Sunday, July 19, 2015

A Wish for All Young Ball Players

And in honor of my dad and the St. Bernadette's Beavers...

Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on April 15, 2015
Julie Owsik Ackermanis a writing coach for college applicants

Spring means crocuses, robins, and baseball. The Phillies come back to town, and little boys and girls are fitting their hands into leather gloves, running the bases, and swinging a bat. I began playing baseball on a boys' team, at the age of 5. I hated it. I would have preferred dance class, but no one was going to tell my mom that her daughter couldn't play baseball because she was a girl, and it was probably easier to take all of her children to one place. So off to the baseball diamond I went week after week.

After that first season, my parents switched me to the girls' softball league, which I liked better. I had three brothers, and lived on a block with all boys, so having girls around, at least at the ball field, was a relief. But did I even enjoy softball? I don't know. It's hard to like anything while you're learning. In those first years I just remember being at "The Field" all the time. We practiced when it was still so cold that my hands were red and raw, and would sting when I caught a ball in my glove. Other days we baked in the sun, thirsty and unsheltered. In the early years, I tried every position, kept showing up, kept practicing, and over time, became a decent player.

Although anyone could play in the town Little League, it was a big deal to make the St. Bernadette's school team. So when I made it in seventh grade I was pleased. In eighth grade, our coach got sick, and the call went out for volunteers. My dad asked me what I thought about him coaching. He had played Division 1 baseball at St. Joe's University, coached high school sports for years, and my brothers in many things, but could he handle girls? There weren't many options, so I said we could give it a try.

At our first team practice we told my dad we didn't want to order hats.
"What?" he asked, incredulous. "This is softball."
"They'll ruin our hair," one of the Nicoles explained. This was the 1990s - big bangs were important.

What would Dad do? Get angry? Force the hats on us? He thought for a moment, then said: "OK, I guess we'll vote on it. How many people want hats?"
A few nerds raised their hands.

He laughed, and then said, "OK, looks like we won't be wearing hats this year."
It may seem a small thing, even silly, this respect of our big bangs, but it was brilliant. With that vote, he showed us - he showed me - that he respected us, that he heard us, that our opinion mattered.

So began a magical season. With Katie Weinrich pitching, me at first base, the team's solid defense, and some good hitting, the St. Bernadette's Beavers were almost unbeatable. I'd never had so much fun. Winning will do that. Winning with your dad as the coach, and your friends as your teammates, well, that's a dream season.
The golden season tarnished a bit when I contracted chicken pox right before the playoffs. Restricted to bed, I learned the news when my dad came home from each game with his play-by-play report. It was torture to be lying at home, missing the pinnacle of everything we had worked to accomplish, but the team kept winning and winning.

In a movielike ending, the doctor cleared me to return for the big game. We had made it all the way to the Archdiocesan Championship, playing to be the best Catholic school team in the whole Philadelphia area. I was so proud, so pleased, and so glad I could be there with my teammates. Pock-covered or not, I was ready to play my heart out.

The score was 1-0. It was the bottom of the fifth inning (we played only six). The bases were loaded with one out, and I came up to bat. Here was my chance, to knock in the winning runs for my teammates. I gripped the bat, breathed, waited for my pitch, and when it came I knew it. I swung with all my pent-up weeks of frustration, crushing that ball. CRACK! I knew my glory moment had come. Just like in the movies, I heard the screams, I felt the joy, then no! No! THUD. The ball landed. Directly in the shortstop's glove. I was out.
Everything went silent. It was supposed to be the best hit of my life. How could it end this way? I walked, trembling, back toward the bench, and when my dad put his arm around me, the tears just poured out.

He hugged me and let me cry, let me be the 13-year-old that I was. After I calmed down he said, "Jewel, that was a great hit. You did everything you could. I'm proud of you."

We lost the game.

When I recently asked my dad about the game, he said what he has always said, "If you had hit that ball two feet in the other direction, we would have won."

That was a good lesson to learn. Even when you pull yourself up from a sickbed and have a chance to be a hero, all you can do is swing the bat - you can't control where the fielder is standing.

I can't lie. The loss still hurts a little. But in losing, I won something way more valuable. I learned that day that my dad was proud of me even when I wasn't the hero, even when I lost. That is my wish for every child this baseball and softball season.

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