I’m a Softball Dad. Have been since my firstborn daughter took her first swing in t-ball “way back” in 2005. Twelve years (and 13 softball seasons) later, Sofia Murtaugh will be honored this Thursday as part of White Station High School’s annual Senior Day. Also in uniform for the Spartans this week will be Sofia’s sister, Elena, a freshman pitcher/outfielder. It will be one of the happiest days of my life. And one of my hardest as a father.
Any semi-regular reader of this column knows what the game of baseball means to me. My days as a glove-first outfielder (read: poor hitter) in high school are among the happiest memories of my life. My devotion to the sport — and all it teaches us about patience, trials, order, and yes, fate — has fueled my outlook on life, in general, and on the most important job I will ever have: raising my daughters.
I’ve been fortunate to have AutoZone Park less than ten miles from my home. My daughters have scampered on the leftfield bluff in diapers and enjoyed the luxuries of a club-level suite. Sofia spent two summers there as the franchise’s first batgirl. She became a friend of Willie McGee’s. In steering Sofia toward a life of happiness, I consider friendship with Willie McGee a significant mile marker.
My daughters happen to be very good softball players. Sofia was in the starting lineup for her first game at White Station Middle School, and has spent four years in the starting outfield for the high school. Challenged with learning to bat left-handed (to capitalize on her speed) as a freshman, she pulled it off and batted second in the order. A switch-hitting centerfielder by her junior season in 2016, she earned All-Metro honors and was named the Spartans’ offensive player of the year.
Elena is three years younger than Sofia, born just in time(!) to try out and make one team with her sister in the same dugout. (This was not scripted, but I’ll spend the rest of my life telling people in casual conversation that it was absolutely part of the family-planning math.) A lefty, Elena is one of two pitchers on the Spartan roster, so has thrown her share of innings, still four months shy of her 15th birthday. My wife and I have sat in bleachers behind home plate and watched one daughter in the pitcher’s circle, the other just over her shoulder in centerfield. I’ve actually ached at times with swollen pride.
And it’s coming to an end. Sofia will play her final game in green-and-gray next month, hopefully deep into the postseason, but just as likely shy of the regional title White Station continues to chase. She’ll be off to college in the fall, softball a possibility but not exactly a priority as an 18-year-old begins carving her own path. Elena has three high school seasons ahead of her, and it will be a delight to cheer her as she tosses her way toward Senior Day in 2020. But she’ll have new centerfielders behind her.
Baseball and softball are agonizing joys, both to play and watch. Hitting a fastball with a round stick remains the hardest thing to do in sports. Catching and throwing a ball properly — and to the right base! — aren’t much easier. Add the mental challenge of overcoming continuous failure (one hit in three at-bats is outstanding, remember) and a softball player doesn’t so much compete as she does survive. I thought I knew agony when I whiffed on a third strike so many years ago. Then I saw Sofia’s tears after doing the same. A day after striking out ten hitters without allowing a walk, Elena was pitching when the Spartans were “run-ruled” by a district rival. A father suffers when his children are ill. And the pain is acute when his children feel the sting of defeat.
Both of my daughters’ grandmothers made the trip from Vermont to Memphis to see their favorite softball duo. They get it. They understand that certain seasons, for certain families, are unlike any other. They watched number 9 chase down a fly ball and number 6 induce an inning-ending grounder. Best of all, they saw the outfielder and pitcher return to the same dugout, sisters forever, but teammates for this brief — yet eternal — moment in time.