When I was in high school, I played on an incredibly competitive softball team that in my four years never hit all the right spots to win a conference title. Every year we’d get to the semifinals or the finals and just blow it. During one of these dramatic games where girls were crying or visibly frustrated with the game, my coach said, “There is life after softball.”
When I was a freshman in college, I walked onto a team that was building. We were in our final provisional year of Division III competition, and I joined the first ever recruited players to build the program. In that year, I quickly became the only pitcher, one of a handful of the team that had ever played softball before college, and one exhausted player. Our season record was 6-26. That’s 6 wins and 26 losses, many of those by more than 10 runs. It was one of the most physically and emotionally exhausting seasons of my life. And about halfway through the season, I turned to my coach and said, “There’s life after softball,” to which he replied, “No there’s not!”
Today I begin my life after softball. Yesterday I finished my senior season with a pair of devastating losses keeping my team out of the playoffs. And I could write a book about the experience of playing college softball, the experience of playing softball at this school, the experience of making most of my college friends through this team. But I am going to reflect on my life and what I have given to this sport, and what this sport has given me.
I’m a lifer. I have been playing this sport since T-ball, not taking a season off since then. I really don’t even know what spring is without it, and I’ll let you know next year how it goes. It has been and will forever be apart of who I am. I cried more than I thought I was going to yesterday because I realized I’m not just closing a chapter in my life with this team, but I’m closing this subplot of what has really been my entire life, and it literally feels like I’ve had a death in the family. I know there might be a future in playing beer league or coaching for me, but there will never be anything like what I’ve been playing all these years.
Softball was a huge part of the relationship I had with my dad. He was my coach for many seasons, and even when he wasn’t the official coach, he was coaching me. And that didn’t even hit when he died nine years ago. I mean, it did literally because he was coaching my little league team and someone else’s dad had to step in, but I kind of obviously was more focused on losing a dad than losing a coach. But in reflecting on this big softball thing, I started remembering those last few months with him. I remember crying in the car after I was put on the “B” team for middle school softball. I knew I was good enough for the “A” team, but the B team needed a pitcher (I realize just how ridiculously presumptous that sounds). I sobbed at the thought of playing with girls I deemed worse than me, and missing out on the glory of being on the “better team,” and he comforted me knowing I would be a leader and learn more about myself this way. I remember being annoyed when he came home from the early coaches meeting with maroon uniforms when I instructed him to get a color that would match my red cleats. I remember running laps for him when I got cheeky at practice one summer. I remember him pushing me to throw a hundred pitches a day, and me finding any excuse to avoid doing so. I remember going to Dick’s every season and picking out new equipment and the thrill of it all.
One summer, my dad picked me up from practice and asked how it went. “It was great! I haven’t been hitting well, so Coach Tom made me just hold the bat out while he pitched it at me, and then I could hit again! It was awesome!” I was ecstatic. My dad smiled, “Ahh well then, maybe it’s time someone else coaches you.” Puzzled, I asked what he meant. He just said, “There’s only so much I can teach you before you have to learn from someone else,” and he left it at that. My smile faded. My dad had always been my coach from the stands, even if he wasn’t in the dugout. He came before any coach, and I couldn’t imagine it any other way.
So here I am, nearly ten years and probably as many coaches later, trying to figure out how to say goodbye to this part of me. I don’t think there’s a moral here. I am very sad. I have gotten so much out of softball. I understand people better, I understand leadership better, and I know the importance of patience. I could tie in a lot of metaphors about striking out or running everything out or being on a team, but I don’t want to get preachy about sports and how they make you a better person. I’m just going to move forward and keep on swingin’.