BY CHARLI ELLIOTT
It was a beautiful day to play softball. The sun was warm enough that it soaked into our blue jerseys, staving off the crisp breeze blowing over the field. In a brief moment between batters, I scanned the crowd, searching for the tell-tale figure of my father standing high up on the hill overlooking the field. Unable to find him, I jerked my attention back to the field, digging my toes into the turf as the next batter stepped into the box.
As our pitcher rocked back, whirling the ball up into the crux of her windup, I sank down into fielding position. She zipped the ball toward the plate. I danced on the balls of my feet. Waiting. The ball cracked off the bat, bouncing hard off the turf and I was moving before it had reached the pitcher. I watched it skip past her, my body slipping into the motion of grounding a ball drilled up the second base line.
It was a race between me, and the ball. I stretched out my arm, glove down as the ball took one final bounce. But instead of slamming into the worn leather of my mitt, it popped up into the air, spinning back past my right shoulder.
When I was a kid, I had wanted to be a pitcher. Every day I’d drag my dad out to the little green triangle of grass in front of our house and plead, “Teach me”. I’d glower down the line, shaking off his signs, bent over my left leg like all the pitchers on television. Pulling my knee up to my chest, I’d launch the ball in his direction. He had always laughed, never putting much effort into correcting my form, simply content to be spending time with his daughter. Because what was the point? Girls didn’t grow up to pitch baseball games.
As the ball corkscrewed past my shoulder, time slowed down. Which was rare. Often the game moved too fast for me to keep up. Whether the ball was caught or slipped past the tip of my glove came from a split second reaction. A moment so fast I would miss it if I blinked. And I often did.
But this time, I could see each individual stitch as the ball spun past me, the red yarn puckering the bright yellow leather. It seemed to float in the air. As I watched it spin, my hand reached out for it.
By the time I had reached my freshman year of high school, I’d been converted to the idea of being a softball pitcher. And so yet again I dragged my dad out to the little patch of grass in front of our house every day of the summer. I would peer down the line to where my dad sat on a bucket, waiting. Rock back onto my left foot, and then drive off the gravel mound. Windmill my arm, snap my wrist as it caught at my hip and send the ball sailing in his direction. At first, he spent a lot of time jogging down the street after an errant ball that had flown high or wide. But eventually the ball snapped when it slammed into his glove, and he would pull out his hand, shaking away the sting of my fastball. He’d chime in with tips about release point, grip and stride length, even going so far as to find Youtube tutorials, because I’d finally found a sport that I could succeed in. My dad would smile as he painted a picture of girl’s whiffing on my change-up, mentioning that even the baseball players would have trouble with it.
I snatched the ball out of the air with my bare hand. Plucked it off its trajectory back towards short with my fingertips. The leather bit into my skin, carrying just enough speed to sting. Without thinking, I whipped the ball towards my first baseman, mid-step. My brain didn’t even register the importance, but my heart stopped beating in my chest as the ball skipped through the air.
My junior year of high school, my coach got fired halfway through the season. Before she left she managed to annihilate any desire I had to play softball. In fact, I quit. For a year I spent my spring in the dark corners of the theatre as I learned the role of Peppermint Patty (even in the theatre, the brand of athlete fell on my shoulders). When I eventually found my way back to the world of clinking bats and eye black my senior year, I didn’t want to pitch. I had been told too many times that what I had to offer wasn’t good enough.
And so I dragged my dad out to the softball field a couple blocks away from our house and fielded grounders. For hours. Because while most of softball scared the crap out of me, charging a ball skipping at full speed was at the top of the list. And so I caught balls with my glove, my chest, and sometimes my face until fear was a thing that I could cover up with skill. And I cherished the time I spent fielding grounders. Because when I popped up after a diving play, ball snagged in my glove, my dad would smile and shout “Nice catch!” before driving another one down second base line.
The ball slammed into my first baseman’s mitt seconds before the runner crossed the bag. The whole crowd erupted, cheering, screaming after those infinite moments of holding their breath. My teammates surrounded me with awe and amazement and even the other team’s coach yelled, “Great catch short!” I was so caught up in the moment, in the high that came off of a bare-handed catch, that I didn’t realize the importance of the out. How precious the empty first base bag was. My pitcher had a perfect game that day, and all the other plays and at bats were guaranteed. Easy. But that one bad hop had stood the chance of ruining everything. Until it hadn’t.
But despite the exhilaration that came with watching the umpire call the runner out, the feeling faded as I searched the bleachers and up the hill. My father hadn’t made it in time.
I didn’t go to college for softball. Honestly, the only reason I continued to play was because I had friends on the team. And I craved the adrenaline rush that sports provided. And I loved the early spring days out on the turf with my dad. I struggled with coaches and teammates and the game of softball itself. I don’t have a lot of fond memories, but this play will forever be remembered as the best.
The moment my fingers latched onto that ball, felt the leather sink into the palm of my hand, it made every hour of work with my dad worth it. It silenced the nagging voice of my coach, telling me that I would never be good enough. As I whipped the ball to my first baseman, I was the one who smiled.
Charli Elliott currently attends Pacific University where she is majoring in Creative Writing as well as minoring in Chinese. While in high school she played soccer, softball and basketball, but in college she has devoted her time to the Women’s Basketball team. She is currently enjoying classes in Creative Non-fiction, Fiction and Poetry and is planning to study abroad in China next year.
The Awesome Sports Writing Contest is an annual writing contest to inspire voices in girls’ and women’s sports. Our winners have been announced, and we will post them one-by-one over the next couple of months. Check them out and be sure to submit for the 2018 year!
This contest was made possible by the generous donation of the Jackson family in Edmonds, Washington, and Basketball Education in Action.