I can't begin to report how many weekends in a row I've taken my daughter to travel softball tournaments, how many 5 a.m. wake-ups, how many 7 a.m. warm-ups for 8 a.m. games (they play 3 games on Saturday for seeding and then in a single-elimination tournament on Sunday).
Anyway, my daughter's team has played teams named Twisters, Rage, Explosion, Venom, Psycho Chicks, Lady Lions, Storm, Hurricanes, Bandits, you name it, and they've beaten the teams they're supposed to beat and lost to the teams they're supposed to lose to (translated: the team has been together for about 9 months, and some of the girls have been playing travel for less than a year; in contrast, the better teams have been together for 2-3 years and have players with many more years of experience).
Well, on a hot Saturday they went 1-2 and ended up playing at 8 a.m. on Sunday in the single-elimination round. They were in the 8-9 seed game, meaning that if they won they'd be playing the #1 seed three and a half hours later. They have trouble hitting, can pitch well at times, and have their moments in the field (but also their lapses). The best teams don't beat themselves in the field (and are very familiar with situational plays), bunt well, run aggressively and don't throw many wild pitches. So, they went out and won the 8 a.m. game, which led them to a potentially tough game against the #1 seed. The reputation of the #1 seed was that they pitched well, fielded well, and executed well, but it wasn't that they were loaded with hitters.
The game started on an interesting note. With two outs, a runner on the opposing team tried to score from second base, and the catcher, after a pretty good throw, tagged the runner in a cloud of dust. The umpire called the runner out, prompting a yell from the opposing coach, "The tag was high." The umpire didn't respond, and then the coach yelled very loudly the exact same thing. That prompted the home plate umpire to take off his mask, walk toward the opposing dugout and say to the opposing coach, "I've heard enough out of you. One more time, and I'm throwing you out of the game."
At any rate, our girls stayed with the other team for two innings (the score was 0-0) and then we had an inning where a few errors compounded themselves and it was 5-0, the other team. Then, the opposition started working the clock (the games are limited to 1 hour, 30 minutes) by gathering the team for a huddle after the inning, getting the team back onto the field more slowly after they made 3 outs, and by coaching each hitter from the third-base box in a conference. Subtle things, but they add up. They were a good team and probably didn't need to resort to those tactics.
So, it was 7-0 going into the bottom of the fourth when the other team got a runner on base with two outs. It was 95 degrees outside. One of our players, who didn't take good care of herself between games, took herself out of the game because she was getting dehydrated. Our catcher, who was catching her fourth game in 24 hours, rubbed herself down with a wash cloth dipped in ice water between innings and kept on drinking Powerade and water. She also made sure to put her equipment in the shade between innings. It was that hot.
The opposing team's runner was on second base, and the ball got hit into the outfield. The rightfielder threw it to the first baseman, who was the cutoff player, and she threw a strike to the catcher, who, for the fourth time that day, held the ball in a cloud of dust and made the tag. The runner looked out by two feet. Almost right before the play ended, the umpire called the runner safe and then added, very quickly, "that's it, the game's over." Why? Because, at 8-0 after four innings, the mercy rule kicked into effect. (Apparently, the inning before, he had remarked to one of our coaches that one more run would end the game, so suffice it to say that he was looking for any excuse to get into the shade before the next game).
The catcher shook her head, firmly and respectfully, and quietly walked off the field before returning to line up and shake the other team's hands. Then she returned to the dugout, methodically took off her gear, packed up her equipment bag, took a few swigs of Powerade, and went to talk with her parents and brother. She had four close plays at the plate that day, include one where she thought she had tagged a runner out who tried to steal home (the pitcher had turned her back on the runner after getting the ball back from the catcher), but the runner created such a cloud of dust that it engulfed both players, thereby obscuring the umpire's view (the catcher is a partisan, refusing to admit when an opposing baserunner is safe, but her coaches offered that they thought that the runner got under the tag). Another time the first baseman made a relay throw that was on the backstop slide of the plate, only to have the catcher field the ball backhanded and make a swipe tag into a cloud of dust. Again, the umpire was obscured, and he bellowed, "show me the ball," to the catcher, making sure that the catcher hadn't dropped the ball. She had the ball, and the umpire yelled, "She's out." Coming back to the dugout, teammates congratulated the thrower, but not the catcher, but this time the tag eclipsed the throw, and those in the know knew (including some knowledgeable parents and the umpire, who said, "nice tag, catch").
A catcher has a tough job in these games, especially with a young pitcher who's learning and doesn't always know where the ball is going when she releases it. It's much easier to catch a pitcher who throws to a defined square than to catch one who makes you play hockey goalie to prevent wild pitches. You scoop up dirt, and end up with a patina of grime on you (including your neck and face) because of a combination of sweat, suntan lotion and the clay-laden soil that is indigenous to our area. You bake under equipment that for some reason is colored black and not white. You also have to listen to conflicting exhortations and attempted coaching from parents who sit too close, coaches and even teammates, who sometimes get on other teammates while forgetting their own inadequacies.
You take balls off your shin guards, chest protector and helmet, sometimes hit hard enough to snap your head back. Your shins contain the totems of your trade -- bruises from this collision, that blocked pitch or a foul ball. You chase runners back to bases and have to throw to bases where players forget to cover or your pitcher forgets to duck. You love the game, love calling pitches, and love helping your pitcher get confidence to throw pitches she's been working on, especially a changeup. You enjoyed the moment in the last inning of the game you won on Saturday where you called two fastballs in a row, both of which were swung at and missed, and then called for a changeup. The other team's hitter stood there like a recently twisted pretzel, frozen, because she was expected a fastball. The umpire called it a strike, and the batter sat down. You caught this pitcher twice on Saturday, and she shook you off only three times the entire day. Most people don't notice, but you take pride in that.
You try to hit as best as you can, working your way through slumps that sometimes happen, why, because you're young, and, also, because slumps happen to the best hitters. Yet, you make contact most of the time, because you get up their patiently and you battle. You might not always win, but you fight. You love the game.
You also thanked me, your father, for playing catch with you starting when you were little, talking situational plays with you, talking about strategy, talking about things to work on and, yes, for getting up at 5 a.m. on Father's Day and giving up most of that day to take you to your games on Sunday. But because of who you are, and because of how you approach the game -- how you prepare, how you work, how you shake off bad events, how you motivate yourself, how you lead -- there's no need to thank me. No, you gave me -- and have given me -- a great Father's Day present.