She’s Safe!

For those of you who may not have gotten the August issue of SHE, here is my submission for She’s Got Game…

In the fuzzy recollections of my first memories, I can watch this disjointed video of my tee-ball experiences as a four or five year-old. I can see myself standing before the tee, swinging futilely. The ball was unresponsive; it did not move. I think I was sort of baffled by that. That just would not do, said my coaches. In my blurred remembrances, there are no other faces besides my own, no names – just grainy pictures of activity. A coach pulled me to the side for some supplemental batting practice – with a balled-up brown grocery bag on the tee. In my mind, that looks utterly preposterous and certainly seems humiliating, but it was quite ingenuous. The paper bag was a larger, lighter target that assisted in the development of my hand-eye coordination, which was so crucial to my promising tee ball career, mind you. I think I soon graduated to a real ball on the tee and finished out the season without much fanfare; that’s what I assume anyway – I have no memories of games, of fielding the ball, of celebrating, etc… I’m just left with the picture of my little self, holding a way heavy bat, swinging for the stars at a Piggly Wiggly grocery bag. Those were the days…

I must have done okay though because when I signed up to play Dixie softball a few years later, I had strong batting posture, pretty accurate hand/eye coordination, and a fielding stance that communicated readiness at second base. My softball memories replay in living color and surround sound – vivid and cherished. There are few things I love more than a full softball uniform: cap, team tee, pristine white pants, white knee socks with those colored stirrups that go over your socks to match your cap and tee (I don’t think anybody wears those any more, which is really a shame because they were my favorite part), and the finishing touch – serious dirt-digging cleats. I found my place as an eight, nine, ten, eleven year-old; I played ball and I was pretty good at it too.

I loved that Woody, my stepdad, was my coach, and we would practice at home. Whenever either of us bought a new glove, he would condition it: lube it up with who-knows-what, put a softball inside, and fasten a belt tightly around it to allow it to loosen and form around the ball for a few days. I had the inside scoop; the coach was my dad, and I tried my best to utilize his expertise. I wanted to practice as soon as he drove into the yard from the farm. I hit; I threw; I fielded; I caught fly balls. I watched for how the ball might bounce so I could field it appropriately. I practiced fielding and throwing very quickly to sharpen my skills for double plays. I was a focused little thing who loved playing ball. Woody even taught me how to practice alone. He bought me a practice net for throwing and batting, and he shared a catching technique that probably drove my mother batty. I would throw the ball on to the roof of our house and catch it as it rolled off, over and over again. I’m sure my throws made no small racket in the house, but I never remember my mom scolding me for the noise.

As a player, I was confident and perhaps even borderline overbearing. I loved to steal and slide (even when it wasn’t necessary). As a batter, I savored drawing attention to myself by throwing up my hand to the umpire and backing out of the box to collect myself and take a few swings. It’s comical to remember. I was always quick to bellow out a chant from the dug-out or chirp encouragement to my teammates in the field or yawp distraction to an opposing batter. As annoying as I may have been to watch, I was a player with heart. I made the All-Stars team every year I played, but the last.

Something happened that changed my play. Actually two things happened. I became afraid of the ball, and I became afraid of failing. And the thing is, I don’t know where those fears originated. I have no recall of taking a hard hit from the ball nor do I remember running into a performance slump. But I was mentally crippled as a player. There are only two factors I can guess at in analyzing my decline: the speed at which the ball traveled increased as our age and strength did and my confidence and self image decreased with adolescence. During my last season, I actually adopted a batting stance with a deeper squat to shrink my strike zone so that a pitcher would be more likely to walk me than strike me out. It worked but my batting stats were hurt because I had fewer hits than other players, and I was only chosen as an alternate for All-Stars that year.

It was also time to try out for the high school softball team, and I was paralyzed by fear. Many of the girls I had played with all of my childhood tried out and made the team; I can feel that ache of longing to give it a try even now, but I would not. I played it safe by not playing at all, and that is truly one of the biggest regrets of my life. I’ve made a lot of poor choices since those days, but I find that I truly do regret the things I did not do more than the stupid things I did.

So, I played a little intramural softball in college and a little church softball after I married, and I still found those fears sitting on either side of me in the dug-out years later. I allowed them to rob me of my heart and my courage as a player. I wish that had been the only time fear cost me. But the truth is, I am friendly with fear, and I have allowed myself to be the victim of its thievery on numerous occasions. In the end, I gave up a game I loved to protect my fragile ego and to cater to my groundless fears. Now I desperately wish I had dared to fail like every good ballplayer knows you should; I wish I had gone down swingin’…

Get 'er done!

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