Family at root of Mollica's success
Whitney Mollica has baseball in her blood. But the granddaughter of baseball legend Don Zimmer is making a name for herself on UMass' softball field.
AMHERST, Mass. -- There's a temptation to confuse fame with family when talking about Whitney Mollica.
Zimmer spent much of the last 30 years immersed in the rivalry between the Red Sox and Yankees, first as manager of the Red Sox when Bucky Dent broke New England's hearts and then as Joe Torre's right-hand man with the Yankees when David Ortiz, Curt Schilling and others finally brought a championship parade to the banks of the Charles River. A baseball institution who has done everything from play with Jackie Robinson to stand up to George Steinbrenner, Zimmer remains a larger-than-life figure to fans.
But while the story now developing in Amherst -- the heartland of Red Sox Nation -- has a lot to do with family, it's not a story about Don Zimmer's granddaughter. Because as any pitcher in the Atlantic 10 will likely confirm, Mollica is carving out a legacy all her own on the softball field.
Even if the man she calls "Pops" is the only grandfather in college softball on a first-name basis with Derek Jeter.
"I've been around baseball my whole life, going to games and just being around it," says Mollica, whose mother Donna is the daughter of Don and Soot Zimmer. "So it's kind of in my blood and my system."
But the roots of that lifelong obsession also meant her grandfather wasn't sitting in a rocking chair as she grew up playing softball.
"He never really saw me play until high school, because he's always on the road, especially with the Yankees," Mollica says. "Now he has a little more lenient job with Tampa Bay, but when he was with the Yankees, he couldn't just be like, 'Excuse me, I want to go watch my granddaughter play.'
"When we were down in Florida a couple of months ago, he finally saw us play all the time. He'll always try to give me advice, but he knows our coaches here are so good, he's always like, 'I don't want to step on their toes. I don't want to say anything you shouldn't be knowing. They're taking care of you.' "
This is where the real story begins. While the man now doling out advice to players like Carl Crawford and Scott Kazmir is her most famous relative, Mollica is the product of an extended softball family that easily spans the 100 miles from her hometown of Windham, N.H., to the campus at the University of Massachusetts.
The University of Massachusetts is home to one of the premier softball programs in the Northeast. The Minutewomen have made three appearances in the Women's College World Series and are regular participants in the NCAA Tournament (they shared the A-10 regular season title with Charlotte this season and stand a good chance of a 16th NCAA invite). And on a gorgeous spring day in Amherst, Mass., it's easy to wonder why softball still showcases such strong regional splits, even a year after Michigan won the first championship for a school east of the Mississippi.
Then you hear people talking about last year's Senior Day, with the sleet and freezing temperatures of one of winter's last gasps, and it's easy to understand why states like Arizona and California rule the roost. But from homegrown talents like Whitney Mollica to imports like KJ Kelley (Rainier, Ore.), UMass is evidence that softball in the Northeast is a changing game.
"I think there is more parity every year," UMass coach Elaine Sortino says. "I mean, when you see Stanford with a kid like Maddy Coon from Chappaqua, N.Y., hitting in the three spot, then you know the world is getting shaken up a little bit. Five years ago, that would never happen. Ten years ago, we would have seen a snow storm in July before we would have seen something like that."
It's a reflection of the game's growth and the growth of equal opportunities for aspiring female athletes at the grassroots level.
"Kids in the Northeast are not just playing softball in high school from late March until June," Sortino says. "Every one of these kids is playing travel ball, they're playing six or seven months a year. They're playing indoors and there are more indoor facilities. They're catching up."
It won't be easy in the short term, but Sortino has hopes the current crop of talent in Amherst -- led by Mollica and freshman ace Brandice Balschmiter (25-7, 0.67 ERA, 246 K) -- will eventually lead back to Oklahoma City.
"We just want to get to a regional and hopefully get to a super regional and have a chance to get to the College World Series," Sortino says. "And after that, you need dominant performances on the mound, you need to be able to score runs and you need to play sound defense. And I think we're coming together with those things a little bit more every day."
Several years ago, David Mollica, Whitney's father, wrote a short piece for a town newsletter in Windham, encouraging parents to volunteer and get involved with youth softball (cheerfully accompanied by a photo of a much younger Whitney that inspired a drawn out "Oh my God" when she saw it after Saturday's game against Connecticut).
"By the end of the season, the 14 10-, 11- and 12-year-old girls knew why they were there, and I knew why they were there," her father wrote. "They were there to have fun, improve their skills and help a father realize that giving back to the community was a part of making that community a better place to live and be a part of. My dad died when I was 13, so my Little League memories are a big portion of my memories of my dad. Be a volunteer and help make the memories for your child that you have."
And that's just what David did for Whitney.
"He would always come to me after high school practice and pitch to me," Whitney remembers. "My dad would always take the extra time and play with me."
And at UMass, Mollica has found another mentor in head coach Elaine Sortino.
"I didn't think I knew everything, but I thought I knew so much about softball," Mollica says of her arrival in Amherst. "I didn't know anything. This woman is the greatest lady I've ever played for."
In her 26th season in charge of the softball team at Massachusetts (she also serves as the associate athletic director for sports programs and student services and the senior women's administrator), Sortino is an energetic, straight-talking woman who can't hide her obvious affection for her players. It's easy to imagine being equally at home sharing hugs and tears with departing players on Senior Day and barking at those same players to get on the line for sprints in practice.
Tipped off about Mollica by a mutual friend who works for the Red Sox, Sortino wasted little time looking this potential program cornerstone in the mouth. As Mollica recalls it, the timeline of Sortino's first call, Mollica's official visit and her decision to commit played out in little more than a week.
"I knew she was going to be in the heart of our order," Sortino said. "She was a very good hitter and that manifested itself pretty blatantly very, very, early. When you have the kind of numbers she's generated, you don't expect that from any human being, let alone a freshman."
How extraordinary has Mollica's freshman season been? Consider the list of categories in which she leads the Minutewomen: batting average (.419), home runs (10), RBI (58), doubles (16), triples (4), slugging percentage (.784) and on-base percentage (.479). With 58 RBI (as of Sunday), Mollica not only leads the team and the conference, she established a new conference record.
"The best part about it is that she handles it well, and it's so not about her," Sortino says. "If she broke every record in the book and the team didn't advance in the postseason, she'd be distraught."
Even Mollica's teammates find it difficult to explain her talent.
"She's doesn't really she's just so oblivious to it, she doesn't even realize how good she is," freshman outfielder Davina Hernandez says, searching for words like someone who is trying to adequately describe the Aurora Borealis. "Never once do you have to tell her to refocus."
It's easy to make an impression with home runs, but it takes a special kind of hitter to leave a lasting mental image with walks and sacrifices bunts, as Mollica did on Senior Day against Connecticut. In her first at-bat of the game, with runners on first and second and nobody out, Mollica put down a perfect sacrifice bunt, heeding her coach's sign and ignoring the RBI opportunity with a runner in scoring position. In her next at bat, with a runner on third base, Mollica refused to chase a bad pitch for strike three, earning the first of two walks in the game.
"That's the best stat," Sortino says of Mollica's 10 strikeouts in 48 games. "People are all gaga about the RBI, the home runs and this, that and the other thing, but you've got to look at her walk-to-strikeout ratio. And she's as good as anybody laying a bunt down and fine with it. I've coached a lot of kids in my tenure here, and I've had hitters who weren't interested in getting bunts down. So they'd go to two strikes so I'd have to take it off. She's gotten every bunt I've asked her to get down."
At first glance, the patience and discipline at the plate is somewhat ironic for a player who talked so fast when she arrived on campus that Sortino says, "I couldn't understand a word she said."
"I'm a very hyper kind of person," Mollica concedes. Hernandez adds: "The only things the coaches have to tell her is, 'Whit, slow down.' She talks fast; she's always in a rush."
But Mollica's haste rarely has interfered with her willingness to learn from those around her.
"Honestly, since I've been here, they're the reason why I feel like I've done so well," she says of this year's senior class of Jenna Busa, Lesley Ferrara, KJ Kelley and Kristi Stefanoni. "Not just the softball part of it, but academically, socially, they just include everyone. They really are great seniors, especially for me as a freshman. . I'm going to miss them a lot."
Mollica's story really does come back to family. It's the mother and father who supported the passion for the game she was born with, the coaches responsible for refining and encouraging all that talent, and the teammates who she relies on off the field just as much as they rely on her in the batter's box.
And a grandfather whose fame matters far more to reporters and onlookers than it does to his family.
Mollica explains the difference between family and fame best, saying, "He just wants to come and have fun and watch me, watch his granddaughter."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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