A last hurrah for summer softball

I was thrilled to get one more season of watching my daughter play before she left for college.

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    Swing, batter: A member of the University of California, Los Angeles, Bruins soft¬ball team bats against the Arizona Wildcats.
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I don't handle "lasts" very well these days. As my last daughter gets ready to leave home for college, I feel as raw as a sunburned scalp under a wire hairbrush. So, when she told me her childhood softball team had reunited for a final season, I tried to act as nonchalantly as I could. After all, it's not a good strategy to let your teenagers know they've shot a bolt of happiness into your life; it might make them reconsider.

When she scooted off in search of her dusty softball glove and the team T-shirt I'd plucked more than once from a pile tagged "Goodwill," I let the giddy thrill wash over me. One more summer watching her play softball was like getting a FedEx package the day after Christmas. It doesn't change anything, but it's an extra inning I didn't expect.

You might think sitting on metal bleachers scorched by the Alabama summer sun, red clay dust settling in your hair and sticking to your neck, wouldn't be such a great thing. But you'd be wrong. I spent 10 consecutive summers on those bleachers, watching a team of little girls evolve over the years. Mine was the one with the big smile and not-so-powerful swing.

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She finally found her place as catcher, happily taking the one spot nobody wanted. I'd shudder when the ball smashed into her glove, way too close to the expensive orthodontics under the wire face mask. When a pop fly shot over home plate, she'd throw off the mask, stretch to catch the ball, and the bleachers would erupt into cheers. She caught some, missed some, but the potential always pulsed through the inning.

She spotted the socks at Wal-Mart when she was in fifth grade. Goofy knee socks with monkeys embroidered down the sides. They were so uncool and decidedly silly that even the ump gave her a smile when she got up to bat. "Hey there, Sox," he said, and she nodded formally. She might be wearing silly socks, but she wasn't monkeying around. They won that game and the nickname stuck.

Around the middle-school years, the girls began separating into the haves and the have-nots when it came to softball skills. The haves joined fast-pitch leagues where the play was – well – fast, hard, and competitive. Others drifted into dance, ballet, and cheerleading. Eventually, summer camp, jobs, and boys whittled away at the lineup.

One summer during championship play, the game was so intense that one little sister of two players sat cross-legged on the practice field, her back to the nail-biting action. I knew exactly how she felt. The bases were loaded, the score was tied, and with two outs, my daughter got up to bat. She's not a strong batter but, usually she can make it to first base. You could hear the spectators collectively inhale when she took a hard swing at a bunch of air. Strike!

She took another wild swing, and I turned my back to the field, pretending to look for something behind me but fooling no one. Then, the stands erupted into cheers, and I swiveled around as she scooted to first. Safe!

They lost in extra innings, but it felt good anyway – that kind of good where anything was possible.

The next year, they easily won the championship, and that was that. They talked about getting a team together before their senior year in high school, but somehow spring slipped into summer and it didn't happen.

I'm not sure what made them decide to reassemble for this final summer. Maybe it's because they're going to different colleges in different towns in different states. Maybe it's that, after all the differences in talent and interests, they came to the conclusion that before you slide into the future, you should touch every base one more time.

No matter the reason, I'm just happy to be in the ballpark. Now, where did I put those monkey socks?

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