The wind wasn't blowing “Marilyn’s” skirt up, nor was it penguin cold. It was probably, seven to eight miles per hour, off the Pacific ocean in early spring. If you live in the Midwest, it was definitely still winter and you won’t need a Punxsutawney pampered rodent to tell you so.
Here, in Southern California, February is not really winter and nor is it really spring. As the sun goes down the ocean sneaks in at the ankles and chills your bones. The wind was blowing in over the backs of the parents sitting in the stands, invading the game itself. The fact is early spring games at 5:00PM were miserable for everyone. Players, parents, coaches and umpires alike.
“Why do we have games starting at 5:00PM, it’s the worse time with this wind?”
The comment came from one of the moms sitting in the bleachers, wrapped in her end-knotted flannel blanket, snow cap over her ears, sporting her oversized LA Dodger jacket and her unblemished Uggs. Her gloved hands gripped a "venti" of life sustaining liquid. She blew gently between shivers, not to cool the beverage but prepare her lips from its heat.
A small dust-devil picked up red dirt as it ran from third to first. With a quick spin to brace against the cloud, the first baseman held her hat and covered face with her glove to ward off the gravel attack and keep her hat from flying to Kansas. Then swirling dervish simply died as it reached the grass.
I paused the game to make sure the first baseman reappeared after the dust had settled. Most parents like me because I’m fair, and I see the game from both sides. My strike zone is fair and age appropriate. I know the benefit of making this a fun game. There will always be parents that disagreed with a call, or a called strike, but their view is often obstructed. Obstructed by their emotional involvement with the success or failure of their child. Emotional attachment, for me is the play on the field, the rules and spirit of the game.
Damn it’s cold.
Sweat dripped down the inside of his chest protector, his mask and shin-guards while needles of cold air pushed up his back. He motioned for play to resume and the pitcher stepped onto the rubber.
“That’s ball 4, take your base.”
The batter looked up from the catchers glove in disbelief.
Then came the "voice", the voice of the father sitting behind the backstop. The "voice" was expected, I knew it quite well. It was the voice I would have to deal with if his daughter, the pitcher, could not find the strike zone. It was the voice of the man that would insist I needed glasses. Ha, just got them checked, 20/20, would be my response. Insisting that the river is a living thing and should be owned by the pitcher.
Just as Egypt and Ethiopia have been battling for nearly a century over rights / access / control of the waters of the The Nile; in every softball game there is just as fierce a battle waged between the pitcher and batters.
The river - small “r” - in softball, is the 6 inches that defines the expanse between the white chalked batters box and the black edge of home plate. Like the Nile, each side believe they have the rights to the river and will defend their access with gusto.
Pitcher’s and their parents believe that this “river” be included in the strike zone. Any pitch thigh to chest high touching even a water molecule of the black should be a strike.
Batter’s and their parents believe that this dry expanse of real estate should be damned and belong to them.
Like governments, umpires and coaches argue over this space, rarely agreeing. Coaches only want the “river” to exist while their pitcher is in the circle. When they are batting, they want the “river” to dry up and become a desolate wasteland for the opposing pitcher.
If you ask an umpire about the “river”, they will usually say it does not exist, proving that umpires live in Egypt along “da Nile.”
Don’t misunderstand, umpires are people too and for all their unbiased vision of a particular game, they still have their favorites. Their favorite hitters, who don’t throw the bat and just have a beautiful swing. Their favorite base runners. Speedsters who electrify the base paths with their “Flash” like impersonations.
Most treasured of all are their favorite pitchers. The ones that make their job easy. The ones that keep the ball out of the dirt away from unprotected inner thigh’s and soft sensitive parts. The ones that can spin the ball and bend the trajectory clipping the corners, or just making the batter hesitate from their change-up. Yes, umpires are human, and they love the front row seat enjoying this game - a pastime they love as much as the players playing the game.
Yes, I too have my favorites and this pitcher tonight is one. She is a dark haired, blue eyed lefty, that I have watched grow as a pitcher and player over the last 4 years. She works hard with her dad at the field practicing her craft, while I sit on my bucket catching my granddaughter, who is just a few years older.
The "voice" is not a bad dad, just passionate. Watching her play to her potential, at least her potential in his mind brings him joy. He might think she has a shot at the Olympics, representing USA Softball. Maybe a D1 college scholarship.
Tonight she has been on. Her pitches are crisp and moving. Calling balls and strikes has been easy. Until now. Something changed. Perhaps the cold is getting to her, or her dad. His is always encouraging and positive. He has never really questioned my calls. Not outright, but he is fond of saying “Aw, that looked good from here, kiddo.” Or, “Ow, that was beautiful, great pitch.” which is a slightly underhanded way of saying I was probably incorrect.
With just 1 out, in the top of the seventh inning, she is starting to lose her stuff, starting to struggle. I could see it, can’t her coach see it?
“That’s ball 4, take your base.”
Two runners on, surly the coach would call time out and speak to her. He is not sending anyone to warm up in the bullpen. What is he thinking?
The next pitch hit the dirt and skipped away from the catcher towards the backstop. The catcher bolted from her crouched position, hustling to retrieve the ball barehanded, spun and threw to third base as the runner advanced.
Positioned half way down the line with a good view of the play.
“What, she was out!” A new voice rang out.
Must be the catcher’s dad.
With the runners safe on their bases, and the ball back inside the pitching circle, play was again halted. The umpire called time to shutdown any advancement and to allow repositioning of the players. The catcher retrieved her discarded helmet, the runners dusted the dirt from their pants and the pitcher walked to the back of the circle facing the outfield.
The young pitchers shoulders moving slightly up and down her right sleeve grasped in her hand wiping her face. She turned to face her coach to get the next sign. She was feeling the pressure.
Can’t he see she is melting down? Why is he refusing to see she is cracking.
He yanked down his mask, waved the batter to the box, then signaled for the next pitch. It came with a vengeance.
The batter turned and looked to her bench, waiting for the sign. A tap of the helmet indicated the she knew what to do.
What did he call? Would he be bold and ask her to bunt? Pull the defense in, give his girls on the base a chance to advance. Small-ball.
The pitch was met with the batter squared to bunt.
Interesting call, was that a fake bunt attempt? The pitch was right down the middle. Maybe she is just not confident at bunting.
The next few minutes were a blur of activity. The batter swung away hard, hitting a shoe-lace high line drive back to the pitcher's right side. The pitcher’s reflexes were amazing, or lucky. She stabbed the ball just inches from the ground, turned and fired to third base catching the runner off the bag. Double play!
The umpire threw his clinched fist towards third base, indicating an out.
As the dust settled, the coach in the coaches box was madly jumping up and down point behind the third baseman. The runners foot was on the bag, the third baseman reached in her glove to retrieve the ball after the tag. It was empty.
It’s on the ground, she dropped the throw.
The umpire seeing the ball clearly on the ground waved his arms changing the call to safe.
Between the insults from the bleachers, commenting on his blindness, and the coaches arguing about the play. It was clear, the ugliness of the game had reared its head.
Parents. I’m like Jason fighting the hydra, just when I think I have cut off one head, two more grew in it’s place.
Time to take control and figure this mess out.
After talking with both coaches, the situation was explained and each coach returned to their respective dugouts in agreement.
“Coaches, the batter is out on the clear catch in the circle. The follow on play, the third baseman dropped the catch on the force play at third base, with the runner being safe. She was not in the act of throwing, it was not a catch and drop through transition. Please return to your dugouts and explain the call to your respective benches. There are two outs with runners on second and third.”
As the coaches returned, they motioned for their screaming parents to take a seat and to cool their jets. The low murmuring stopped as parents came to grips with the outcome of the play. Now, shouts of encouragement replaced “blind as a bat” calls which had seemed to came from both sides.
The umpire took his time getting back into position. He took out his brush and cleared home plate of dirt the batter had knocked onto it, while trying to escape the white chalk lines of the box. Then he made sure the catcher was ready, placed his mask over his face, waved the batter to take up residence in the box and motioned for the pitcher to start again.
The pitcher was clearly upset on the mound. Perhaps she was blaming herself for a bad throw to third, although from the umpire’s point of view it looked in time and in a good location to make the play. Perhaps she was struggling with the third baseman dropping a good throw, instead of being out of the inning ending the game, she must now face another batter.
It was outside and again the voice from behind chimed it.
This time the pitch was in the river to the inside but the batter jumped back and the catcher didn’t sell the strike.
Three in a row, she needs to find the strike zone or it will be bases loaded.
On a 3-0 count the smart move for the batter is to not swing and force the pitcher to throw a strike. Especially a pitcher that has been missing… a lot.
Right down the middle. That is what a pitcher is supposed to do.
The batter looked over to her bench, her coach making strange hand gestures. First touching his right hand to the brim of his hat, then to his right knee, then the left hand swipes down his right forearm. Next, he touched his nose with his left hand, then hat, and finally claps his hands twice. The batter touched her helmet and steps into the box.
There you go. That is the best pitch I have seen in a inning and a half. Movement was excellent, down and away from the left handed hitter.
The pitch was spinning hard from top to bottom. The batter clenched the bat gripping it hard, her muscles flexed as her swing was on plain with the ball. The ball kept coming, diving down hard.
The batter just got a piece of the ball and it when screaming down the third base side of the field.
Okay, 3 and 2. Just let it go, don’t over throw it.
Here is where many young pitcher lose a hitter. They grip the ball to tight, or the over rotate, to get that little extra spin, and usually throw the ball way outside the zone.
Impatient or scared batters sometime give a gift to a pitcher. Being afraid to let a bad pitch go, there reactions are late and they end up swinging at a bad pitch, striking out.
“That’s ball 4, take your base.”
The emotional roller-coaster these young players face in such a game, where failing two thirds of the time is considered good. The strength the game can give them over there lives is immeasurable.
They bat - strike-out they fail.
They drop a throw - to end the inning - they fail.
They stand in the circle - load the bases - they fail.
Sobbing from the young girl in the circle was now clearly visible to the entire stands. She was no longer facing the outfield concealing her emotions.
Clearly her coach must see this is crushing her soul. Maybe she is too young for this pressure. Not every young lady is cut-out to be in the circle.
Then came a voice from the corner of the dugout.
“Can I get time, ump?”
The coach was looking down, think of something to say, or counting his steps until he had to look at the tear soaked face of this sweet 10 year old girl.
Her sleeves were smudged brown from dirt, sweat and tears. The coach approached. Her inhaled breaths were shattered by the gasping of air her body needed to calm her emotions. She watched her coach, looking for a sign that this was it, that he would wave to the bullpen for a replacement. A sign, any sign. In his last few steps to the edge of the circle she gazed down to his shoes. She didn’t want to look at him to get the news, he would surely say it.
During mound visits, or a pause in the action its always a good time to grab a drink of water and to towel off sweat. The breeze has finally stopped. That’s good, now I can sweat and not freeze at the same time.
He pushed the water bottle halfway through the chain link and placed his towel over the corner of the dugout.
He turned back to the field as the coach thanked him for the timeout.
“What’s your decision, coach?”
“I just told her she has pitched a great game, there is no crying on the mound and that if she wants out, I would take her out. But she is a trooper and wants to finish the game.”
It takes guts to take a game on your shoulders like that, perhaps she has what it takes. Good for her.
The ump looked out at the mound and saw a different figure standing at the back of the rubber, her form was erect stiff and her sobbing was gone, steel had returned to her eyes.
He returned to his position behind the catcher, waved the batter to the box, replaced his mask, signaled for play to resume and then crouched down. The first pitch was on the high side, but was definitely a strike.
The murmurs from the opposing bench started. Something about “giving them a break” and “that has not been a strike all night.”
Next, she floated a gorgeous change-up in just above the knees.
Man her knuckle change-up is devastating, for such a small hand to push the ball out with enough force to cross the plate and with no spin, wow. Just amazing.
Top of the seventh inning, two outs, bases loaded in a one run game. If the girl on third could manage to get home the game would be tied and the cold would once again grip the spectators tighter than ever. If the pitcher could reach down and throw one more strike, the game would be over and the miserable cold would be a distant memory.
It was just a little outside.
“Come on Tabitha. You got this, blow it by her.”
It was almost a chant coming from her teammate in the third base dugout.
That needs to be up just a little bit, come on kid you can do it.
Now, the chant got louder, the parents, teammates and even coaches were giving encouragement.
The ball floated from her hand. First it seemed it was coming in high. Then it moved left, no right, then left again.
It’s going to be outside.
Then, as if pushed by wind, that cold on shore breeze, it move back.
——— 13 years later.
After watching her competed in some of the toughest tournaments, playing at the highest levels.
After she lived and played in Australia on the U17 National Team when she was 13.
After she pitched in numerous championship games.
After she played her last Ivy League College game - just before COVID hit.
After she extended her softball career while completing her Masters Degree at GCU.
After moving away to live in another state with her soon to be husband.
After all that… I miss my little girl that cried on the mound.
Written by the “voice” from behind the backstop.