A Thanksgiving List: Giving Thanks for Softball MemoriesTop Stories
As temperatures drop and turkeys roast, I’m thankful for softball.
Anyone who has packed up an apartment or house can surely attest to our knack for amassing, well, stuff. Closets and garages full of it. Stuff you never needed. Stuff you long ago stopped needing. Stuff you didn’t even know you had. The detritus of our lives is not our most redeeming feature as a society. But sometimes accumulated clutter is both reward and reminder. When it comes to the nooks and crannies of our minds stuffed full of memories, clutter is everything.
I forget games I covered and stories I wrote. I forget entire seasons. But never forever. At some point, inevitably, something will jostle a particular memory loose from some corner of my mind and it will tumble into view. For a few minutes, I’ll drift off to another time and place.
As we stop to eat and be thankful, debatably in that order, here are a few of the people, places, feats and sounds of softball that I’m thankful to find still cluttering up my mind.
This is in no way an exhaustive or even ordered list. Maybe we’ll do it again next Thanksgiving with an entirely new list. There are enough candidates to do it for several decades.
What softball memories are you thankful for?
Angela Tincher’s rise ball
Some rise balls ascend gradually, like a jetliner rumbling down a long runway before finally lifting into the air. Tincher’s rise was more akin to a fighter jet flinging it self up and off an aircraft carrier. It was power and fury—Lauren Lappin put it perfectly when she described a combination of velocity and spin you could hear. If there is any softball argument I carry to the grave it will be making the case that Tincher belongs in whatever small group of pitchers are contenders for the best of all time. She and Cat Osterman are the only Division I pitchers who averaged at least 13.5 strikeouts per seven innings in each of three collegiate seasons. And only Monica Abbott ever struck out more batters in a Division I season than Tincher’s 679 in 2008. She was also part of a line—perhaps its progenitor—of ridiculously talented and often under-recruited pitchers from Virginia that includes Meagan Good, Jailyn Ford, Odicci Alexander and Kathryn Sandercock. But it’s that rise ball, the one that beat Team USA on a chilly night in Oklahoma City, that made you feel like you were in the presence of something otherworldly.
Danielle Lawrie’s Amherst all-nighter
Even central Massachusetts can’t be that cold in early May, right? Maybe it wasn’t, but my abiding memory of the 2009 regional final between Washington and UMass is trying to stop my teeth chattering as Lawrie and Jenn Salling sat bundled up in the media tent at the end of the night The Huskies, of course, went on to win the national championship a few weeks later. But in the days when a national seed didn’t guarantee a home regional, that run was in serious peril in Amherst. Host UMass beat Lawrie and the Huskies in the final day’s opening game to force a winner-take-all finale. Lawrie threw more than 140 pitches in the day’s first game—and then threw more than 250 more in a finale that went 15 innings and didn’t end until after midnight. The intimidating Canadian ace always had one of the all-time great glares in the circle, but those 20 innings and nearly 400 pitches to get the Huskies out of New England and on the road to a title were definitive proof of a Husky who absolutely had the bite to back up the bark.
Caitlin Lowe’s catch
Time isn’t sentimental. Today’s athletes are better than yesterday’s athletes, just as the athletes of tomorrow will run faster, jump higher and swing harder than today’s stars. But every now and again, you watch someone who is a generation ahead of her time—like a book filed in the wrong section in the library or a time-lapse photo of evolution in action. That was Lowe. Hopefully, the Arizona coach’s current players appreciate that there is nothing they can do on a softball field that their coach couldn’t do more than 15 years ago. Memory ages almost as poorly as athleticism, but I’m almost certain the 2006 Mary Nutter Classic was my first trip to the tournament. While the players may get better, I don’t imagine I’ll ever see a better play than Lowe’s sprint through the breakaway fence. And as much as it defies common sense and natural evolution, I’m not sure I’ll ever see a better outfielder.
The sound of a Tammy Williams swing
Specifically, those very rare instance when the former Northwestern slugger swung and missed. Sometimes the strangest things stick with you. But if I close my eyes and tune out the world, I can still hear the thudding thwack of Williams’ bat colliding with her back on her follow through. She tempered the uncontrolled ferocity of the swing over time and a long pro career—she’s definitely wearing Northwestern purple in my mind’s eye. But in her earliest collegiate incarnation, when she was the largely unheralded kid from Missouri, Garland Cooper’s red-haired “Mini-Me” on the Northwestern teams that reached the 2006 and 2007 World Series, she put everything into those swings. And because of Northwestern’s role in those years, reaching the World Series and trying to follow Michigan in expanding the sport’s championship borders, it felt a little like each one of those swings channeled the energy of so many softball players from so many off-the-beaten-path places trying to break through.
Tiffany DeFelice’s WCWS at-bat
My scorekeeping is decidedly idiosyncratic. I use a regular notebook instead of a scorebook, noting the progression of each batter’s pitch count using the left margin for foul balls. In 2008, I just remember the jumble of row after row of digits crowding the margin as DeFelice spent more than 11 minutes at the plate in a 21-pitch at-bat against Louisiana. The Florida freshman eventually hit a routine fly ball to center, so perhaps this should really be the Ashley Brignac at-bat, in honor of the Ragin’ Cajuns pitcher who outlasted her. But it’s DeFelice sending ball after ball into the stands that sticks in the memory. The most exciting moment in WCWS history? Not exactly. But coming on the opening afternoon in Oklahoma City, it somehow perfectly captured the event’s charm, as if forcing everyone watching to slow down, take a deep breath and settle in for a week of softball. And possibly rethink your scorekeeping.
Hannah Perryman’s joy
Not telling enough of the stories that unfold beyond Division I is one of my great and ongoing frustrations over the past two decades. It’s not a lack of interest in them—the best story I’ve ever been a part of unfolded on a Division II diamond. It’s just a matter of time and opportunity. But when Missouri-St. Louis’ Hannah Perryman was in the midst of setting the non-Division I career strikeout record (chased the whole way by former University of Indianapolis and Athletes Unlimited pitcher Morgan Foley), I pointed the car toward Peoria and the conference tournament. As is often the case, the person was more enduringly impressive than the record ever will be.
Decidedly not as physically imposing as Monica Abbott or Cat Osterman, with whom she now rubs elbows in the record book, Perryman nonetheless threw hard and with wicked movement. She was also a survivor, her adolescent years upended by a stalker. When laws failed her, she spoke out and lobbied for change. She might not have pitched in Hall of Fame Stadium, but she left a far greater legacy testifying in the Illinois state house and effecting change with the passage of new anti-stalking legislation. In that conference tournament in Peoria, she was just a pitcher, joyously making the ball dance and playing alongside her younger sister for a Division II juggernaut. But watching her parents as they, in turn, watch their daughter live out her softball dreams, you knew how hard-earned that joy was.
The Kelsey Stevens season
Although often left off lists of memorable Oklahoma transfers, Stevens is very much part of the story of the Sooners’ decade of dominance. The ace who followed after Keilani Ricketts and Michelle Gascoigne and preceded Paige Parker, Stevens singlehandedly provided the pitching that kept Oklahoma’s run intact. A transfer from Stanford in the pre-portal days, Stevens pitched in 57 of Oklahoma’s 64 games in 2014. She started 51 of them. She nearly threw as many innings in that one season as Jordy Bahl got to throw in two seasons. She threw them out of necessity—slugger Shelby Pendley was second on the team in innings. And the numbers the next two seasons suggest she paid a physical price. She was out there in all three games when the Sooners beat Tennessee in a super regional and out there for 11.2 innings when they had to play two games on the old elimination Saturday in Oklahoma City.
With Lauren Chamberlain battling injuries through much of that season and an offense that was merely better than most, as opposed to the historic offerings before and since, Oklahoma’s season could have gone awry. Oklahoma’s excellence these days is easy to appreciate, but it’s not exactly easy to identify with any more than than it’s easy to identify with Manchester City or Max Verstappen—juggernauts that appear to compete against the standards of perfection more than against opponents. Watching the Stevens season was, if not the opposite, than a different strand. It was sheer stubborn will. And it was a unique chapter in a decade of dominance.
“I don’t really care who came before or who is going to come after,” Stevens said during that season. “I think it’s just more important that I found a good fit, found girls and the coaches that I like. … I’m my own person, so I’m not worried about following anybody.”
Sis Bates and her glove
Somewhere, Sis Bates is sure I’m going to ask her about her glove. Again. Sorry, Sis. But Bates naming her gloves and anthropomorphizing them as essentially softball Tamagotchi was impossible to resist—or ask about in interviews. It sums up the joy with which she plays but also the unrelenting attention she pays to defense. She played in the right era, to be sure. Social media spread viral web gems that a previous era’s box scores would have missed. But as good a hitter as she was and is, she earned stardom with defense and charisma. Yet to me, what continues to make her an asset for the evolving sport, and keeps her narrative from getting stale, is the sense that there is something more just beneath the surface. That for all the laughter and hugs, her eyes occasionally betray a latent and ruthless competitive streak that took her from moderately overlooked recruit to All-American and professional. She’s a reminder to find the joy in what you do. But also to remember the story is rarely as simple as it looks.