Friday, October 21, 2011

Throwing Like A Girl

PROMPT: Think of a childhood memory. Then imagine or tell the backstory that led up to it.


"Elbow up like this, wrist cocked," she instructed, raising her arm to a 90 degree angle, and bending it at the crease.

"Make sure your hips are open," she continued, twisting her waist and staggering her feet just right.

"Then you need to follow through."

She modeled this as well, releasing the ball just above her head, before closing her hips and extending her arm. My teammates tried to mimic her motions.

Weaving in and out of two lines of girls, she caught the ones with sagging arms or square hips, patiently lifting their bony, little elbows and swiveling their teeny, tiny waists to just the right spot. Some of the girls did fine with their hips but habitually jammed their elbows into their ribs, flinging the ball like a frisbe. Others mistook throwing for shot put, pushing it--instead of snapping it--to their partners. Regardless of the issue, my mom continued to demonstrate, and she continued to explain.

I never recall a hint of agitation in her voice, even though she must have explained these mechanics a thousand times over the course of a season. Instead of yelling and screaming and throwing her arms up in desperation, my mom simply reviewed the process--yet again--explaining just what we needed to do to fix our problem. In time, we got better and better and better.

After a few weeks of practice, the games began--out on the grass fields. We were not yet important enough in the food chain of little league to play on dirt, so they threw down temporary bases and created foul lines with spray paint. I don't remember many things about those games, but I do remember one of our first ones. We were up to bat, and I recall standing on the sidelines, cheering for some little girl who bounded for the batters box. The little girl nicked the ball, and a slow dribbler died in front of the third baseman, who picked it up, and tossed it across the field without moving her feet, or her hips, or her elbows. She did everything my mom told us not to do; instead of explaining how to fix it though, her coach simply shouted to her from the bench, "open up your hips and step with your opposite foot so you don't throw like a girl."

I didn't think too much about his comment then, but I didn't forget it. As I grew older, I watched girls play at every level. The talent pool grew stronger and stronger, and pretty soon, I was traveling all over the country to compete against, and with, the very best girls who donned uniforms, and nestled their palms into perfectly worn mitts. These girls had long outgrown atrocious throwing habits, and coaching had become more about strategy and minutia--the angle we took around bases, how quickly we got out of the batter's box, and just how to spin a rise ball. None of us were throwing improperly, but all of us were still girls.

When a reporter interviewed us both about our youth sports experience, I realized that my moments on the grassy field were nothing like the moments my mom got, dressed up as a boy just so she could play ball. I didn't realize there were no formal little league teams, or travel ball teams or high school teams where she could play. She learned everything she knew from men, and she found a way to satisfy her urge to compete even though it wasn't widely acceptable for her to do so.

Then she had me.

And she decided my life would be different. I would get to play just like my brother. And even though she was the only woman who coached in little league--and had to fight to be allowed to do so--she was willing to fight because she knew it was right. She knew more about softball than many of the men standing on the sidelines. She had patience and compassion and the ability to explain. She also had strength; a strength I didn't come to appreciate or to admire until many years later.

Now, every time I hear someone say "don't throw like a girl," I can't help but recall the man on the opposing sideline, the man who should have shown the little girl how to fix her feet, the man who may never realize the err in his ways. If I had to choose between him and my mom, you better believe I'd choose to throw like a girl any day.

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