Skinned Knees, Freckled Faces, And The Hearts of Champions

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(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)