runners kept scoring. I couldn’t throw strikes. The coach pulled me out of the game. The crowd was dead silent as I walked off. I cried myself to sleep that night because I felt like I cost my team the game. I was so upset.
Back to the championship game.
We were winning 12-11. I hadn’t allowed a single run all game and we were three outs away from repeating as champions.
We repeated as champions.
I was never nervous. I was determined. I knew this would be the last inning I would ever pitch. I wanted it to end properly. I didn’t want to leave the field as a loser that day with the weight of the loss on my shoulders. I wasn’t returning next summer; I could never make up for the loss.
So I pitched a scoreless inning and we won by one run. It was the perfect ending.
A lot of parents put pressure on their kids when they play sports. My Dad never did. Even when coaches around the league tried to get me to play for the rep team, he let me decide on my own. I declined the opportunity.
Every car ride home, after every game, went the same way for five years.
I would ask him two questions and he would answer by giving me a rating between 1-10.
Question 1: How did I play?
Question 2: How bad do I smell?
The last time we had that conversation was 10 years ago.