Seasons

Today was the last regular-season game of my stepdaughter’s high school softball career.

I wasn’t there, but I probably wouldn’t have seen much of it if I still lived in the same state, as my work schedule often conflicted with her games.

I’d have left work early today.

She started for the first time at catcher, a position she’d agreed to try because the team needed her to, and batted leadoff for the first time, too. She walked in her first at-bat, stole second and third, and scored on what her father says was another steal but what the official scorer apparently decided was an error.

She scored three total runs and would’ve beaten the other team by herself – by two. The mercy-rule win was her team’s 11th this season, more than the past three combined.

I don’t remember when we first talked about softball. It was before her seventh grade year, the year she stayed with me and her grandparents in Virginia while her father started a new job in Florida. She had played field hockey, her mother’s sport, and tried out for basketball, but for whatever reason, softball kind of stuck.

I’m sure I bragged on my daddy’s state championship softball team as I lobbed pitches to her in the backyard. I talked about how I envisioned her as a speedy centerfielder, elevating small ball to an art form.

In a grassy patch by the James River where we’d all later pose for wedding pictures, I tried to teach her to bunt. I remember the foul ball that glanced off her unprotected 11-year-old jaw, my horror at my inexperienced carelessness, my fear that I’d broken her, my conviction that her father would kill me if I had.

She was fine after an ice pack, and that Christmas, my daddy gave her a hot pink batting helmet and matching gloves.

That year, I drove her to games, where I was often joined in the stands by aunts, grandparents and cousins whose mission in life, it often seemed, was to love on this child. This may come as a surprise, but I wasn’t the quietest supporter, though I tried very hard to yell only encouragement to everyone.

I remember the hard-throwing girl who must’ve reached 50 mph from the mound, and how my stepdaughter – like anyone with sense – rocked back the first time she faced her, far from the invisible offering that whistled by her ear.

“Don’t bail out!” I bellowed. “Stay in there and hit her!”

Bless her, she did her best, taking a pretty solid cut on the very next pitch.

I remember the rainstorm that washed out the season finale, and how the girls dealt with their crushing disappointment by running the bases in the deluge, sliding into a home plate obscured by mud and muck. She banged her cleats together as I put a towel down on the front seat, and we went home.

Softball survived the move to Florida. I know the first year of it, eighth grade, was hard. Florida is a beautiful but odd place, where people take certain things quite seriously. Youth sports is one, and many of her teammates had been on travel teams for years.

They were quite focused, and not always particularly friendly. She made the team and had some good moments, including a snare of a laser line drive hit to her at first base in the season finale that would’ve probably broken a cheekbone had she not caught it. But I know that year, in so many ways, was hard for her. I think I tried not to know how hard, even as I asked the perfunctory questions. I closed my eyes as I swung.

Still, she played.

In high school, she had a different coach every year at a school that valued girls’ sports about as much as Sean Spicer reveres historic fact. The losses came early and by double-digit runs. After every season, there’d be talk of quitting, of whether too much time was being taken away from academics, of whether she was still having fun.

After every season, she played the next one.

This year, her team finally got a pitcher. There may be no more important position in sports than a softball pitcher. But the rest of the team improved around her.

My stepdaughter didn’t always start. She didn’t always steal multiple bases or score three runs.

But she played.

The playoffs beckon – not loom, as they have in past seasons in a district where most every team qualifies (sort of like hockey). More wins may come. More memories will be made. But soon enough, she will graduate – an event I will witness – and embark on an excitingly uncertain future.

I don’t know what the future holds, for her or for me. It’s a slightly more exhilarating position to be in, I’d imagine, when you’re 17, but I’m not so old that I don’t remember that it’s pretty damn scary, too.

The world is in front of her, opening up like the 60 feet between first and second when the pitcher is slow to the plate. I know good times and bad await her. I know she’ll laugh, and I know she’ll cry.

I also know this for damn sure: She’ll suit up, and she’ll play.

Morning coffee

The weed eater is going strong. The lawn mower lies in wait. There’s hammering and industriousness all around these poorly insulated walls.

Me, I’ve turned on the heat and am having another cup of coffee. I picture the amputated limbs of trees tangled in my front yard, showing off my apathy to my hard-working, middle-class neighbors. It’s shameful, I’m sure. The sandy bald patches that make up more of the lawn than grass, the deep ruts in the driveway that catch the garbage can’s wheels, the crack running up the side of the house that is becoming more of a crevasse every day.

It’s not actually my house, so I don’t feel that bad. I’ve taken care of it as best I could. It’s sheltered me. Soon I will leave it, and the yard will officially be someone else’s problem.

Still. Symbolism knocks with the hammer’s blows, pecking at a fragile skull still cowering from yesterday’s monstrous sinus headache. The adults are outside, tending to business. I’m on the couch, binge-watching Netflix.

In my head, I can be 21, a college student with so much to do and no time to worry about such trivial things. In reality, I’m 43, still busy but mainly unqualified to be grown up. I cooked dinner for myself twice this week and didn’t spend any extra money going out to lunch. Victory! But the third beer I shared with friends while celebrating baseball’s return was a bad idea. Failure.

Failure wants to be my friend a lot these days. It cozies up to me when I, addict that I am, check Facebook for the first of 300 times in the morning and am confronted with a picture of my dead cat in the house I sold but still live in. It alights on my shoulder – the bad one, the one I slept wrong on again and is stiffly offended by my carelessness – when I get text messages from the child I once made up bedtime stories with. It intertwines its fingers with mine when I stand on my friend’s deck, laughter floating like lightning bugs in the spring night, and swing my hips in an impromptu mommy/daughter dance party.

It laughs at me as I write such sentences, dripping with self-pity and marinated in the self-absorption I have elevated to an art form. It shows me a short film – opening with twin dead 9-month-olds in their father’s arms, interspersed with status updates from friends smiling through chemotherapy, closing with credits of the names of people I still have time to appreciate if I would just get off my sizable ass.

It’s not unkind, this friend. It’s familiar, and very soft. Sinking into it feels like turning my aching head into the smushy side of the pillow, like the searing relief of the heating pad on high when I press my hands to my belly, like the sweet satisfaction when the rough edge of skin comes off in a long, neat, red-edged strip.

I know it’s not a feasible long-term relationship. I know my friend is a parasite. But we feed off each other.

The buzzing and banging of yard maintenance is growing louder. It’s as motivating as anything else to get moving.

That, and the fact that Kershaw is back on the mound tonight. In his seventh opening day start, he ran his line in said situations to 45 2/3 innings pitched with 24 hits, six walks, 52 strikeouts and an 0.99 ERA.

I can’t explain why that makes me feel better, why the sight of his left elbow cocked level with the script blue letters on his chest, ready to unleash hell, shoots a dose of energy past the caffeine sitting sluggishly in my veins.

I just know it does, so I give my friend a pat on the head and stand up. It will no doubt be here, awaiting my return, but I don’t have to take it everywhere I go.

Nothing could be finer

The following words just came out of ESPN announcer Dave O'Brien's mouth: "You want to celebrate a national championship? Better move to the state of South Carolina."

Never thought I'd see the day. Never thought I'd see the South Carolina women's basketball team cutting down the nets as national champions, either.

I spend a fair amount of time apologizing for where I’m from.

Not out loud, usually. It’s more of an internal dialogue, borne of the inward cringe when some inbred folk choose to accessorize a near-perfect weekend of basketball with a Confederate flag, or when news about the survivalist cult trying to gain traction in my neck of the Upstate woods appears on my Twitter feed.

This week, I have not felt the least bit apologetic.

I just returned from a conference in Chicago. I had a good time, saw some sights, learned some things, met some folks. Several of these were at a pizza joint my friend recommended. Chatting with the nice people, accepting a tasty local brew from them, I told them I was from South Carolina in the accent I can’t change and wouldn’t really want to, anyway.

The question soon followed from one of the dudes: So, do you like Trump?

Bless his heart.

I explained, courteously enough, that I did not. I showed him the safety pin affixed near my Gamecock pendant. I drank my beer, letting it soothe the embers of anger that seethed beneath my good manners.

This weekend, I have had two other, large-than-life people fighting such battles for me, taking on those who think they know my state and proving them, game by game, wrong.

One is a tiny, tough woman from Philadelphia; the other the large, boisterous grandson of Cuban immigrants. Dawn Staley and Frank Martin have taken the South Carolina women’s and men’s basketball teams, respectively, to basketball's biggest stage, and winning has a way of shutting people – including the insidious little voices that hibernate in your own head – up.

Staley’s team, led by two-time SEC player of the year A’ja Wilson and a cast of characters that has had to step up in the absence of double-double machine Alaina Coates, held off  Mississippi State, which stunned the sports world by ending UConn’s 111-game winning streak, to win its first-ever national championship tonight. Martin’s came up just short the night before against Gonzaga in the first game of the men’s Final Four after a magic carpet ride of a season - by far the most successful in the history of a school founded in 1801.

The Gamecocks' national championship in women's hoops joined those earned by Coastal Carolina in baseball and Clemson in football and continued a remarkable run of victory for a state that hasn't always been held up as the pinnacle of success, athletic or otherwise. I mean, if you want to start with Fort Sumter, we've had a rather long history of being a little cantankerous - and not always at the forefront of progressive change.

Martin has spoken with characteristic passion about his love for his adopted state. Confronted with a question about said Confederate flag incident last month in Greenville, when the Gamecocks began their improbable NCAA run by beating Marquette and then upsetting Duke, Martin faced the issue head-on, with the intense gaze that often accompanies his sideline stalking. In America, he said, people are going to have opinions you don’t like that you still have to allow to be expressed, because that’s America. Now, he said, let me tell you about South Carolina – the state that has shown nothing but love to me and my Jamaican wife and my mixed-race children, the state that loves this basketball team, the state that is united.

After her Gamecocks downed Stanford on Friday night, Staley – perhaps the greatest point guard ever during her playing days at Virginia and the newly named coach of the U.S. national team – strode through the tunnel to the locker room. “South Carolina!” she shouted, her Philly accent giving the words an unfamiliar but beautiful lilt and the stilettos that – along with a splash of leather – have become her trademark providing punctuation. “South Carolina – where you compete for national championships!”

That’s right. That’s what my state is. 

Staley talked about it with obvious pride after finally securing the national title that had eluded her in three Final Fours as a player. She talked about belief, and loyalty, and family. She was talking about the team I've gone to see play several times this year, the one I screamed myself hoarse for as it edged Arizona State in the NCAA first round, the one that represents my state and my alma mater. 

It’s a state that still has problems, no doubt. I frequently walk the grounds of our gracious state capitol, its copper dome glinting in the sunlight – no longer marred by the stars and bars, but presiding over the statues of slave owners. This beautiful place has a bloody past, one it can be uncomfortable to honestly acknowledge, and a sometimes-squirmy present. But like Martin, we should all muster the courage to look that history, both long-ago and up-to-the-minute, in the eye, address it, and state unequivocally that we are better than it.

This is where I’m from – a land of dogwoods and azaleas, pollen and pines. I can get lazy with the ‘g’s on the end of my words and draw out an ‘i’ in the middle of one until it begs for mercy. I need a proper amount of sugar in my tea – while it’s being brewed, you heathen – and, assuming butter and other essential loving has been added, I will eat the hell out of some grits.

I am proud of my state and the majority of its people. I don’t deny there is work yet to be done. But this week, I strolled the campus where I went to class 22 years ago and where I now work with proud affection. In a Midwestern commerce and culture capital, I talked basketball with colleagues from Boston and Minneapolis (and Clemson). I raced home to my cat and my couch to see one team keep its dream alive, and I watched as another's came up just short with soul sports sisters in a packed downtown bar whose patrons burst into applause as the final seconds of a magical season ticked away.

 I’m from South Carolina. And right about now, nothing could be finer.

 

Crossings

I walked across a bridge two days ago.

It was the bridge I used to walk across every day – but it wasn’t. It looked different. It ended in a different place. The starting point was the same, though.

As I settle in for a day of college hoops championships after a morning in which a sudden snowfall has already melted, leaving behind soggy yellow puddles of icy pollen, I wonder how far I’ve progressed from that starting point.

The bridge - a bit changed in 26 years - I used to walk from my freshman dorm to class. 

The bridge - a bit changed in 26 years - I used to walk from my freshman dorm to class. 

Realistically, I realize I’ve accomplished things. I’ve had a varied and interesting career that is shifting gears into its newest turn. I’ve been lots of cool places, seen many memorable things and met countless amazing people – some of whom even love me.

But as I stood looking at my freshman dorm, trying to remember exactly which window we used to sneak in after-hours visitors, as I waited to see if the train whistle would turn down the tracks under the concrete supporting my feet, I felt unmoored, disconcerted, insubstantial. I have done all those things, yes. I’m also looking to move, again, into another place that has belonged to who knows how many people before me. I hope for bricks steps and azaleas, but wherever I land, it will fall short of porches and dart rooms and bookshelves crowded with school pictures.

I have the sort of bank account that, even with regular contributions from my mother, triggers unsolicited emails offering budgeting advice and investment counseling. I make financial decisions more befitting the college girl hurrying to class across that bridge than a 43-year-old all-intents-and-purposes adult: discount shampoo but top-shelf vodka; no time or money for a haircut again this month but always game for a beer and a bite before tipoff.

It’s an odd feeling, regarding things that you first saw 26 years ago. I don’t exactly remember what I thought I was heading toward as I crossed above those railroad tracks – absent the ambient landscaping – two decades and five lifetimes ago. I’m sure it felt grander than this.

If I could be that 17-year-old again, or the 21-year-old I was the first time I left here, I would do so just for a few days and only if I could tell her not to be in such a hurry. It will all come, I’d say – the bylines, the jobs, the relationships, the Real World – everything you’re not seeing as you rush past, jostling the elbow of the middle-aged woman who clearly doesn’t have anywhere as important to be.

I suppose watching all these conference tournament championships exacerbates this ungrateful self-pity. I covered various levels of these, from the near-empty arenas of the Big South Conference first round to the raucous crowds of the ACC title tilt. I was in a big rush then, too – to get to something bigger and better, realizing too late that it was up to me to make where I was matter.

But, chin up. The NCAA selection show is on, my Gamecocks are a No. 7 seed in their home state, and anything is possible. I love these brackets in their pristine beginnings, as yet unsullied by ink or mistakes. I don’t fill in a blank copy as the teams are revealed anymore, but I still get excited. I’ll print out an online copy as soon as I can and pour over the possibilities, agonize over a few 8/9 matchups and try, as always, to pick the No. 12 Sweet 16 Cinderella. (That’s like fantasy football – everyone knows about it now, but what can you do.) I don’t actually participate in pools anymore, either – takes all the fun out of first-round bracket fires. But I will always fill out a bracket, because one must.

Later this week, friends and I will cheer on the South Carolina women’s team in the first round of the NCAAs here in Columbia. I’m also looking forward to catching up with other friends I haven’t seen for a while. There will be much laughter, no doubt a spot of liquor, and without question a TV – or iPad – in the room.

This rambling emotional roller coaster of a blog entry, which I wasn’t even going to post for my faithful 40 readers because I was annoying myself, demonstrates as well I can, however unintentionally and non-lyrically, the power of sports. To everyone’s relief, the self-pitying whinging has come to a halt –for now – and my thoughts have shifted to bigger things – basketball things.

I’m still kind of a mess, and you probably wouldn’t lose money betting I always will be (depending on the over). But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

What dreams are made of

I guess it’s a little silly.

This morning, I’ve exchanged texts with the friend I’ve loved the longest about some devastating news for her family – a family that, frankly, has really got enough to handle right now. This past week, I’ve introduced a friend newly diagnosed with cancer to one who’s been fighting it with honest humor and down-to-earth faith for years.

I’ve listened as just a really fucking good person hurt out loud. I’ve seen status updates from friends who are still too anxiety-riddled about our world, our country, our treatment of each other, to sleep.

I’ve faced, again and always, my own fears and desires and questions that have changed form but still wear the same face.

And here I sit, in the same place I sit at this time every year: comfortably ensconced in front of the television, remote at the ready, oddly but familiarly excited to watch one of the best weekends on the sports calendar unfold.

This is the weekend when college basketball’s mid-majors, the little guys, the Cinderellas, fight tooth and Nikes to get to the NCAA tournament via the only route available to them: winning their conference tournaments. These conferences have names like Big South, Missouri Valley, Patriot, Atlantic Sun, Horizon, Summit and Southern. Their championships are contested in tight arenas from which the smell of sweat accompanies the squeak of sneakers through the TV screen and into your living room.

There has already been madness. Jacksonville State, home of the other Gamecocks, booked its first-ever Big Dance trip with a 66-55 win against UT-Martin in the Ohio Valley championship game, solidifying the field’s first automatic bid.

More spots will be booked today and this week, and if history is any indication (and in hoops, it always is), more than a few of these games will go down to the wire. There will be half-court heaves and last-second putbacks, instant elation and split-second heartbreak.

And I’d be remiss not to mention that my Gamecocks women’s team can become just the second SEC squad to win three straight tournament titles with a victory against Mississippi State – a tall order made even tougher after senior center Alaina Coates re-injured her ankle yesterday.

It is a beautiful thing. A small thing, perhaps, measured carefully against the aforementioned sharp edges of the outside world. But I take pleasure and comfort in it.

Last year, I wrote about this beautiful thing in my daddy’s study, surfing on so many sea changes I wasn’t sure which way was up. I was asked questions I had no answers for – none at all, a fact that in itself was somewhat freeing.

A year later, some of those questions have been answered. Others linger, but at least they have been discussed, examined, looked at in a light that brings, if not clarity, then acknowledgment. My sense of self, obliterated by a full-court press of stress and sadness and self-pity and just life, has re-emerged, for better or worse. I will fight to keep it, and it will guide me in the search for the answers I don’t yet have on the days I remember to consult it.

That self is fed by days like this. Sunlight streams through the window onto the napping cat, refracting off my wine glass and my computer screen. It’s 1 p.m., and we’re in the heart of things now. I watch teams I once covered in near-empty arenas, slogging through long days and an idiotic youthful malaise that made me yearn for something bigger and better, not having lived long enough to know that nothing is bigger than a dream 94 feet in front of you.

If I didn’t fully appreciate it then, I do now. And as silly as it may seem, I’m going to indulge in that appreciation all day.