Today was the last regular-season game of my stepdaughter’s high school softball career.
I wasn’t there, but I probably wouldn’t have seen much of it if I still lived in the same state, as my work schedule often conflicted with her games.
I’d have left work early today.
She started for the first time at catcher, a position she’d agreed to try because the team needed her to, and batted leadoff for the first time, too. She walked in her first at-bat, stole second and third, and scored on what her father says was another steal but what the official scorer apparently decided was an error.
She scored three total runs and would’ve beaten the other team by herself – by two. The mercy-rule win was her team’s 11th this season, more than the past three combined.
I don’t remember when we first talked about softball. It was before her seventh grade year, the year she stayed with me and her grandparents in Virginia while her father started a new job in Florida. She had played field hockey, her mother’s sport, and tried out for basketball, but for whatever reason, softball kind of stuck.
I’m sure I bragged on my daddy’s state championship softball team as I lobbed pitches to her in the backyard. I talked about how I envisioned her as a speedy centerfielder, elevating small ball to an art form.
In a grassy patch by the James River where we’d all later pose for wedding pictures, I tried to teach her to bunt. I remember the foul ball that glanced off her unprotected 11-year-old jaw, my horror at my inexperienced carelessness, my fear that I’d broken her, my conviction that her father would kill me if I had.
She was fine after an ice pack, and that Christmas, my daddy gave her a hot pink batting helmet and matching gloves.
That year, I drove her to games, where I was often joined in the stands by aunts, grandparents and cousins whose mission in life, it often seemed, was to love on this child. This may come as a surprise, but I wasn’t the quietest supporter, though I tried very hard to yell only encouragement to everyone.
I remember the hard-throwing girl who must’ve reached 50 mph from the mound, and how my stepdaughter – like anyone with sense – rocked back the first time she faced her, far from the invisible offering that whistled by her ear.
“Don’t bail out!” I bellowed. “Stay in there and hit her!”
Bless her, she did her best, taking a pretty solid cut on the very next pitch.
I remember the rainstorm that washed out the season finale, and how the girls dealt with their crushing disappointment by running the bases in the deluge, sliding into a home plate obscured by mud and muck. She banged her cleats together as I put a towel down on the front seat, and we went home.
Softball survived the move to Florida. I know the first year of it, eighth grade, was hard. Florida is a beautiful but odd place, where people take certain things quite seriously. Youth sports is one, and many of her teammates had been on travel teams for years.
They were quite focused, and not always particularly friendly. She made the team and had some good moments, including a snare of a laser line drive hit to her at first base in the season finale that would’ve probably broken a cheekbone had she not caught it. But I know that year, in so many ways, was hard for her. I think I tried not to know how hard, even as I asked the perfunctory questions. I closed my eyes as I swung.
Still, she played.
In high school, she had a different coach every year at a school that valued girls’ sports about as much as Sean Spicer reveres historic fact. The losses came early and by double-digit runs. After every season, there’d be talk of quitting, of whether too much time was being taken away from academics, of whether she was still having fun.
After every season, she played the next one.
This year, her team finally got a pitcher. There may be no more important position in sports than a softball pitcher. But the rest of the team improved around her.
My stepdaughter didn’t always start. She didn’t always steal multiple bases or score three runs.
But she played.
The playoffs beckon – not loom, as they have in past seasons in a district where most every team qualifies (sort of like hockey). More wins may come. More memories will be made. But soon enough, she will graduate – an event I will witness – and embark on an excitingly uncertain future.
I don’t know what the future holds, for her or for me. It’s a slightly more exhilarating position to be in, I’d imagine, when you’re 17, but I’m not so old that I don’t remember that it’s pretty damn scary, too.
The world is in front of her, opening up like the 60 feet between first and second when the pitcher is slow to the plate. I know good times and bad await her. I know she’ll laugh, and I know she’ll cry.
I also know this for damn sure: She’ll suit up, and she’ll play.