Jennifer Leavey

Hot July Night

 

When my father wants to tease me about my unremarkable athletic career, he sits back in his chair, the brown corduroy one by the fireplace, and begins to talk in a slow, hypnotic voice, dramatic like he’s recounting an epic poem.  The story begins the same way every time, “It was a hot July night, and everyone’s eyes were on you…” 

  
He tells this story to our friends, our family, and his coworkers.  He tells it whenever a Red Sox player I love scores the winning run or racks up a dozen strikeouts.  It’s the story of the only time I ever won anything in softball, a story that dates back to the summer of 2000, when I was 12 years old. 


I pretend to be embarrassed by his story, but the truth is that I thrill every time I hear it. I love to think about that night, to think that I, Jennifer Leavey, perpetual softball benchwarmer, could have ever had my own moment of athletic glory, even if both the stage and the stakes were small.  I might have been playing for a team of girls under 13 in the summer league you got stuck on if you weren’t good enough to make my town’s competitive travel softball team.  Still, when I think about that night, I remember how it felt like I was playing at Fenway Park, that there were 30,000 people watching me instead of 30.  I remember feeling, as I stepped onto the mound, that I was pitching in the World Series, not a game the other team nearly had to forfeit because so many of its players were away on vacation.
 

They didn’t forfeit, though, and the coach put me in to pitch.  I’d been asking to pitch ever since the season began.  I’d been asking my coaches to pitch every season for as long as I could remember, but, up to that point, no one had ever put their faith in my performance on the mound.  I couldn’t have blamed them, even though my continued rejection disappointed me.  I was, after all, terrible at softball. 


For years, I’d struggled at the plate because I was terrified of getting hurt if a ball hit me.  I wouldn’t swing when I was up to bat, wouldn’t even move until I either struck out or took the pitcher walked me.  Fortunately, I was one of the league’s shortest players, which led to a miniscule strike zone.  Pitchers walked me a lot.  I was an awful fielder as well, though fear had nothing to do with that.  Instead, I lacked both hand-eye coordination and spatial awareness, which meant that I couldn’t catch the ball to save my life, and my throws were more likely to hit a spectator than they were to reach their target.


 It wasn’t like I was blind to my lack of athletic ability.  I knew that softball was not my calling, but I returned to the field year after year because I loved the game.  I loved the grainy feel of the dirt my cleats pulverized as I ran the bases.  I loved how my hand felt when my leather glove enclosed it, how it felt when the ball popped into the glove’s webbing.  I loved the smell of the fresh grass on the field mixing with the smell of the sunscreen on my face.  I loved the taste of the sunflower seeds we ate all game, and how their shells looked splayed like a mosaic against the dirt of the dugout.  I loved the cheers we screamed, ones like “V-I-C-T-O-R-Y!  Victory’s our battle cry!”  I loved how your team became your family, and your social status at school didn’t matter when you all sat shoulder-to-shoulder waiting to bat.


My parents knew how much I loved softball, and were there cheering me on during every game, but would still take me aside for a talk every year before the season started.


“Jenny,” they’d say, “we got the flyer from Ashland Youth Softball again.  I know that you said you wanted to play, but are you sure about that?  You get so upset every year…” 


“I know I’ve gotten upset before, but I’m so much OLDER this season!  I promise that I won’t let how I play get to me.”

 
And they’d sign me up and we’d go out to buy new softball pants and stirrup socks and cleats, knowing that I’d told a lie we pretended to ignore until the first time I broke down in the car on the way to the field.  I’d ask through my tears how it was fair that all of the other players got better every year, while I either stayed the same or got even worse, no matter how hard I practiced.  My parents didn’t know what to say.  They’d asked me if I wanted to play before the season started me, reminded me how my skill level had made me upset every season before, but could do nothing once I’d marched my way onto the field.


“Jenny, we know you’re upset,” they’d say, “but you wanted to play.  You love softball.  Isn’t that what matters most, that you’re playing a game you love with your friends?” 


And I knew they were right.  I did love softball.  I always had at least one friend on my team.  I looked forward to game days like I did Christmas or my birthday.  I’d stop crying before we reached the field, and, while I sat on the bench or deep in the outfield during the game, I’d resolve to try even harder, practice even more, run even faster. 


It was after one of these games, the kind where I was inconsolable beforehand and dried my tears with promises to myself that I would become better, that I asked my parents for a pitchback, which is a wire frame that surrounds tightly stitched netting with a strike zone taped on the middle.  You pitched the ball at the apparatus, and the ball bounced off the netting and rolled right back to you.  Fortunately for me, my birthday fell around the beginning of softball season every year, and I’d asked just in time.  My parents got me my pitchback.  All I had to do was promise that I wouldn’t let my new toy affect my homework and that I’d share it with my sister, both of which were easy to keep.  I was in the fifth grade, so my homework load was pretty light, and my sister preferred to play in the infield or be catcher.


I went to my backyard and worked on my pitching every nice day that I didn’t have a game.  For the first time in my long softball career, I’d found something where, if I practiced long and hard enough, my skill improved.  I found that I could throw the ball hard; I just needed to work on my aim.  So I did. 


The summer of the “hot July night” took place around a year after I got my pitchback.  I was one of the oldest players on my team that summer.  Normally, this wouldn’t have bothered me, but I was also the team’s worst player, while girls three and four years younger than I was took on starring roles.  I didn’t want to be a star; I just wanted to be an adequate player.


My father co-coached my team that summer.  I’d always been a Daddy’s girl; I was closer to him than anyone else in the world.  Still, he was very professional as a coach and treated me like any other player.  This smarted sometimes, since I was the team’s worst player, which meant a lot of time spent sulking on the bench during games.  My father had seen me spend all of those hours at the pitchback, though.  He’d also served as my catcher enough times to know that I could actually pitch.  I just needed a chance to prove myself as a pitcher, and he gave that to me.


The first night I pitched started like any other.  My father drove me to the field.  It was a typical Massachusetts summer night:  hot and so humid you could almost reach out and touch the air.  The car smelled like bug spray and cut grass.  Mosquitoes were everywhere once we got to the field.  I sprayed an extra cloud of “Off!” around me, just in case.  My team did its pregame warm-ups, and it was clear that both teams had many players missing.  Players’ consistently inconsistent attendance was the worst part of summer league softball.  Families planned their summer vacations before they received their daughters’ softball schedules, which made sparse lineups common.


Our opponents had nine players, which was the bare minimum, while we had twelve.  There was one hitch, though.  Leah, our normal starting pitcher, had called out sick at the last minute.  We had no one to pitch.  I pointed a laser glare at my father, hoping that I could somehow make him read my mind and tell him that I was ready to start the game on the mound.  I never managed to establish a telepathic connection between my father and I, but he granted my wish anyway.  He turned to Evie, his co-coach, and said, “I’ve been pitching a lot with Jenny this summer.  She can throw the ball pretty hard.  Let’s say we give her a chance.” 


Evie didn’t have much use for me otherwise, but had no choice but to agree with my father.  He turned to me.  His smile was as broad as I’ve ever seen it.

 
“What do you say, Jen?  Want to start this game for us?” 


I expected to see pigs flying when my father said that.  I blinked a few times.  There were no pigs in the sky, and my father was still holding out the ball to me.  I smiled so wide I thought my jaw would dislocate. 


“Sounds like a plan!” 


Kayla, our team’s everyday catcher, crouched behind home plate.  I’d have about ten minutes of warm-up time before the game began.  I was so nervous that there weren’t just butterflies in my stomach, there were elephants, and they were stomping my organs.  Nervous sweat trickled down my back.  My hands shook, as my warm-up session flew by.


Suddenly the umpire ran out onto the field.  The opponents’ leadoff batter stood at the plate.  It was time.  I willed the elephants to stop stomping.  I willed my heart to stop racing.  I willed my palms to stop sweating.  My aim was shaky enough as it was, and sweaty hands wouldn’t help.


My first pitch was a ball, but it didn’t miss the strike zone by far.  I was just happy that my first pitch didn’t hit a spectator in the face.  My nerves calmed a bit.  The first batter got out on a quiet grounder.  I’d gotten an out!

 
The game went quickly, faster than I had thought possible.  I struck out one girl in the second inning, and two more in the fourth.  Several girls got on base, and a few scored, but we still had a two-run advantage by the time the seventh, and final, inning rolled around.  I couldn’t believe it.  My first game as a pitcher was almost over.  I just needed to get through the last half-inning. 


The first batter that inning walked.  Then there were two outs before the opposing team’s imposing shortstop sizzled a double far into left field, allowing the girl on first base to score.  Then the shortstop scored on a hard single by the opposing team’s pitcher.  We were tied.  I’d blown our lead. 

 

My anxiety started to go crazy.  The devil on my shoulder began to laugh at me.


“So you thought you could win a game, Jen?  How hilarious!  You, the benchwarmer, pitching…and winning?  Excuse me while I laugh until I faint.” 


I had to make the devil shut up just like I’d willed my anxiety away before the game.  I managed to do that by forcing the next girl up at bat to hit a quiet pop-up that Kayla caught in foul territory.


All the devil could sputter was,


“Well, now you guys are up at bat, and we all know how well you do at the plate under pressure…” 


I was up fourth in the inning, which meant that I might not even have been able to go up to bat if the three girls hitting in front of me failed to reach base.  But that was not to be the case.  Kayla was up first, and she hit a rocket that almost went over the fence that separated the softball field from a marsh and a patch of woods.  The next girl struck out.  The girl after her took the pitcher to a full count of three balls and two strikes before she hit a double far out into center field. 


I was next in the order.  All eyes turned to me.  My arms were trembling; my legs were jelly.  I may have blown the lead as a pitcher, but I still had the ability to redeem myself as a batter.  I stepped into the batter’s box, and took a deep breath.  It smelled like clay and lemonade, like summer rain and Banana Boat.  That smell was the only thing able to calm my nerves.


I would have realized something important had I not been caught up in my anxiety: I had already won.  I was the worst player on the team, if not in the entire the Ashland Youth Softball League, and I had somehow kept my team in the game as a pitcher.  The league’s parents loved me for my perseverance.  I’d muff a grounder, pick the ball up, throw it somewhere that approximated my cutoff man, and go right after the next ball hit at me like nothing had happened.  They, of course, had no idea the kind of battle that took place in my head whenever I struck out or made an error.  They only saw my stubbornness and my determination to keep playing, and not the self-loathing that accompanied that determination.


For them, it was enough that I kept playing, and that something had come out of it.  My friends’ parents were shouting my name as I trudged off the mound after I’d blown the lead, but I couldn’t hear them.  They were cheering me on again as I stepped up to bat, but all I could hear were the taunts of the devil on my shoulder and my heartbeat thrumming in my ears. 


The first pitch whizzed by me.  It was low, too low for me, and for the umpire, who called it a ball.  I liked pitches that came over the plate high and outside; they made the most satisfying thwack when I hit them, and were the furthest from my face and head.  The next pitch flew by.  It was inside, but still a strike.  The count was one ball and one strike.  I had tunnel vision.  All I saw was the pitcher.  I blocked out the parents talking, my teammates cheering, the trucks barreling over the bridge by the field, and the tinny music from the ice cream truck that loitered between fields. 


The third pitch was too high, so high that it careened into the top of the backstop.  The count in my favor:  two balls and one strike.  The next pitch was just where I liked it, about shoulder-height and kissing the outer edge of the strike zone.  I took a hitched breath, swung for the fences, and…nothing.  I swung and missed.  The next pitch was so low it was at my ankles.  The count was full. 


The pitcher took a deep breath, and so did I.  The pitcher rubbed some dirt on the softball she held, and I adjusted my grip on the bat.  We stared at each other to see who blinked first.  She did, and her pitch was, once again, right to my sweet spot: high and outside. 


This time, when I swung, my bat connected with a hollow thwack, and the ball went flying into right field, just far enough back so that Kayla could score the team’s winning run.  I didn’t notice any of this.  I was just trying to make it to first base.  But, when I did, I saw all of my teammates running towards me.  They were smiling and cheering, and it was only then that I realized that my hit had won the game. 


My smile must have given off megawatts.  I grinned as I joined the crowd of screaming girls.  I grinned as we ran towards the parking lot yelling.  I grinned as we piled into our parents’ cars to head to Dairy Queen for celebratory ice cream.  I don’t think that I stopped grinning for a week.  I had silenced the devil on my shoulder.  I had proven myself.

   
I never had another night of softball heroics.  I got only a handful of hits over the next two years before I quit team sports for theatre and Academic Decathlon, extracurriculars that far better fit my skill set.  But my lack of talent didn’t bother me as much anymore.  After all, I was my own biggest critic.  My teammates had their own exploits.  The parents in the stands would have cheered me on no matter what.  The game probably registers as a blip on the opposing pitcher’s memory.  But, for me, the fact that I had somehow contributed to a sports game transcended athletics. 


My father loves to begin the story of that night like he’s a radio baseball announcer, like I did something that mattered to sports fans around the world.  Of course, that’s not true.  Maybe he and I are the only people who remember that night.  My sister was at summer camp when I got the winning hit, and my mother was in New York, visiting relatives. 
But the game mattered to me.  It proved that I meant something, that I could make a difference, even if that difference was a victory in an overall meaningless summer softball game.  And, when you’re a twelve-year-old with more books than friends, that proof matters more to you than the score of any game.  It says, “I exist,” when preteen cliques and dating drama threaten to make you invisible to your classmates.  It reminds you that you have a place in the world when no one wants to sit with you at lunch, when your frizzy bangs, thick glasses, and adenoidal laugh act as kryptonite to friendships.


That night has stuck with me for almost thirteen years.  I can still feel the sweat trickling down my back as I prepared to pitch.  I can still feel the heft of the ball in my hand as I started my wind-up.  I can still feel the wind rushing by me as I ran to first base after my walk-off hit.  I can still feel how my cheeks hurt from smiling so much that night.  So, every time my father trots out the “hot July night” story, I pretend to scoff and grumble and act like that night didn’t matter to me, but I can’t help but feel a bit of residual pride that my father loves to tell the story of the one night I had been the Most Valuable Player.