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Cleveland's Favorite Sports Story

People often ask me: What’s your favorite sports story? What’s your favorite you ever wrote?
That’s a hard one. The truth is, I don’t have a favorite.
The next truth is that my favorite sports story is one I’ve never written. Today, I’ll fix that.
This happened two decades ago, back when I coached a team of 8- and 9-year-old girls softball players. One was my daughter, Annie.
Before we get to the heart of the story, an observation: I coached my son in baseball and my daughter in softball ­­— both providing memories to cherish forever. Which was harder, girls or boys? I’ll put it this way: The girls nearly always did — or at least tried to do — what we coaches told them to do. The boys? Not so much.
One more aside before we get to the heart of the story: The worst part of coaching either boys and girls wasn’t the boys or girls, but it was their parents who screamed at umpires making five bucks a game and at their sons and daughters who often were too scared to concentrate on the game, worrying about their parents’ biting criticism.
Sometimes, I thought the parents cared more about the score than the kids did, especially when it came to the little girls. My policy was that everybody got to play and everybody got to play their dream position at least once.
One 8-year-old — we’ll call her Cindy — wanted to play shortstop. Now then, Cindy couldn’t catch a ground ball and couldn’t throw it to first if she caught it. But we were getting near the end season and I was reminded she wanted to play shortstop. So, with our team slightly ahead, I put her there.
Her friends on the team were delighted. So was Cindy. But several parents came up behind the dugout and said that we were going to lose the game because Cindy playing shortstop. I said something like: “So be it.” Or maybe: “They don’t even know the score.”
And you know how it goes with baseball (and softball). The ball always finds you. With the tying run at third base and two outs, the batter hit a line drive right at Cindy. I thought it might kill her. At the last moment, she saw it and instinctively raised her glove to protect her face. Smack! The ball hit her in the glove and stuck. Cindy had no idea until her teammates mobbed her. I was just relieved, not so much that our team had won but that Cindy’s face was intact — and smiling ear to ear.
Now then, my favorite story, which involves my daughter, Annie, who was not a particularly skilled athlete, but who tried as hard — and practiced as hard — as any I’ve known. My wife says she was always seeking my approval because of my love of sports. I don’t know; that could be.
Anyway, because of an earlier rainout, we were forced to play a double-header, which is probably too much softball at that age. We led all through the first game until the other team rallied in the bottom of the last inning and tied the score. The smallest girl on the other team came to bat with the winning run on third. She managed to dribble one down the third baseline to score the winning run and she kept running around the bases until she scored, too. Her teammates mobbed her. Her coach picked her up and hugged her, put her on his shoulders and marched her off the field with her teammates jumping up and down all around.
Annie, my daughter, watched it all and then walked off the field, smiling.
I had to ask her: “Why are you smiling?”
Her answer: “Didn’t you see that? It was so cool. Daddy, if I had one wish, I would wish someday that could happen to me.”
Remember, this was a doubleheader. The second game went much like the first, except we were trailing most of the way. And then we rallied at the end, coming from far back to load the bases with two outs and the winning run at second. Of course, Annie was up next, our last hope.
She swung and missed at the first two pitches and then hit the hardest ball she had ever hit right up the middle for a hit, scoring both the tying and winning runs. Her teammates mobbed her. I carried her off the field. She was so happy she was in tears. She got her wish the same night she made it.
How often does that happen?
Email Rick Cleveland at rcleveland@mstoday.com.

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