Thursday, August 9, 2012

Amber kicks the damn ball

Amber wasn’t the worst player I coached, but she was close.  She had all the tools. She was big enough, strong enough, fast enough, but she was spectacularly passive, and so she rode the bench as much as the rules allowed.
Fact is, Amber couldn’t catch because she wouldn’t move. She couldn’t kick because the second she entered the kicker’s circle, she locked up like rusty brakes, intimidated by their pitcher, her teammates, the handful of moms and dads and siblings who attended our afternoon games — intimidated by us, her coaches, Carl, Molly and me.
As best I can remember, Amber reached first base one time during the regular season — on a walk, and so, it’s fitting that she came through at the biggest moment of the biggest game that year — the biggest in my eight years as a girls kickball coach.
Here’s the story:
It was my third year coaching fourth, fifth and sixth grade girls, which included my daughter, Sarah, and Molly & Carl's daughter, Andrea. Our first year, we were 3-13. Our second, 8-8. Our third, 11-5 or thereabouts, barely good enough to qualify for the post-season tournament.
Somehow, we won the two games necessary to reach the championship game against a team whose coach, legend has it, ordered his Amber-equivalent to fake an asthma attack at a crucial moment. Frankly, I thought he was a good guy, and I certainly can't verify the allegation, but I heard it more than once. 
At any rate, the championship game started at 9 on a hazy, hot, humid, Saturday morning. Carl and I bumped into each other at a coffee shop across the street from the playing fields around 8. We looked like a pair of insomniac war criminals as we sat at separate tables, sipping our coffee and staring into space, knowing we didn’t stand a chance.
We’d lost to them twice during the regular season and would have been fine finishing second, but the girls had other ideas, so late in the game, we trailed by one with girls on second and third with one of our better kickers on deck.
For a moment, it seemed possible — and then it didn’t. Our girl popped up, bringing Amber trudging to the plate.
“Well, look who’s up,” their pitcher said, smirking and spinning around to make sure each of her infielders got the message: Easy out. We win. Again.
We suspected as much as well, even while we went through the motions: Relax, Amber. Watch the ball. Step out of the circle if you need to catch your breath. Run all the way to first base. Don’t slow down. You can do this. Take a deep breath. Now, let’s go.”
It was entirely obligatory because we knew the game was over, and sure enough, Amber froze. She watched two good pitches saunter across the plate. Strike one. Strike two.
I don’t remember the third pitch. Maybe I was too nervous or nauseous to watch. Maybe I was gazing at the sky, surprised that the haze had begun to burn off and that the sun was peeking between the clouds. Maybe, if I’d been listening, I might have heard God speak to Amber because I believe He (or She or whatever) did.
I believe God said, “Amber, this is God, and I want you to do something for me.”
I believe Amber heard God and answered, “Yes, God. What do you want of me?”
And I believe God replied, “Amber, kick the damn ball.”
I believe this because Amber did God's will. She pile-drived the damn ball into right center field where — guess who? — their Amber was planted, and the ball rolled and rolled and rolled until two runs had scored, and we won the post-season tournament. Our girls squealed and screeched and splashed Gatorade on each other while Carl and Molly and I hugged in silent disbelief and wonder. A few of the parents wept.
I love telling this story and often do when I teach writing. It reminds me of the beauty of sports, of why we coach and why they play and what the game is — or should be — really about.