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|The tryout begins with a little stretching ... hey, USA Baseball doesn't want to be responsible for any torn muscles.|
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?
|A shortstop in college, Mary shows off her cannon.|
|The moment of anticipation ... who makes the cut?|
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.
|Number 57, you're up. No pressure, Mary, it's only soft toss.|
|Mary does her best A-Rod impersonation while grounding out.|
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.
Two weeks?! 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."
|Mary chillin' with some of the "League of Their Own" ladies.|
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.