Maddie O'Brien influenced by idols
If Maddie O'Brien has any say in the matter, and surely one of the best college softball players in the nation wields at least that much influence, expect Florida State to make a stop at Mickey Mantle's Steakhouse should the Seminoles reach the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City.
In the heart of the Bricktown district, the restaurant is an institution for visitors to Oklahoma's capital.
For O'Brien, a shortstop for the eighth-seeded Seminoles in the NCAA tournament and a player who holds or shares NCAA leads in home runs and slugging percentage this season, it would be something of a pilgrimage.
Not yet old enough to have been aware of the news when the Yankees legend and Oklahoman died in 1995, and born nearly a quarter of a century after he played his final game, O'Brien is nonetheless a fan of Mantle in the same way many of her peers are of more contemporary bat-and-ball stars such as Mike Trout or Jessica Mendoza. She watched the movie "61*" and listened to her dad tell Mantle stories. When it came time to choose a biography to read for a middle school assignment, she chose one about Mantle. To this day, the respect for her idol makes it easy to spot her on the field.
The jersey is garnet and gold instead of blue and white pinstripes, but it is still No. 7.
"I just loved his swing and his passion for the game," O'Brien explained. "Obviously he wasn't the greatest guy off the field, but on the field, as far as the injuries and stuff, there was never any quit from him. I kind of idolized that."
Idolized and eventually emulated. O'Brien is the player she is because she stopped worrying about the player she could have been.
Mention Mantle's name and the drain in the Yankee Stadium outfield in the same sentence and a wry laugh escapes from the other end of the phone before the question is even complete. She knows how it will end.
In Game 2 of the 1951 World Series, The New York Times recounts one of baseball's legendary moments when Mantle caught a cleat on a drain as he tried to avoid crashing into Joe DiMaggio while pursuing a fly ball. Still days shy of his 20th birthday, Mantle blew out his knee. For all the greatness that followed in a Hall of Fame career, he was never the same physically. There was always a question of what could have been if not for a freakish accident.
Not quite six decades later, on a less grand stage in her final physical education class of her senior year of high school, O'Brien stepped awkwardly playing volleyball and rolled her ankle painfully. It should have been a temporary inconvenience. Instead, it was where the story began for each of three ankle surgeries that followed in the subsequent three years. The first, an arthroscopic procedure to remove damaged tissue, wiped out what would have been her freshman season at Florida State. The second, a more invasive procedure to restore blood supply to cartilage, had her on crutches or in a walking boot for the summer after her second year and most of the fall softball season. The most recent, to address tarsal tunnel syndrome in the same ankle, again put her on crutches this past summer.
She creaks, crackles and suffers through cold weather less like a 22-year-old than someone who watched Mantle in person.
"I wake up and I always am going to have that stiffness and pain in my ankle, just because it's gone through a lot," O'Brien said.
It's typically pitchers who transform college programs, their position single-handedly capable of taking a program to new heights or returning to former ones. Position players are the ones who then push those teams over the top. Yet for Florida State, long the class of the ACC but a program that never seemed to have the power hitters required to contend for national championships in the contemporary era, O'Brien appeared to be that transformational player. She represented something new.
Everything came naturally to her on a softball field.
"She makes fielding look so easy and so smooth it's just ridiculous," Seminoles coach Lonni Alameda said. "When we saw her play in high school, I think the fielding really stood out. Obviously you see her swing and it's an outstanding swing, but she was just a hoover at shortstop pre-ankle injury."
Even as she struggled with the pain of an undiagnosed injury through the fall of her freshman year (the first surgery was in December of that year), she made an impression.
"I've never seen someone go after it as much as she did," teammate Celeste Gomez said. "She loved the game, knew so much about it. You know, as freshmen you go in, and I don't want to say you're dumbfounded, but it's just so overwhelming. And she knew so much. I was impressed with how much she knew already as a freshman."
O'Brien wasn't unproductive when she did get on the field in Tallahassee. She didn't hit .300 in either of her first two seasons, but her on-base percentage revealed a good eye at the plate and she showed power. She committed just 14 errors in 118 games, a total a lot of shortstops would take for a single season. All of that despite missing time in her first season with concussion-like symptoms and working through a bad back in her second season, brought on by compensating for her ankle.
She was good. She just wasn't what she thought she could have been. Her range in the field wasn't what it used to be. It was a struggle to find a comfortable position in the batter's box because of the ankle's limited flexibility. In a dozen small ways, she knew what wasn't there, a frustration she shared with her coach even after last season.
"She wanted to be this kid she is right now, but she didn't know how to get there, she didn't know what approach to take at the plate," Alameda said.
Much of what we see this season, a player who both in the field and at the plate deserves her place as one of 10 finalists for USA Softball Player of the Year, is the product of technical tweaks and alterations. She studies scouting reports along with the pitchers, eager to know exactly what pitches an opposing batter is likely to face so she can better position herself where the ball is likely to go. She tries to stay relaxed in the box, pick the spot where she wants the ball and either wait for it or take the walk. She does yoga and, for the most part, obediently follows the dictates of the team trainer when it comes to icing, taping and all the work of managing a body.
All of these are ways in a which a good player becomes a great one.
The desire to do those things is less tangible. To have it required that she appreciate what she had rather than think about what she did not. It came in part from someone whose effect on O'Brien's life was far more profound than any major leaguer.
Along with her teammates, O'Brien first learned the story of and then befriended Taylor Foster a season ago. A high school softball player in North Carolina who wanted to play for Florida State, Foster was diagnosed with bone cancer in 2010. When the team traveled to North Carolina for a series in Chapel Hill, they stopped first at Foster's house.
In the blog O'Brien writes for the Florida State site, she included these thoughts from the visit in March.
"Taylor truly is the epitome of a fighter. She may not always feel good, but she would never let anyone know. The entire time we were there she was in pain and fighting falling asleep, but she kept her spirits up and kept talking with us. She kept saying that she did not want to fall asleep on us, and it was so cute watching her try to stay awake just because we were there. ...
"Getting to know Taylor has allowed us to appreciate the moments with her and with each other. Taylor has taught us all to embrace each other and to love every moment of life, though the ups and the downs. She has such an optimistic and brave charisma about her that each of us feed off of. It really is amazing how much she has changed all of our lives, as well as inspired us to love life."
Foster passed away at the age of 17 on April 27. It was the day of Florida State's final home game and its accompanying tribute to the senior class that would have included O'Brien but for the ankle injury that forced her to sit out her first year. Alameda told the players the news after the game.
"We had kind of been a little prepared, but obviously you're never prepared enough for those moments," O'Brien said.
There are few tragedies in sports, perhaps fewer heroes. We borrow the words to describe games and athletes, but they rarely fit. An athlete denied a chance to reach his or her full potential, even by something as random as an outfield drain or a high school gym class, isn't tragedy. It is misfortune. Perhaps profound misfortune when it is applied to a passion, but misfortune all the same. What was taken from O'Brien was nothing compared to what was taken from Foster.
So, no, she doesn't spend much time these days thinking about what might have been if her Mantle moment never happened. She is here and playing a game.
That isn't something to take for granted.
"In the past couple of years, since the ankle injury, that's been like a constant struggle for me, thinking about where it could have been if I didn't roll my ankle," O'Brien said. "But I can't get stuck in thinking in that mentality because that's when I'm going to limit myself. I've just tried this year to not even think about it. I think about it like the ankle injury never happened. ... I can't think about where I could have been."