It is unprecedented to have a fast pitch softball team remain intact for six years. Unprecedented. But, for every summer weekend for these last six years we have met in remote places like Hamburg, Saugerties, Cheektowaga, Cicero and Horseheads which are tired, sleepy towns outside of ‘bigger’ cities like Buffalo, Syracuse or Albany. Sometimes we travel further. Cedar Point, OH. Ocean City, MD. But, for the most part, we are beckoned to a complex of softball fields past the local John Deere Tractor Supply or the Feed & Seed. If we’re lucky, adjacent to a nearby soft serve ice cream stand complete with a large but faded hand-painted cone on the exterior of the tiny building. But, there isn’t much else. Just cornfields. And yet, we all look forward to it because we know that we are privately witnessing something exceptional.
Over time, this particular Thunder team has fallen into a planning groove. The girls practice indoors or out all year beginning in September to prepare for tournaments that start in June. Fielding. Hitting. Catching. Strategy. Many of them have private coaches in any or all of these areas as well. They spend weekends at the batting cages; or do other sports such as cross country in the off season logging hundreds of miles to prepare their bodies as well. They have group chats to stay connected socially even though half of the team is now off at college across the country because this is also key to the sport. All of this is done with softball as their ultimate purpose and with a bond that I have not experienced in a sport since my own soccer team went to States in 1984. To this day, those are the women who come running when I need something the most.
The parents do a different preparation but no less diligent. Finding sponsors to defray teams costs. Driving our kids as far as 2 hours away to practice in the dead of winter as often as required. Researching hotels and securing blocks. Booking hotels in January to ensure that we are staying someplace with the word “Comfort” or “Holiday” in the brand rather than the word ‘Roadhouse’. This doesn’t always work and we find what humor we can in this as well. For those of us with limited finances we often need to get creative to get our children the equipment and coaching that they need. A composite bat is $300+. A good catcher’s glove is $100. Fielding gloves, face masks, catching gear, elbow pads, batting gloves, cleats, sliding shorts, uniforms. Yes, even hair bows, which are a signature of this sport as well. It just wouldn’t be the same to watch your daughter complete a dusty, badass slide head first under the tag stealing second without the glint of a few sequins underneath her helmet. And with this, she is making a statement as well. Creating lunch lists and collecting responses to that we know who will bring the cold cuts, fruit and water between games as each event draws near. Some parents do more than their fair share; certainly more than I do. We are all grateful. And then we get up at 5am to pack coolers, folding chairs and very sleepy teenagers into cars to congregate where the girls will finally get to play ball.
Sometimes two games on Friday.
Always three games on Saturday.
Sunday you play until you lose.
Sacrifice bunt. Hit and run. Line drive. Leading off. Stealing second. Pick off plays. Outfield back up. Double plays. Slap hitting. Level swing. Base hit ball 4. Gold only. Off in foul; back in fair. Pop fly. Straighten it out. Suicide squeeze. Four steps in. Outfield go 2, infield go 1. Firing 4. Call it. Solid defense.
But, what I just described are the raw ingredients. Despite all that we are doing as players and parents the magic that happens next would not be possible without the coaches. All of them. But particularly the head coach, Rich. He sets the tone for the entire ball club and puts the pieces that he has to work with together each and every day; each and every game; in a way that maximizes their performance but, more importantly, their growth as human beings.
Rich is tough on the girls, no doubt. It’s not unusual to see him call a time out if they are not playing to their potential and have a very animated conversation with them at the pitching mound during game time. We can’t quite hear him from the bleachers and, frankly, we don’t quite want to. But he is accurate and fair so we never question it. If he does deliver personal criticism he does so quietly. In fact, last weekend he told my own daughter to get her head out of her ass and back into the game. The relationship he has developed with Mack through the years tells him not only that he can deliver this message to her in exactly this way but, in fact, he needs to. If it were another player, the message would different. He knows them each this well. Another thing that makes him great at what he does.
He is also the first to tap a player on the helmet for a great play or to shout out to the field to acknowledge one of the girls even if the play didn’t finish in our favor. It’s all day every day that we hear “That’s the effort I want to see!” “Nice play right there, number 4.” “Way to do your job, 29.” “Solid at bat, Mack.” And, and, and…his encouragement is endless. And he does this for players on the opposing team as well including approaching their dugout between innings to deliver personal congratulations for something that set them apart on the field of play.
And I will never forget the sound of him pushing his water bottle into the chain link as if to say without words “Alright, here we go.”
Our daughters are reaping the rewards for their hard work and preparation. They are being challenged to work together. They are being stretched as individuals. They are expected to behave with decency and cooperation and sportsmanship. They are learning to trust. They are individually and, as a team, succeeding and failing. In these quiet, sleepy towns corn is not the only thing growing every summer weekend; so is character.
As I write this Mack is still sound asleep beside me sunburned, sporting a prominent bruise on her elbow from a stray pitch, totally at peace and probably dreaming about softball which she loves more than just about anything. I say this with some melancholy because today are the last Thunder games that I will see her play. In two months she will head off to Oregon to start a new chapter in her life at Southern Oregon University. She is confident enough to go that far and prepared, in part, because of what she learned through Thunder.
The truth is, I feel both ready for this chapter to come to a close and tearful to see it go. But most of all I feel gratitude for this group of people who, for a time, were my Thunder family; for these girls who impressed me beyond measure; for the coaches who saw and nurtured the best in my child; and for Rich specifically who gave her the foundation to believe in herself beyond what was required as a coach.
And for the rest of my life when I see rows of corn I will also see character, hear the crack of the bat and smile.