David Arndt is very proud of his 8-year-old daughter, Jnana. “The other day she had the shortest recorded hit in baseball history: One inch,” he tells me, as we stand behind the backstop at the Little League field here in Lincoln.
Jnana (Sanskrit for wisdom) is one of the 13 players on this year’s Lincoln minor league girls’ softball team. The ballplayers are all between the ages of 8 and 10. Five have never played baseball or T-ball be fore.
But their coach, David Wood, remains optimistic. Wood, who is also the pastor of the United Church of Lincoln, has been coaching girl’s softball since his niece, Emily, started playing when she was 7.
That was nine seasons ago. “This is a great bunch,” he says, standing a few feet in front of the pitcher’s mound, tossing batting practice to his team. “And some of them are pretty good. They can field a ground ball and they have the slightest idea where to throw it.”
And while five of the players are rookies, they also have some serious veterans.
There is catcher Carlyle Grundon, who has purple hair and a matching purple dress and purple sneakers. There is pitcher Cori Pike, who is also a pretty serious slugger, demanding a 28-inch bat when a lot of her teammates are content with a 27-inch model or a paint stirrer from the hardware store. And there is in fielder Alexis Marnellos, who has been around long enough to know that some times it takes work to find the right batting helmet. (“It smells like armpit in here!” she exclaims after donning the first helmet she finds.) One of the reasons Wood likes teaching the girls is that they have a lot of team spirit. “In some ways, the girls arrive as more of a team than the boys. They’re more social,” he explains. “Of course, the boys don’t scream when the ball is hit to them, so it’s a tradeoff.”
But the girls do arrive ready to cheer on their teammates. Indeed, I have only been watching practice a few minutes when Dana Norton, Lizzy Nault and Fiona Oldham want to teach me a cheer: “Let’s go, Cori, let’s go! Hit it all the way to Idaho!” When I have mastered the chant, Dana patiently explains to me, “You see, the good thing about this one is that you can use any name in the middle. It doesn’t have to be just Cori.”
By the end of the season, I imagine the girls will have learned a lot of cheers. And they will know a lot more about softball.
At one point I was standing in the first base coach’s box watching Fiona learn to play first base. Her dad, Phil Oldham, was standing about 15 feet away, tutoring her.
The following is their verbatim exchange:
Fiona: It’s sort of scary being at first base because they’re always throwing the ball to you.
Dad: When there is a ground ball, you go right to the bag.
Fiona: Why do they call it a bag?
Dad: The base.
Fiona: Not the bag?
In Wood’s opinion, the game at this level is all about growth and self-esteem.
After practice he told me, “It’s great to watch them develop some skills. When Lizzy fielded that ground ball perfectly and tagged out the runner, she felt such satisfaction. They won’t all play varsity softball when they’re older, but I hope they’ll play recreational softball.”
And the coach always keeps things in perspective and never loses sight of the real priorities: “I like the fact that we begin our season with an away game: It means we get to have creemees on the way home.”
Yup. You know Memorial Day is nearing when the girls of summer are back and the creemee stand is open. Play ball!
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on May 16, 2010.)