One Saturday in the spring of my senior year, the softball team, which had only 7 girls this particular day due to sickness, club volleyball, and college visits, convinced me to play with them. On the way to Belville, while sitting in the back of a rundown van, Renay drew out on an envelope a diagram of the field and taught me the basics of the game.
While we were in the stone dugout, I pulled my SONY handycam out of the navy Eastsport fanny pack which I wore throughout my senior year and filmed people hitting.
“Elise, you’re on deck,” someone said. I recognized this expression from numerous speech meets. I pulled the youth sized helmet over my tightly wound braid. I stood in the practice spot, as Sasha and Renay tried to verbally teach me how to swing a bat.
I stepped up to the plate, arranging my lime green soccer cleats in the manner which Renay had shown me, and held up the bat, attempting the best batting stance I could manage, extending my elbow not nearly enough. The pitcher, in her black and blue uniform, glanced to the side before swinging her arm around and propelling the ball like a stone from a slingshot into the strike zone where I, either out of some natural instinct just now discovered or out of sheer dumb luck, anticipated the moment and swung the metal bat.
Clink! I opened my eyes, which I should never have closed, and saw that the ball had flown somewhere near first base. Dumbfounded, I realized that I was supposed to run. The first baseman tagged me out with ease afforded to her from years of practice. As I ran back into the dugout, my teammates were laughing out of surprise. Renay had my camera and the footage is super shaky because she was jumping up and down, but they made me put it in the school semester highlights video. “It’s literally the highlight of our season,” Renay said later in class, laughing at the concept of awkward actress turned accidental athlete Elise Hester getting an RBI on her initial attempt. (I didn’t know what that meant.)
I joined the team and had a lot of fun that season, but there is no story here about me becoming an amazing athlete. No, I never even learned how to throw properly. I did learn the answer to a question I had always wondered “” how people could love sports. That feeling came in my last game, when I got my only hit of the season.
Our last game of the season was against Orange Community Christian school. “Elise, you don’t skip up to the plate!” Rick Smith, a kindergarten teacher’s husband and the father of a softball alumna, yelled from the stands with a cackle.
Without looking behind me, I yelled, “it don’t matter long as I hit it,” despite the fact that I wasn’t a good enough hitter to talk back.
Orange’s pitcher swung her arm around and released the ball. As I swung I heard the clink of the metal bat against the ball, and a surprised cheer from the crowd.
“There you go!” said Coach David DeShaw when I reached first base, “that’s a base hit! Good job Elise”
“Ok,” I thought to myself, as I laughed aloud, “this is why people like this.”
I gave David a high five and prepared for my teammate to hit the ball. That was the last time I ever played softball, but in my mind, it’s best to go out with a bang, a skip, and a hit.
My senior year, one day I went to film soccer practice, running down to the football field wearing a hoodie and my plaid uniform skirt. The field, which was primarily used for football and track despite the lack of a track, was rugged and overgrown, without official soccer lines painted on yet. It had trees on every side and sat down in a ditch. The soccer net hung underneath the rusted football field goal. My friends, who made up a team with barely enough players, asked me to scrimmage and I did. I had so much fun that I almost wanted to play but I was filled with trepidation due to my lack of athletic ability as well as previous experiences with team sports, which had been traumatic to say the least. The coach, Mariah Herrington, a young, tall, skinny third grade teacher who also coached basketball and volleyball, said she had to know if I was playing by the Wednesday before their first game. That gave me a few weeks to decide during which I came to every practice.
The Tuesday before I had to make my decision my friend Renay, the only girl on the team, drove me home from practice, which I had gone to for the past two weeks while contemplating joining the team. We talked about whether or not I should play and she thought I shouldn’t.
“It’s hard and you said you’re scared,” she said, with the logical reasoning one could expect from the beautiful brainiac who would eventually be our sixteen year old valedictorian, “We need players, but if it’s not the right thing for you emotionally, you shouldn’t do it.”
“But I want to.” I said.
“Then do it,” she responded, rolling her eyes.
“I’m doing it!” I said. As I walked down my long driveway, my gut filled with fear and I decided against playing. Wednesday in class I told Renay and Ferguson (her then boyfriend who was also on the team and one of my best friends) that I wasn’t playing, but the period before the practice after lengthy discussion, and writing out a pros and cons list on the whiteboard, I decided to play. So I visited my mom’s classroom, where she said I shouldn’t play.
“You’ll get hurt,” my mother said. “You’re so tiny Elise and you’ll be playing against boys. Big boys.”
Dylan, one of the players who was in my mom’s class argued back.
“Miz Hester,” Dylan said, “we ain’t gonna let Elise get hurt. I promise.”
I returned to my class having decided against playing. I sighed and said, “but I want to play…”
“Then play!” said Ferguson, with the classic grin of a nice Catholic country boy.
“But I’m scared.” I said, my voice accelerating with nervousness as I continued, “every time I’ve played a sport it’s been awful and I was so bad and it made me feel like a failure and I thought it would be different with basketball and it wasn’t and “” “
“Elise.” For the first time in the conversation, Ferguson stopped playing with the Costa lanyard hanging from the pocket of his uniform khakis and looked me straight in the eyes.
“We’re not Robbi or Kendall or Dorcie or any of those girls who screwed you up,” he said with the slightly annoyed tone of a parent reiterating a crucial point for the hundredth time, “We love you. We’re your team. If you want to play, then play.”
So I played. I went on to be our team’s top scorer. Not really. I was terrible and our team never scored a single goal. But I never felt like a failure. I found encouragement and support from my team. It was hard, it was cold, and I was scared to death, but I played.