(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


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Sunday, June 08, 2008

Heart of a Champion

Okay, in retrospect I think that most would agree this particular game shouldn't have been played, but people are human, it's rained throughout a bulk of the ten-and-under softball season, and the playoffs had to begin. Which, for my daughter, they did yesterday, in the Middle Atlantic region, at 1:00 p.m. in the afternoon when the temperature was 97 degrees, there was little breeze, some shade in the dugouts, and atop the temperature, high humidity.

The players really couldn't warm up, as it was so hot they remained under a snack pavilion about 50 yards from the playing field, a hot clay soil infield with a grass outfield (that only a few days ago was almost unplayable owing to torrential rains last Wednesday). The 11 a.m. game was finishing, and two girls fainted from the heat. One was woozy, the other was unconscious. Thankfully, both are okay.

The coaches and league officials decided to play the 1 p.m. game, albeit under looser rules. The game would go four innings, not six, and substitutions could be rather liberal in case girls needed to come out of the game because of the heat. To make matters worse for my daughter's team, their uniforms are black.

Even the socks.

Think Bear Grylls, "Survivor Man", in the episode where he was in the hot Namibian desert. Only, thankfully, with caring coaches and parents, outstanding high-school-aged umps, and lots of hydration in the offing.

To prepare for the event (I am only a parent in this particular league, not a coach), I filled up a large Playmate cooler with ice, two ice packs, a wash cloth, two 32 ounce bottles of water, a 32 ounce Powerade drink and two 20 ounce Gatorades). I sat along the fence near my daughter's team's dugout, under an umbrella. The Gatorades were for me.

The coaches did a great job monitoring the team, and it was a very close game. Two girls from my daughter's team took themselves out. Thankfully they just looked very hot; they didn't look like they were close to passing out. The catchers were particularly tough, because if it was hot wearing black out there, it was even hotter under the cumbersome tools that catchers are compelled to wear.

Most of the pitchers faltered, meaning that they were taken out of the game after they walked four batters in an inning (replaced by coaches on the other team), and my daughter was no exception. She threw some strikes, but she overheated, and her face turned bright red from the heat (she had 50 sunscreen on). Thankfully, a cool-as-a-cucumber teammate (both in composure and temperature), soldiered on and threw strikes all afternoon. She was probably the least strong of those who took the mound (read: not as fast as the others), but she got the ball over and was clearly the star of the day.

After she pitched, my daughter came to the bench, hot and tired. After each inning I checked on her to make sure that she was drinking her Powerade (she drank about 28 ounces of it during the game, a span of about 2 hours), wiping down her face, putting ice packs behind her neck and pouring cold water on her head (and on the heads of the other girls who asked). She was hot and said she didn't feel great, but she didn't looked faint, just tired. The game was tied as her team was going into the top of the last inning, and she was up fourth (to the best of my recollection, as it was hot for me, too). There were runners on first and third when she came up.

"Dad, I think I can do it," she offered.

"How do you feel?" I asked. To be very honest, she looked much better than she had when she came off the mound. In fact, she looked almost as cheerful as she was when the game began.

"I think I'll be okay, I feel pretty good."

At that moment, I felt a little bit like Norman Dale in "Hoosiers" when he was tempted to stitch up a badly cut kid and put him back in a playoff game, only to refrain from doing so because he knew deep down that there was a certain price to winning he could no longer pay. Except for two things. First, I wasn't the head coach, I was the kid's father (more pressure, not less). Second, thankfully, my daughter actually looked pretty good.

Needless to say, I was nervous, especially against the backdrop of the prior game. After all, this wasn't the Super Bowl or Game 7 of the World Series, this was the first round of a local softball league's 10 year-old post-season tournament. My daughter wanted to play. Her team didn't do that well during the season. Personally, I didn't think that they had much of a chance going into the game, as they lost badly two days earlier and fielded the ball poorly, resembling at times old "Keystone Cops" films. But here they were, with a runner in scoring position, and one of their best hitters, she, on deck.

I sighed a deep sigh. Deep down, I admired my daughter's grit. She definitely wanted to be out there. She had made several good plays in the field, including a nifty unassisted double play where she ran in about five steps to catch a dying quail of a popup and then scampered back to the bag to beat out one of the other team's best players and double her off. She also had a line-drive single up the middle and a hard ground ball that turned into a fielder's choice. But, then again, I was wondering, "are you sure?" Then again, I thought, I was really well-prepared with the ice and Powerade and ice packs. Perhaps I had summoned my inner athletic trainer. We looked at each other.

"Okay, then, get in there," I whispered, "but if you get to the plate and don't feel well, call time out, tell your coach, and you'll sit down."

Before you ask where were the coaches, you have to understand that they were watching the game closely and that much of the prior back-and-forth took place when the previous hitter was batting.

My daughter put on her helmet, grabbed her bat, and stepped up to the plate. At this point I had forgotten about the game and was focused only on her, hoping that I had made the right decision in letting her hit.

On the first pitch, she lined a single that bounced about a foot before second base and went into the outfield, scoring a run. The team scored another, and went into the bottom of the last inning up two runs. They got another inning from their totally cool pitcher, my daughter made a play in the field, and they ended up victorious.

After the game, they shook hands with the other team, got a good pep talk from their coaches, were told that they were scheduled to play the next night at 6 p.m. (when the league thought it would be cooler), and I took my daughter to the ice cream truck to buy her a frozen ice and then cranked the air conditioning in my car. It was only a two-minute drive home, and then she cooled down in the air conditioning, kept on drinking liquids and took a cool shower. By about an hour later, she looked totally fine, we went to a family function, and we had a good night.

We shared a nice chocolatey dessert at the restaurant, and while the others were talking she said to me, "Dad, thanks for being so prepared today with the ice, the water, and the Powerade, it really helped."

I complimented her on her performance in the field and at the plate, and we joked about the one piece of advice that comes in handy for pitchers: "have a short memory," is what I've told the kids, as there's always tomorrow.

Then she said, "Dad, I am not a quitter. I wanted to stay in the game, and I wanted to win."

To which I replied, "I know you did."

She smiled.

While I felt like Angelo Dundee helping rally Muhammad Ali in one of his fights against Joe Frazier or a trainer at an NFL camp making sure the players stayed hydrated, I think that under the circumstances I made the right decision. I know my child, I know the coaches, and she wasn't at any time incoherent when she came off the mound, just sweaty and tired. By the time she batted again, she was relatively peppy and ready.

Still, in thinking about the game last night before bedtime, it probably shouldn't have been played. Not against the backdrop of what happened in the earlier game, and not at the time it was, which was 1:00 p.m. The coach's wife left us a message that night asking how our daughter was doing, and then this morning we learned that the game tonight had been canceled until the heat index drops below 90. Thankfully, everyone involved learned a lesson from playing a ballgame in a humid furnace -- don't try to cram games into a weekend even when you've missed a lot of time because of rain.

The girls who played yesterday were valiant, whether they won or lost. They cheered their "softballish" cheers, they ran the bases, they stood in the hot sun, and they were gamers at the plate. They are to be congratulated for their grit and determination, while the girls who took themselves out are by no means shamed but are to be honored for knowing their limits.

All that said, I am very proud of my daughter and her teammates. They fought hard, came back after a terrible game two days earlier, and they refused to quit. Naturally, I'm especially proud of my daughter, who worked hard to stay focused and hydrated and came up with a big hit to help win the game. She said she wanted to be in there, and then she delivered when the stakes were the highest.

She, like her teammates, had the heart of a champion.


Anonymous Patrick said...

Great story. Thanks for sharing it.

9:01 PM  

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