Tuesday, July 16, 2013

In Honor of Tweets, Mrs. Ridley & All Coaches

According to FT writer Gillian Tett, this is
a team of future CEO's!
I've learned a lot since I started Tweeting. It's a reporter's digital form of breaking news. And the folks you follow really do lead you to some interesting stuff. Like this story on the lack of women sources in the New York Times front page stories. (Good work by two women journalism students!)

Or like this article I read first from a Tweet, then on the web site itself, and then as I re-read it when I posted it on Facebook. Columnist Gillian Tett writes in the Financial Times about the link between successful women and the sports they played as girls or in college. Oh Yeah!

Maybe because I'm co-authoring a novel right now that's celebrating women's friendships and successes with an athletic backdrop (think "The Help" meets "A League of Their Own") but Tett's story got me thinking—about the impact of sports on my own life. So I offer this short (but long for a blog) essay from my most recent memoir/book, "Woman Overboard: How Passion Saved My Life." Now go thank those coaches!

"Compassion's Call and the Hands I want to Hold" An Excerpt from Chapter 7 of Woman Overboard

Saints with day jobs have taught me over and over. Even when I didn’t know it at the time.

Every June, July and August of my high school years, I was a proud member of the Callahan Real Estate girl’s softball team of Wheat Ridge, Colorado. I’d been playing little league on other teams since I was in second grade and loved everything about it: the sun on my face, the snacks after games, the laughs with my friends. There was nothing like standing around a park in the summer, tossing a ball back and forth or watching a batter connect to a pitch every now and then, until the game was over and you sat around the bleachers drinking Pepsi or Mountain Dew, watching the next game. It was my kind of sport.
By teenage years, however, the watching had turned to serious competition and most of my friends turned to other fun. I decided to keep playing. Our high school didn’t yet offer sports like softball or soccer for girls (it was the early 1970s, after all,when Title IX was just born), so suburban recreational centers filled the gap during the summer months. They offered all kinds of leagues for all levels of play.

That’s when I told my parents I wanted to play for Callahan Real Estate. But by joining this particular team, they reminded me, it wouldn’t be easy. The players were all older, mostly juniors and seniors, and I was only a sophomore. They’d been playing together for a few years. I was coming in from another team. And while they already knew all their positions, I had merely stood wherever the coach put me. I hadn’t focused long enough to excel at any one spot.

I was ready to try. So they took a chance and sent me to the recreation center to register . . .
I signed my name, handed them a check and instantly belonged to the team sponsored by Callahan Real Estate. Their winning record was better than all my little league teams combined. I’d heard some girls at the center talk: Callahan had a pitcher whose windmill-style speed didn’t give batters a chance, a short stop who might as well have been a brick wall since nothing got by her, an outfielder who caught every pop fly and a catcher with an arm that would peg any idiot who thought she could steal second base. They wore cool white cotton shirts with gold and blue “Callahan” logos on their backs, and matching baggy blue pants with a gold line down the side. They hit every time they were at the plate and caught every ball that cracked its way into the sky.

They were good. My old softball friends confirmed it when I called to tell them I’d joined Callahan. They said they were going to the mall but they warned me that Callahan’s coach was really tough and mean and hard-nosed. Good luck.

I showed up for practice early and nervous. A few girls were already warming up, playing catch or stretching. I joined them and waited. Soon a beat up station wagon slowed into the parking lot. A tall but compact girl with short brown hair got out of the car and a shorter, maternal version of the girl did too. Together, they lugged over a duffle bag of bats and balls. The mom made another trip to the car for the bases and waddled out to the infield, bent over each white padded square and shoved a steel peg into the ground to keep the bases from moving.

Her daughter came over to the dug out and introduced herself to me.

“My name’s Jo,” she said, pushing back the bangs from her eyes and smiling wide. “Jo Ridley. I’m the catcher.”

“Cool—we have the same name.” I relaxed. “I’m Jo, too,” I said.

She tossed me a ball to warm up. It only took a few throws to realize the rumors about her were true; my glove burned each time I caught the ball. A few other girls joined us by the dug out, talking and stretching and tossing softballs. Kathy, the pitcher, looked more glamorous than she did cutthroat, Leslie, the short stop, was solid muscle but hardly a brick wall, and Debbie, the center fielder, seemed as easy going as a California surfer. Kathy pulled her hair up in a ponytail. Leslie tied her cleats. Debbie cracked sunflower seeds. I caught Jo’s burning throws and wondered when the coach would get here.

“What position do you play?” Jo asked, sailing a ripper into my palm.

I shrugged.

“We need a first baseman. Ours graduated last year,” she said.

I liked that idea. I knew you didn’t have to move much when you played first base and I figured I could at least catch the throws of players like Jo or Leslie. My glove was thick and big and if I held it like a target for them, one foot on the bag, I could do it.

“Sounds good,” I said, “if the coach thinks so.”

They laughed as if I’d missed a joke until the joke stepped up to the plate and hollered. It was Jo’s mom, the woman who’d just wrestled with the stakes in the infield. Pudgy. Short. Still in her house slippers. She wore wide denim shorts and a sleeveless flower print blouse. A few curlers were pinned on top of her head. Her sunglasses were pointy.

“Come on, girls,” she screeched. “Let’s get this thing started.”

Jo nodded over to the woman behind home plate and back at me with that same grin. “That’s the coach,” she said, rolling a few balls in the direction of the backstop like she was bowling. 

“Your mom’s the coach?!” My hand was tingling.

“Yeah, the real coach quit two years ago. He said he had other things to do. And Callahan wouldn’t sponsor us if we didn’t get a coach.” She grabbed a catcher’s mask. “So my mom did.” 

It was that simple. Then Jo jogged over to the oddity around home plate and Kathy, Leslie and the others followed. Somehow I felt my feet pick themselves up and soon I was standing with the team in the circle, staring, listening, wondering about my friends at the mall.

“Okay, girls, new season. Same competition, give or take a few,” she sniffled.  She pulled a tissue from her pocket, blew her nose and shoved it back. Then she looked at me. “My Jo tells me you’re a Jo, too. That’s funny. But welcome!” She grinned like her daughter. “And you play first base. That’s good for us because I think we need a first baseman, don’t we, girls?” She looked at the team, who nodded collectively, and then she scratched her head like the curlers were itchy before she turned back to me.

“Well, Jo, I’ll bet you’ll do a great job at first base.” Mrs. Ridley then picked up a bat and pounded home plate like she was killing a rodent. “Geez, it’s a scorcher, isn’t it? Anyway, get a good drink of water, and head on out to your positions everyone!”

We guzzled before jogging to our spots. The sun hammered us, and I stood close to my base. Then the pudgy woman in curlers tossed a softball above her head, grabbed the bat with both hands and pulled it around with all her might so she could meet the ball on its way down. She hit a ‘grounder’ to us, belting out orders as she did of who to throw it to. She did it again. And again. Most of the time, it worked.

Sometimes the ball dropped with a thud on the plate. She’d pick it up and try again, hitting to Leslie, who’d devour the ball and fling it over to my target. I’d lob it back to Jo, who’d hand the ball to her mom again. Mrs. Ridley would toss it up and swing, this way or that, until someone else would field it and throw it to my glove.
After about forty-five minutes, she’d had enough. It was hot. She tossed the bat toward the fence, mopped her sweaty forehead with her tissue, and called for a water break. She asked Kathy to practice her pitches; we were moving into batting practice.
Mrs. Ridley then summoned outfielders one by one to the plate. She said if her players could hit off of Kathy’s windmill rocket, she thought they could hit off of any pitcher. So she’d stand a few feet from home plate, and clap her hands a lot to encourage us. She’d rattle off the same lines of instruction each time: Elbow up. Watch the ball. Concentrate. Step into it. Follow through.

Sometimes she’d move closer, turn the player’s shoulders slightly to better position her for a hit, and return to her cheering and clapping. And her daughter—by now dressed from head to toe in catcher’s gear—would repeat her mom’s comments: Elbow up. Watch the ball. Concentrate.

“You can do it!” Mrs. Ridley would say each time, clapping and shaking and staring. Waiting. Hoping. And to my amazement, most did.      

When every girl had finally batted—even I had managed a single—Mrs. Ridley called us in again around the plate. Her curlers loose, her flower-print blouse stained all around her armpits. Dust smudged her cheeks, which by now were bright red. Her belly jiggled. She told us we’d done a good job for the first practice and would meet again day after tomorrow. Same time and place. Right now she had to go back to work, and asked if someone else would drive Jo home. Debbie nodded.

Before she left, Mrs. Ridley handed us schedules for the summer’s games and tournaments and phone lists for the team. Then she took off her glasses.

“I’m expecting us to go all the way this year,” she said, staring as seriously as she had during batting practice. Her eyes—brown and bare—moved gently across ours. All the way meant representing Colorado in a national tournament in Corpus Christi, Texas. In August. If we qualified, Callahan would pay our way.

“We just have to play hard, girls,” she said, “and play together. Any questions?” Then she smiled before taking a curler off her head.

That was it? As I stood there in that June heat, even a rookie like I could tell this didn’t sound like much of a strategy. Weren’t we supposed to have drills and tactics and stuff? Wasn’t this competitive league supposed to be a little more, well, serious?

I looked around at my teammates as Mrs. Ridley repeated herself. No one said anything. They didn’t seem to mind what we were hearing. Maybe they figured this was better than nothing.

Maybe it was.

I watched Mrs. Ridley drive away, and wondered if I’d made the right decision. Surely, we’d be losers and my old friends would all tease me on their way to the mall. I turned toward the parking lot, but Jo and Debbie and the others didn’t let me sulk for long. They were going for a hamburger and a movie and I was welcome to come along.

After that first practice and the next, during each game and tournament throughout the summer, we did the only thing Jo’s mom ever told us to do: we played hard and we played together. Few opponents ever hit Kathy’s pitching. And if they did, the ball never got past Leslie. I caught any throws she’d make, and Jo, well, she snagged more foul balls than anyone could remember. We won enough games so that we really did go all the way in August, compliments of Callahan Real Estate, to a state that was so hot and humid we collapsed after the first two games. But no matter.

We were friends. And that had happened because we were a team, a team where we belonged. Kept alive each time a pudgy middle-aged mom—who didn’t seem to know a lot about softball except that her daughter loved it—stepped onto a hot dusty baseball field to help a bunch of high school girls work toward a dream.

To this day, I can still see Coach Ridley sweating or clapping or struggling to swing that bat and hit us grounders. 

From Woman Overboard: How Passion Saved My Life

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