One girl smiles a great deal whether she succeeds or fails. She's enjoyed all-league status. The other girl doesn't smile out there at all, has struggled during her career at the toughest position out there -- pitcher. They are close friends. While their softball careers to some degree diverged during their four years of high school, yesterday they found themselves in a contest that compelled both careers to diverge quickly. And it's probably something they'll never forget.
On a hot, humid day on a beautiful field, a .500 team played a non-league game to end its season. While is has some talent, the best teams in the state are located nearby, play in much tougher leagues, and eclipse -- in on-field accomplishments and media coverage -- whatever this team does. The behemoths' rosters are populated with travel players who spend 11 months of the year honing their craft -- indoor fielding, indoor hitting, hitting coaches, pitching coaches, trips to warm-weather climates -- none of which most of this team's players do. The team has a few travel players, a few who might have played a season of travel ball when they were very young, and a few good athletes. But most of the girls don't play softball regularly enough to play at an elite level.
But that doesn't mean that they don't enjoy it -- the rituals, the inside jokes, the rallying at the mound the infielders do with a high-five after a putout, the relay throws and the occasional long bomb of a hit -- any less than the kids who play under the lights and make deep runs into state tournaments. It may be true that their program isn't as committed to the things you have to do to become an elite program as the behemoths, but when they kids go out there, they try their best to win.
The season had some ups and downs. Basically, at .500, they beat who they should have beaten, didn't lose to anyone they shouldn't have, and lost to better teams, not really coming all that close except in one game at home where they blew a four-run lead after five innings. That game -- early in a very short season -- turned out to be a pivotal one in terms of making the playoffs, which they did not.
But all that said, they played through bitter cold days -- forty-five degrees with twenty-five mile-an-hour winds, rainy days (one so bad that the pitcher had trouble gripping the ball, although she did so without complaint) -- and humid ones. They played through streaks, they played through long innings for both teams, and they enjoyed it. Playing a kids' game on nice fields where the stakes weren't for seeding in a travel tournament or whether a college coach or two might spot them -- but just for the love of the game.
The last game of the season was a see-saw affair, populated with close plays, bad calls (memo to file: don't trust an umpire who cannot see his feet), great throws, good catches, physical errors, mental error, wild pitches, timely hitting, bases on balls. . . and the home team's pitcher, an outgoing senior, a girl who tried mightily to find her control the prior season only to fare better this season -- unable to finish the game. She battled, but both she and her opponent struggled, and the result was that a sophomore relieved the senior, and the game went into the bottom of the seventh with the home team trailing 13-12.
A freshman led off, walked, stole second. The team's best player, a sophomore, popped out. The #3 hitter, the starting pitcher's best friend, the kid who always plays with a smile on her face at third base, who enjoys every minute, rapped a double to right center. Not born with speed, she ended up on second base, having knocked in the tying run. Her joy while standing on second was palpable. A two-time all-league player at third base, she carried herself with a humility that was as admirable as it was inspiring. The girls just loves to play. A wild pitch moved her to third base.
And up came her best friend, the pitcher, who had moved to second base when the second baseman relieved her. A girl who struggled all day and at times during the season, but who battled gamely.
She took a pitch, fouled one off, took another ball, fouled a few off, tried to get her timing. Some fouls were cue-shot numbers that the bat barely touched, while a few others were line drives that were pulled into foul territory because she was ahead of a pitch. After about nine pitches, she smoked a line drive into right field, scoring the joyous runner on third.
Two close friends. On a team that probably lost as many as it won (if not more), during their careers. One had a lot of success during her career; the other had probably struggled more than she succeeded. A program that once dominated its league, but does not do so any longer, as other schools have found one or two travel pitchers with blazing speed that most hitters in this league cannot catch up with. But in the end, how much does it all matter? They built character, they revealed it, they showed their frustration, but they continued to play, they laughed at times, and for them it didn't matter that they weren't in elite travel programs or on high school teams that the press flocks to.
They play, purely, because they love the game. They liked playing catch with their parents and siblings from the time when they were little. They liked hanging out with friends they made on the team. And they liked what they could accomplish individually with a hit, a catch or a throw, or, as a team, when on a given day different people in the lineup could contribute to a victory.
But on this particular day, everyone contributed. A right fielder who sat on the bench most of the season hit a liner that knocked in two runs late in the game. The second baseman leaped to her right, stole a double out of the air and turned it into a double play. The shortstop who went into the hole and took away a single. The center fielder who made a running catch in the top of the last inning to save a hit. Everyone seemed to do something.
And all that led to the bottom of the seventh and two good friends.
One knocked in the tying run and then scored the winning run. The other knocked in that run.
In four, five months they'll be off to different colleges to begin the next chapter in their lives.
But they always will have this day, fitting punctuation to their high school careers, evidence of their ability and an important part of the foundation of who they are, something to fortify them when they need it, and to inspire them that when they're down and behind, they can pick themselves up an finish with a flourish.
Roger Kahn once wrote that fans will remember who won, who lost, and how the weather was.
For these two girls, their families and their friends, they'll remember a whole lot more.
It might not have been a playoff game, a league championship or a state playoff game.
No, it was none of that.
It was a whole lot more.