Saturday, February 13, 2010

Let the Games Begin

Sports have been a big part of my life since I was in Grade 6. Most of my travels have involved suitcases filled with equipment. My fancy jewellry has spent more time bundled safely in my mouthguard container than being worn. I met my husband on a field hockey pitch; so it probably comes as no surprise that gymasiums, fields and rec centres are the places where I've forged some of my closest friendships and learned some of my most valuable life lessons. However, my greatest sporting memory is not what you might expect.

Crossing the finish line at the marathon was pretty great. Winning a few trophies here and there in different sports was also nice. Drinking from the Stanley Cup was cool and made for some great photos…but it doesn’t top the list. My greatest sporting memory was a win that meant nothing to the rest of the world but everything to me.

I once played softball for the worst team in town. I was carefully selected as 3rd base, based on my skill of walking past the field just as the game was about to start. It was midseason, and in that Spring of Grade 8 many of the girls had begun to wander away from the ball diamond and into the Mall. The team needed someone to suit up or they would have had to forfit. The coach threw me an ill fitting, faded jersey that was probably older than I was. I tugged on mismatched baseball socks, grabbed a mitt, took a wild guess at what my blood type might be, forged my Mom’s signature and handed in the permission form.

Quickly, I learned why a 5 run limit had been established in little league. At 3rd base, I didn't have much to do but wave at the other team as they rounded my corner to home. In the bottom of the 5th, we were down about 21 to nothing. It was two out and runners were on 1st and 2nd. The batter slammed a ground ball right at me. I finally had a chance to make a play. I blocked the ball with all the grace of a field hockey goalie. Unsure of the forced play rule, I stamped my foot on the bag and then ran after the startled runner. Just to make sure she was out, I chased her down and tagged her with the subtle force of a raging rhino. “Welcome to the team kid” said the coach when he finally stopped laughing.

I WAS welcome. I was immediately taken into a circle of friends whose practice times consisted of seeing who could come up with the dirtiest joke and playing Full Tackle 500 Up. We were the team whose warm up consisted of eating Fun Dip and trying to talk the Umpire into giving us 5 more minutes to find another player. We rarely scored. We rarely made a play. We rarely stopped laughing. At 13, I was a tightly wound, anxious perfectionist. A competitive athlete in several sports, I took games seriously and frequently berated myself when I made a mistake. I had a sharp learning curve with this team. I had to simulataneously learn how to enjoy losing and how to forgive myself when I made a mistake. A lesson I am so grateful to have learned on the ball diamond...because I still need to practice it every single day.

The last game of the season began like any other - pooling the change we found in the couch cushions for a concession run. We were playing the best team in the league. Sponsored by a well known store, they were at the field in their freshly pressed uniforms long before the warm up time. They stretched as a team, strategized as a team and carried with them an air of expectation. An air of excellence hung about them. The only expectation that hung about OUR dugout was the expectation that we'd share our Big League Chew with everyone who had scrounged up a few coins. What I’ve always loved about sports though, is that on any given day, any thing can happen.

On this day – the other team couldn’t hit the ball. Batter after batter stepped up to the plate and struck out. The game carried on, much quicker than usual since we were weren’t waiting for the other team to score 5 runs to end each inning, and suddenly we realized that we were tied and it was the bottom of the 9th. The impossibility of this was commented upon in the dugout. Our coach spelled it out for us as clearly and eloquently as he could. I recall the pep talk being something close to "Oh my *&*(^%^!!! we could win this!”

The improbability continued. Somehow we ended up with the winning run waiting on 3rd and me safe at 2nd. There were two out and the smallest girl on the team stepped up to bat. She had been playing for years, but had probably not connected ball to bat since T-ball. She played the game because we were all friends and she was the friendliest of the bunch. Always kind. Always on time. When the rest of the team took turns punching each other and talking about cute boys, she tried to learn new skills and pay attention.

So there I stood, on 2nd base – right in the middle of field. I looked over at the dugout and saw my friends smiling with their arms around each other. I saw the disbelief and laughter on our Coach's lips. I realized that it really didn't matter that our worst hitter was standing in the batters box with the board lit up behind her. 2 out. 2 strikes. 3 balls. I was sure that we were not going to win and I was happy about it. I truly understood what it meant to play sports for the joy of playing.

Then, I looked at the girl in the batters box. I saw how bad she wanted this. Suddenly, I wanted to win this game for her. I wanted to win it because she had tried so hard all season and I could see the pressure on her face. I wanted to win it for underdogs everywhere. I closed my eyes. I held my breath. I heard the wood hit the leather and jumped off the bag in confusion. She had hit the ball.

I started running. I rounded 3rd in time to watch my teammate cross the plate at home. I knew what that meant. I knew that we had won but I absolutely could not process that information. I just couldn’t stop running. I ran till I felt my foot hit the plate. I ran till I felt my hands hit the wire fencing. I ran into the arms of my teammates who had rushed out of the dugout and onto the field with joy and disbelief.

Our win didn't change anything in the 1987 little league standings. We were so clearly the worst team in the league that nothing short of a miracle could have catapulted us out of last place. This win though, was the purest joy I have ever felt in sports. Something changed in me at that moment. I learned to love the midst of that improbable win.

As my kids and I sit down to watch the Olympics on TV, I know that most of the coverage will be on the medal winners. Their stories will be amazing. Their acheivements will be incredible. However, I hope that we'll also get to learn a little bit about the athletes who know that the podium is likely out of reach. The athletes who are there to realize a dream, to represent their country, ...knowing that they are consistently 1/1000th of a second slower than the rest of the competitors.

Every sporting event provides us with the opportunity to be inspired. I want my kids to be inspired to realize whatever goals they might set for themselves. I also want them to be inspired to play even when winning is not likely. There will always be joy on the podium. Let there be joy for the worst teams too.