It's hard to pinpoint my very first memory of softball or baseball--I know that the Yankees were always on TV at my house and whiffle ball in my driveway was one of my favorite pastimes--but I do remember, very clearly, the first time that my softball career was saved. I was 9. I had played my first season of softball the year before, at the field so near my house I could probably throw a softball that distance now. And I was terrible. Really. As I remember it, I struck out every time I was at bat. Every. Single. Time. And on defense? You guessed it...right field. I was a terrible softball player; I knew it; and I had decided that I was not doing it again.
A couple of weeks before what would become my second season started I was outside playing when my softball coaches, who lived around the corner, drove by. They stopped to say hi and started a conversation. Soon they brought up softball sign ups. In what was more a statement than a question one of them said, "you're signing up for softball this year, right?" Since I was 9, the question surprised me. And, since I was 9, I didn't know how to tell them "Hell, no! I hated it last year!" So I said, "yea, of course," slumping my shoulders and head forward into the universal signal of excitement.
But something happened in that second year of softball: I fell in love. One day at practice the coaches asked if there was anyone who wasn't afraid to catch for the 10 year old pitcher who already threw 50mph. I said I wasn't and my catching career promptly began. At first, I wasn't a lot better at catching than I was at hitting, but something was different. I loved catching. I loved it so much that even though I wasn't good at it yet, I still wanted to do it. I wanted to learn everything about it and I knew, eventually, I would be good at it.
In the 24 years since that day in my driveway, my love for catching and for softball has continued to grow. This game has brought me some of my happiest memories and introduced me to my best friends; and, as in any love story, it has also been the stage for some of my most excruciating heartbreaks.
I know how the game feels--the ball in my hand, my cleats in the dirt; how it smells--like dirt, fresh grass and leather; and how it sounds--the perfectly caught ball in a catcher's mitt, a round bat hitting a round ball square.
I learned to appreciate the deeper parts of the game and the philosophy of it. Softball/baseball is the loneliest team sport ever created. While you must depend on and work with your teammates in unselfish commitment, when you are standing in the field or in the batter's box and the ball comes your way, in that moment, no one can help you. In that moment you will succeed or fail based on a variety of factors, but the responsibility, ultimately, rests on you and only you. In a game where failure is more common than success, this loneliness and personal responsibility has the ability to tear a player down. It is, I believe, what drives many from the game. But those of us who love it know that succeeding under these conditions just once is so powerful that it will drive you to overcome the next 10 failures because, as Babe Ruth said, "every strike brings me closer to my next homerun."
During my first year playing high school ball, a senior who had lost that love for the game said to me "wait until you're my age and see if you still love it." Three years later and after a crushing loss in the state finals, I did still love it, and even more than when she had said it. I continue to love softball to this day because as Jimmy Dugan said in A League of Their Own, "Baseball is what gets inside you, it's what lights you up."
I stopped playing last year and when Dutchies ask me why, they often ask "heb je geen zin meer?" or "you don't feel like it anymore?" I always find this confusing and difficult to respond to. Softball is not something that you simply don't feel like doing anymore, it's not something that you get over. Softball is a love story, it's a part of who I am and once you have fallen in love with this game you become a part of something more, something greater than yourself that can't be put perfectly into words, but is understood by the others who love it the way you do. Bryant Gumbel, the American sportscaster, summed it up: "The other sports are just sports. Baseball is a love."