Skinned Knees, Freckled Faces, And The Hearts of Champions

(For those of you who are new to this blog and who missed this when I first posted it, I share it with you now as one of my favorites.  It’s that time of the year – Springtime – when the metal ping of bats at a local high school practice reminds me of freckled-faced little girls (my own sweet daughter among them) with skinned knees, the biggest of smiles, and the hearts of champions)

It’s Spring and ‘Tis the Season.

Softball season, that is.

True, there’s that other sport the boys play– the one that pays big salaries when boys grow into men.  But Spring is also when the girls play their own sport – the one that doesn’t pay, the one you play simply because you love it.

Girls Fastpitch Softball.

The Girls Of SummerCLOSE UP I watched my daughter play softball from the age of 5 until she hung up her glove after freshman year playing at UCSD. She’d accomplished what she wanted to accomplish with the sport: She’d been drafted by a great school (a difficult college to get into, but softball got her into it), played in her freshman year (not as much as she was used to playing, but she played nonetheless), got her home run in a college game (along with 5 RBIs), and she was named female athlete of the week at UCSD. After freshman year, it was time to figure out what she wanted to really do with her life. So in her sophomore year she quit the sport. I took it harder than she did, I think. I missed watching her play, and the enjoyment I had at observing the spectacle of softball and a team hard at work.

It’s different when boys play ball.

I’m lucky to also be blessed with a son who played sports.  But every time I watched him in the field, or on a court, I couldn’t help but think his manhood was being tested.  The boys looked so serious with their game faces on for the coaches.  There weren’t a lot of laughs, not unless they wanted to be called “girls” or “ladies.”  And absolutely no tears!  There’s no crying in baseball, as Tom Hanks told us in A League of Their Own.  Not that girls in softball cry.  It’s just that nobody ever expects them not to cry or to be so tough.

But girls are tough.

They play just as hard, whether college, high school, or league games. And when summer comes they take the field under a blistering sun, 100-degree heat, playing four games a day, sometimes until midnight, in nationwide tournament play.  Crushing the ball with their bats, sliding fearlessly, striking out batters on a full count with bases loaded, and all at the age of 10.  Making the outs, stealing those bases, coming through with a hit or a bunt when they’re losing by three runs, and winning seems out of the question.  They never give up.  They work hard, they play hard, and most importantly, they learn how to depend on each other, and to cheer each team member on to do her best.

After my daughter’s 10 and under team lost a squeaker of a game at the Nationals in Oakdale, California, the parents took the girls to MacDonald’s.  It was almost midnight, and the team had skipped dinner to play back-to-back games and the last game of the night was to determine which team would go to the finals the following day. We had lost, but every one of the girls was wearing a huge smile, and they were filled with excitement.

After placing our order (chicken nuggets, of course), I took a seat next to our shortstop/second string pitcher named Melissa. With a bridge of freckles across a freshly sunburned nose, and still wearing her cleats, she quietly licked at a well-earned chocolate-dipped ice cream cone.

“How are you doing?” I asked her, concerned by her silence.

She thought a moment, and then said with great pride: “We played good together.”

I will always remember her answer.

Every time I hear someone say, “Women don’t get along,” or “Women don’t trust each other,” I think of Melissa.  I think of softball and watching the girls on a softball team:  playing their hardest for each other; sharing sunflower seeds in a dugout; doing cheers together; hugs at a home plate; high fives in the field; sleepovers in tournament motel rooms; braiding their hair with colorful ribbons; sneaking a swim together when the coaches weren’t looking; pushing each other to go further, try harder, dig deeper; laughing together, being silly off the field, and maybe even shedding a tear or two when the game is over, and it’s time to move on.

And then they grow up

There comes a time when the girls of summer do move on – when those 10 and unders with the scabby knees, wearing the scent of sunblock, grow up and become women. Women who are beautiful, strong, and confident; women who know that hard work always pays off.  You may not always win but you play your hardest anyway, and you’re not afraid to try, even if it means that sometimes you lose.

So the next time you hear a male coach yelling at his boys, trying to motivate his team by calling them girls –  Don’t think of it as an insult.  Think of softball, and those grueling weekend tournaments. Remember how hard girls play.

And how “good they play together.”

Katie DP JR Varsity

(Photo courtesy of Lynne Pariseau)

22 thoughts on “Skinned Knees, Freckled Faces, And The Hearts of Champions

  1. Agree, loved this the first time, loved reading it again. Thank you. I wish they played Softball over here in the UK (or where I live at least, I’m sure they do in other places).

  2. When I see girls or women involved in activities that have traditionally been associated with boys or men, I can’t help but get a kick out of it. Whether it’s playing sports, running for political office or driving a big rig, it does my heart good to see it. So press on, ladies. Press on.

  3. I love this one too…that first pic is the Katie I remember. She has grown into an amazing, gorgeous young woman, hasn’t she?

  4. Wow Darlene. You captured the feelings and took me back to Jillian’s days as a player. She played through to her second year of high school but had to stop because of bad knees due to too many years of playing catcher. I miss sitting and wasting full days sitting in the sun watching both my kids playing a myriad of sports. It was in total of 15 years of not having a life of my own. I would gladly go back to it in a flash. Thanks for the post

    • My pleasure! Anytime I can write about softball it puts a smile on my face. Who thought I’d ever miss those lonnnnnnng days of lugging around equipment, bad fast food, and porta-potties? I hope your daughter’s knees are okay now – tough position being a catcher. Our daughter did it for a few years but it was hurting her knees too. She switched to pitching but then her back started acting up. Went over to 1st, then centerfield in travel ball, and took over shortstop as a senior in high school. Now she’s all grown up and running half marathons. (Sigh) Not the same as cheering on a team.

  5. Darlene,
    I really enjoyed this. It brought back memories of my childhood when I played fast pitch softball. I was a pitcher. It was an incredible experience and it taught me valuable lessons on team work. I think it must have been what helped me to get along with folks when I began working as a registered nurse. 40 years later I thank my mom for getting this tomboy on that first team on Schofield Barracks, HI. She must have known I would be a force to be reckoned with!

    • I’m so glad this brought back memories of your years playing ball. My daughter was a pitcher when she first started playing, so I know the amount of discipline that goes into that position. She was quite fast,and one year played on two different league teams at the same time! But when she was eleven she developed a back problem and had to change over to playing first base. She really cried when the doctor told her she needed to stop pitching. That was a big disappointment for her to process, but she went through the experience, and learned some valuable lessons: that sometimes life throws you disappointments and you have to make adjustments outside your comfort zone. And you know what? She’s also a woman now who is “a force to be reckoned with!” So yeah, softball rocks! And how cool that you got to play ball in such a beautiful location. All the team parents always hoped our girls would get a chance to play a Nationals in Hawaii, and you were lucky to play there all the time. Thanks so much for sharing some of your memories here.

  6. I love it!! What a wonderful blog post – and the picture is cute too!

    Since I am no parent I cannot tell you the difference between how boys and girls play ball. I only remember that my Dad didn’t have a boy and I was “his boy” and played soccer. LOL
    When I was little I used to be pretty fast and I remember hearing his voice cheering! I loved it!
    When I quit and went to Martial Arts this was taken from us. I think from me as well as for him.
    But even now when it’s silent and I close my eyes – I can hear him clapping and calling for me!!

    • What a lovely memory to have about your Dad! Sports can be beneficial for kids in so many ways, but that everlasting memory of a parent cheering us on, with love and support is probably the most important aspect of the experience. I’m so glad that you had those years with your father when you were little. Hopefully, our daughter remembers (with love) her father scoring her ball games, and her mother schlepping coolers of gatorade and equipment across so many softball fields.

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