Float like a butterfly, swing like a 'he'

If someone had to describe me using only one word, that word would probably not be "athletic." Nor would it be "lithe," though possibly "limber." I have also, as yet, not been called a sports enthusiast. (Jocular, yes; a jock, no.) You get my drift. Verbal over manual dexterity, any day.

I don't remember playing softball when I was a girl. Kickball, dodgeball, basketball, yes. But all of those balls were hard. I should know: I was hit by them all. On a regular basis. There was also something called "underhanded baseball," I think, that we played, but that always sounded slightly nefarious to me. (I believe the name had to do with how the ball was pitched, literally, not metaphorically.)

But, you see, I have this daughter, and she's many of the things I never was but still aspire to be. The phrase "natural athlete" is the one that always comes to thought, followed by "graceful," "winsome," and "tough little monkey." She hits, she throws, she gets it. And, most amazing of all, she wanted me - the far-reaching but not-very-far-throwing writer in the family - to help coach her softball team this year. How could I say no? Are you joking? This is better than a PEN award.

I live in a town that is pretty much run by women - just ask any man on his way to the train station and he'll tell you the same. Our mayor's a woman, several of our village trustees are women, and quite a few board of education members are women, too. The men get a seat or two here and there, but if a woman walks in, he has to get up and give it over. That's just the way it is in this town, except in one regard - after-school sports. After-school sports have always been a dad's domain, and you could say we women are greedy not to leave things as they are.

Last year, a mom friend of mine was the assistant coach of her son's baseball team. She caught a lot of grief, but she didn't mind. Before she was a mom, she was a cop in the Bronx. She can take care of herself.

This year, another mom friend of mine decided she wanted to be head coach of her daughter's softball team. I said I'd be her assistant coach, if she promised not to laugh at me too much. The girls on our team are your typical third- and fourth-graders - all gangly and giggles. A few good players, but even those were unreliable because they'd had no experience.

We called our team The Butterflies, not exactly a name to strike terror in the hearts of opposing teams. We have two other assistant coaches: a woman who has three sons and teaches yoga (she gets the girls to breathe deeply before each game and practice), and a mom who has a daughter who runs like a gazelle ... on roller skates.

There's also one very nice but discombobulated-looking dad coach, who occasionally shows up when his work permits. He mainly stands on the third-base line, shaking his head in disbelief.

Moms definitely do not coach the way dads do. Dads are distinct. Moms are blurry. And we aren't trying to act like men, either. We call the girls "honey" and "sweetie," and we tell them not to worry, they'll get a hit next time. We hug and kiss a lot. We are soft. But then this is a girl's world. This is softball. We figure we're supposed to be soft.

Our first game we lost, badly: 27 to 13, more or less. But we practiced, we ran around the bases till our sides hurt, and we hit and threw and ran some more.

The next game we also lost, but not by much. A few runs, maybe three. Another practice, fewer water breaks, more focus.

Then came game No. 3. A tie. It would have gone on indefinitely, but another game was scheduled, so we had to yield the field. And then the breakthrough came. We won - by one run. Then we won again. And again.

It was amazing. I say "we" because the coaches feel so connected to the team -and because the head coach pitches every game. That's the way it is in elementary-school softball. The other coaches run, hit, and field with the team, too - during practice.

Our last game was rained out. Who knows how the season will end? But I know it doesn't matter, because our little caterpillars have emerged as butterflies.

So have their mothers.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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