"What if I make the team? Can I really afford to be in Taiwan for two weeks this summer? I'll miss my friend Stephanie's epic annual disco barbecue."
This was the first thing to cross my mind when the boys at Page 2 "talked me into" a trip to Phoenix for the 2006 USA Women's Baseball Team open tryout.
When I hung up the phone, I almost immediately succumbed to a much more serious concern: "God help me. I don't have health insurance."
Sure of my impending martyrdom in the desert, I went out to my car to dig up my cleats, which had been tucked under the spare tire in the trunk for the last 10 months. "No worries," I thought as I threw a fist into my mitt's stale pocket, "like riding a bike."
I used to play baseball. My last game was in Little League, the day before I traded in my learner's permit for a driver's license and a baseball for a softball. I played with the boys in my town for years, holding my own as a pitcher and making several all-boys all-star teams and travel squads through grade school and junior high. I took some crap here and there, but mostly from fathers who couldn't deal with a little girl getting the nod over their sons, or from opposing coaches who would rather have had me batting my eyelashes from the bleacher seats.
Regardless, I played with the boys because I could hang with them. And because the level of competition in girls' softball was such that I basically was a liability on a field full of ballerinas whose parents signed them up for softball just to beef them up a bit. For a time, I fit in better among the boys of course, that all changed at the dawn of braces and breasts, and I promptly decided it was time to bow out. I switched to fastpitch softball, and although I wasn't crazy about it at first, it eventually paid for my college education.
Anyway, here I was. Off to a USA National Baseball Team tryout, clinging to my experience in Little League, D-I college softball and, most recently, beer-league slowpitch to get me by. But I was not going to get depressed by those discouraging details. The duffel bag in front of me smelled like leather, grass and line drives, and I couldn't help but be excited.
I had two weeks to prepare. I thought about how I'd go running -- every day, starting tomorrow -- and how I'd find a batting cage and finally join a gym. But before I knew it, I was printing out my boarding pass with nothing but a 15-minute toss on the beach to show for my lofty ambitions. Let the record show that I looked for a place to take some swings, but for all the B.S. I wade through every single day in Los Freaking Angeles, California, you think I could find a batting cage?
Needless to say, I arrived in Phoenix the afternoon before the big day growing increasingly uneasy about the whole situation. So that night, I decided to take a trip to Scottsdale to see some old college friends for a few hours and get my mind off the task at hand. I sat around a table with my girls and joked nervously about what brought me to town.
I hadn't seen them since senior year in college, and, just like old times, the brews were cold, the laughs were loud and a bottle of Jager was passed around as gracefully as a 6-4-3 double-play. I hung in as long as I could, trying desperately not to be the first to bow out, although my mind was secretly plagued by the idea of what would happen if I let the night progress down the road it was heading.
Still, it wasn't the cruel probability of forcing black gold back down my throat during the first wind sprint at 6 a.m. the next morning that had me tapping my brakes. Sure, it was tempting to try to downplay the experience that awaited me in that stadium. But I knew better. I wasn't about to make the team, and badly wanted to rationalize a raging night on the town with my girls, but I realized that this situation was no place for irreverence. I knew that to throw my hands up smugly at such an amazing experience would be nothing but an insecure cop-out.
I didn't have the talent to go all the way to Taiwan, but I still had a day of Baseball for America. This was the stuff of serious time-honored tradition. The United States National Team. For a minute, I was mysteriously overwhelmed by strange feelings of the red, and the right. Damn you, Miracle on Ice. Damn you, Mike Eruzione, and Brandi Chastain, and Francis Scott Key.
Feelings especially foreign to me flooded my anti-establishment nerves. It was the sort of jingoism that could make only my father smile but I let it hit me. Barring a once-in-a-lifetime fluke performance, I didn't have a frosted mug's chance in Phoenix to make the final roster. But I was going to do it to it. I would go hard -- and most likely go home -- but I was going to soak it all in. I owed it to myself. More important, I owed it to this nation's sacred game.
I woke up the next morning at 5, and hadn't felt that patriotic since standing in a packed Boston arena in front of Eddie Vedder singing along to "Rockin' in the Free World."
I nervously drank a pot of coffee out of habit, grabbed my gear and opened the hotel room door. I stepped outside, where I was aggressively molested by the Arizona morning air -- already tickling the 100-degree mark -- and headed to Phoenix Municipal Stadium. I got out of my rental car and peeked through the fence to see what everything and everybody looked like. The field was beautiful. I watched as a crew of men methodically hosed down the diamond.
After a minute, I was able to close my mouth and get over the beautiful baseball vista just long enough to size up my competition. Sweet mercy. They looked like baseball players -- all dressed in tall socks, poly-blend pants, belts and jerseys.
I, on the other hand, looked like the jack-of-all, master-of-none athlete I am in awkward mesh softball shorts and a dri-fit soccer tee. My mom says it's not what you wear but what you know and I looked as if I knew nothing.
I made my way down to the dugout. I fumbled through gates and seats and dead-end rows trying hopelessly to find an entrance to the field level. I might as well have been carrying a Trapper Keeper and an unfamiliar class schedule. But I finally made it to the grass and slinked down the dugout steps past the small cliques of friends and teammates. It was the most uncomfortable I've ever felt at a tryout in my life. I already was humbled, and I had yet to even touch a seam. I silently put on my cleats and sat alone, waiting for the first whistle. A photographer wandered over. I knew he was looking for me, but I sat there for a minute hoping he'd just go back up into the stands. It was as if my mother had arrived at the practice field waving a forgotten sports bra for the whole team to see. (Not that that's ever happened to me.)
There were 42 women in Phoenix that day, all with numbers safety pinned to the front of their shirts, like mine. There were 106 contenders altogether, with 64 women in Jupiter, Fla., and Elizabeth, N.J., simultaneously going through the same thing. From those 106, the coaches would pick the best 30 from all three sites and send them to a tryout where they would select the final 18-woman roster.
The coaches explained this before we got going. Hmm 18 of 106. I tried to wrap my math-obtuse brain around what that ratio really meant and felt myself starting to get depressed. But soon after, I realized it was too hot for that. I had to save my energy.
After a stretching session, the team-determining tests began: a timed 60-yard sprint, a test of arm strength and accuracy (90 feet for infielders, 200 feet for outfielders), then some defensive drills. I was all over the sprint and can gun it from 90 feet. But then the fun began.
I was trying out for shortstop. Seemingly, so was everyone else. A mass of infielders lined up one after the other and took their shot at three ground balls each. Imagine stepping your nervous feet onto the infield for three now-or-never ground balls. You can see why we were a little edgy. We went through the line once. I scarfed up the first ball, nervously bobbled the second slow roller and snagged the third chopper up the middle only to throw it away, then trotted dejectedly to the back of the line and awaited the second round with the rest of the troops. But after we got back to the beginning, the coaches called us in. That was all they needed to see -- three ground balls. And from the 6-hole came a collective, disappointed, under-their-breath, "That's it?"
After the infield drills, we all had our shot at two rounds of 12 pitches from a guy behind an L-screen. One bunt, one hit-and-run and 10 swings. I did OK. We all did. Everyone seemed to get under a few, shank a few and hit a couple on the screws, and nobody was quite ready to hop out of the box by the time the 10th swing was taken. And that pretty much summed up the first day. It was intense, and hot, and blurred by pressure-filled moments in the spotlight that felt years long. But before we knew it, it was over, leaving most of us wishing for a few more chances to prove our worth.
We then gathered in the clubhouse waiting to hear the coaching staff announce the numbers of those who would be brought back for another look the next day. I sat in a trance of nervous anticipation. The numbers were read through once, then a second time just for good measure. Number 57? I listened again. Yes! I had made the first cut.
In that instant, it seemed as if my whole outlook on the affair changed. Maybe I could do this? Maybe I had a shot? For a moment, I sat there dazed, then glanced around the locker room at the other faces, some sad and sober, some visibly trying to contain their joy. I had met so many different women that day. There was Courtney, a 24-year-old product of the CWBL Bay Sox All-Star Team in Frisco. Theresa, a 41-year-old mother of three who told me she heard about the open tryout and knew it was something she just had to do, if only to say she "took a chance in life." There was Amber, a 26-year-old shorts-clad softballer like me, who played ball at Ole Miss and came down with a friend from SoCal to give baseball the ol' college try. There was 31-year-old juggernaut Tamara, who played with the Colorado Silver Bullets (the Coors sponsored/Phil Niekro coached women's baseball team that played against men's teams from 1994 to 1997 before folding). There was Jane, the 16-year-old five-tool player from Riverside, Calif., and Lilly, the 17-year-old from Reno, Nev., who played high school baseball with the boys and is off to Vassar in the fall on a golf scholarship.
Ain't that America.
"It says a lot about where this sport is," coach Julie Croteau told me later. "The span of women that came out stretched from age 15 to 42. There were clots of older veterans balanced by teens coming up with a sense of entitlement to the sport. There is notable talent in the middle, yes, but for the most part, it's a barbell with the teenagers and the older veterans shouldering the burden."
Coach Croteau said she was very pleased with the 106 contenders. "It was a very manageable number. We had a very good look at a lot of talented athletes, and maybe most significantly, I feel like we had the right people come out. Just about everybody that was out there should have been there, with the exception of only one or two -- which says a lot for an open tryout."
The age range of the 30 players who still remain in contention for a spot on Team USA is 15-39. Now, if you're wondering, this 25-year-old is not among them. I woke up the second day enthusiastically at 5 a.m. I smacked the snooze bar and immediately felt the soreness in my shoulder. I stepped out of bed. I took my first step toward the bedroom door. I felt like a newborn calf.
I made it to the field on the second day, which consisted of a full pregame warm-up and a seven-inning game simulation, in which I went 0-3 with a strikeout looking. They had me playing the hot corner, where I probably made a play or two but can vividly remember only a folly in the fourth when I awkwardly watched a ball I called for drop between me and a 16-if-a-day-old pitcher.
My dream regretfully but deservedly came to an end -- not without a grand finale, however. Before the scrimmage, there was a huddle in which our aspiring hands gathered and paused before shouting "U-S-A" and taking the field.
This moment in the desert was perhaps the most poignant of any athletic experience I've ever had in my entire life.
After I returned home to L.A., I called coach Croteau to tell her that I, No. 57 on the cutting room floor, was also a writer for ESPN.com and had some questions for her about the team. Croteau is the true modern pioneer of women in baseball. She was the first to play on a men's college team, a charter member of the Silver Bullets, an assistant coach of the UMass baseball team and the first female head coach of a USA national baseball team.
We talked about the talent she saw and how smoothly things ran. I, too, was impressed by many things I witnessed in Phoenix that weekend. But there was one glaring truth I couldn't ignore. Yes, there were plenty of skilled players to choose from. But Team USA held an open tryout and the best we could do as a nation was turn out 100 bodies? Moreover, when the final roster is chosen at the end of July, the team will train together for just two weeks, then head to the World Cup in Taiwan.
This is baseball! This is Americana! We're going to pick a team based on four days, then give them only two weeks to jell as a unit? Can't we do better than that?
"That's a point well taken," Croteau said. "It's a really significant handicap for us. Japan has had their team announced for a year and Cuba has been playing together every day. This competition is by no means a layup."
As naive as it sounds, I just think America can and should do better. But women's baseball in this country is a funny animal. Every week, you can find an article about a little girl playing Little League and wreaking havoc on the boys, but where do they go after that? I'm not sure, but I know where I went -- to softball, when I had had enough of the earfuls and the implications.
Coach Croteau is no stranger so such earfuls. In 1988, she sued her high school, which would not let a woman on the baseball team. The case transpired at a time when Title IX didn't quite have the teeth to change stubborn minds, and Croteau lost to the judge's official ambiguous ruling of, "There's no constitutional right to play baseball." But Croteau unrelentingly forged on to a great experience at St. Mary's College of Maryland, where she became the first woman to play on a college baseball team.
So I wondered what Croteau thought of all the stories women undoubtedly shared with her -- as I did -- about playing Little League baseball, then jumping ship for softball and soccer and basketball and golf. Did she wish it were different? Did she think people like me were just as responsible for the stopgaps in the talent development of women's baseball as all the rest? I mean, I wouldn't blame her.
"I've mellowed with age, Mary. I used to want everybody to fight the good fight, but it's not an easy road. I know this. It has benefits -- like this coaching opportunity that I'm so grateful for -- but it certainly has its challenges. For a long time, I really felt that softball was reaping the benefits of baseball training and we were losing girls to the sport at an early age. I resented it for a while, but the reality is that softball awards scholarships and opportunities to talented girls and baseball does not. I've reached a point in my life where I can appreciate the progress that has been made and is still being made. The most gratifying thing for me was seeing you all in that clubhouse in Phoenix and understanding the achievement therein. We have a national team now, something that is real and legitimate, something that a little girl can take to that high school baseball coach and say, 'Hey, I'm training for Team USA.' I applaud USA Baseball for what they have done for the sport."
As do I. And today, I can only sit and implore the citizens of USA Baseball to get after it.
Mary Buckheit is a regular contributor to ESPN.com and can be reached at MaryBuckheit@hotmail.com.