The first pitch bounced once, then twice, before reaching home plate. The next sailed high over the catcher’s outstretched arm, forcing the umpire to duck and move out of the way. The pitcher for St. Timothy’s was, in a word, struggling.
A chilly, light rain fell and fog crept in along the far corners of the outfield grass as the opposing player stood patiently in the batter’s box, watched four pitches, then took first base in a parade of walks.
The top of the first inning finally ended with a gracious assist from the other team’s coach, who, having quickly gotten a read on the talent disparity, had one of her runners intentionally leave base early, a violation resulting in an out. (Had she not done that, they might still be batting.)
That’s roughly how last season began for my daughter Katie’s team at St. Timothy’s, a small all-girls school near Baltimore. The school has about 175 students, 25 percent of whom are international. They are drawn to the 145-acre campus for its International Baccalaureate program, and for its athletic prowess. St. Timothy’s has recently won conference championships in various team sports, but those wins don’t include the softball team, whose banners have been notably absent from those hanging in the gym for the last twenty years.
The softball team plays in a lower division than some of the school’s other more competitive teams, in fact it plays in the lowest division of the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland. We can credit St. Timothy’s requirement that every student participate in some extracurricular activity after school for several of the international students signing up for softball.
After the first practice, I asked Katie, who played travel-level softball for several years, how it went.
“Pretty good,” she said, “considering half the players don’t own gloves. Some of them don’t really know the rules.”
She explained that when the coach asked players to throw to first base from either second base or shortstop so he could gauge throwing ability, many went to shortstop because, on name alone, they assumed it would be a shorter throw.
Watching part of an early-season practice, I thought, “This team will never win.”
Now I’m almost embarrassed at my skepticism, and the way I superficially equated victories with scores.
These girls from all over the world showed me again and again that being together on a softball field for two hours each spring afternoon was the best place on Earth any of them could possibly be. That internal experience never quite shows up on a scoreboard.
After a 20-5 loss at an away game, girls from China, Mexico, India, and Baltimore huddled together for a group selfie, wearing big smiles, braces, braids, and pale blue jerseys.
Katie offered about as strong an endorsement as a 15-year-old can give, saying, “This team is such a vibe.”
They seemed not to mind losing the first game of the season by such a wide margin. And they appeared just as unfazed in the third inning of their home opener, when they trailed their opponent 25-1.
On the bench, girls from Mexico began to sing in Spanish. Soon teammates joined in and their joyful voices washed over the field. When the game ended in a 28-1 loss, the St. Timothy’s girls broke out in song again, hugged one another, and took a selfie. Players on the lacrosse team on an adjacent field saw this, and wrongly sensing a dramatic come-from-behind win, ran over to join the celebration.
The opposing team’s players, packing up their gear, looked understandably perplexed.
As a parent of two children, I’ll admit I have been sucked too deeply at times into the travel-sports vortex, with an emphasis on winning and expectation and wholly unreasonable strains on time. I have seen obsessed high school softball coaches enter teams in tournaments that consume an entire holiday weekend in the pursuit of ranking points allotted by the national amateur organization USSSA. Earn enough USSSA points and you could win a championship ring, though that and a dollar won’t buy a cup of coffee. The fact that USSSA hosts national championship tournaments starting as early as age six is, in my opinion, a perfect example of everything wrong with the travel-sports subculture.
This St. Timothy’s team was decidedly different. The team entered the season with no expectations and no demands for players to perform well. Good plays on the field were a bonus and a surprise. In other words, there was no pressure to win; and with pressure off, the game distilled down to its essence: fun and good sportsmanship.
Pinch-hitting in a lopsided loss early in the season, in the first competitive at-bat of her life, an exchange student from Mexico hit a ground ball to short. The bench erupted. The other team’s shortstop made a clean play and threw her out by two steps. Meanwhile, the student danced on first base, soaking up the applause from her teammates, until the first base umpire walked over and patiently explained that she was, in fact, out. Still, she returned to the bench a rockstar.
The softball team steadily improved over the course of the season, guided by an exceedingly patient, optimistic coach. A girl who had pitched in rec ball a few years earlier took over as the main pitcher and threw enough strikes to keep the team competitive. Soccer players who parked on the softball team as a spring activity made athletic plays in the field.
Then, as the weather warmed and the grass turned green, the team did something unexpected: It won a game. Then another. And another. They won enough games to make the playoffs.
No, the season didn’t end with this remarkable band of girls running off into the sunset with a title. In the bottom of the last inning of a thrilling playoff game, they lost when the other team scored the winning run. There were tears that day, because, yes, losing can hurt. But there were far more tears a week later, when the team held a farewell party for five players from Mexico whose one-year exchange program was ending.
Katie has played on a lot of girls softball teams, some of which won highly competitive tournaments. She has played with and against future college players. This St. Timothy’s team, she said, was her favorite team of all.
When the girls from that team return to campus in 5, 10, or 20 years, I suspect they won’t remember a pitch that bounced twice before reaching the plate. They won’t remember losing 28-1. They won’t remember their final record was 3-6. Instead, they’ll recall laughing, and singing in the rain in Spanish, and two hours each spring afternoon when the days grew longer and friendships grew deeper. They will remember that this team was, unequivocally, a most convincing win.