It is Valerie Van Kirk's misfortune that the game she plays, rife with statistics as it is, does not much account for the thing she does best.
The nuances of the performance of a batter or pitcher are measured by formula after formula, but for a fielder, the numbers are limited.
Van Kirk, Cal State Fullerton's second baseman, has only these numbers to recommend her ability: putouts (164), assists (156), errors (12) and fielding average (.964).
Where is the number that considers how far she dives behind second base to make a stop? The average that allows for the difficulty of throwing from her knees? The statistic that measures fielding with runners in scoring position?
There are none, of course, so Van Kirk must take pride in other things, such as the noted tendency of Fullerton pitchers to start walking off the mound when a ball is hit up the middle with two out.
"We just call her the vacuum cleaner," said Fullerton Coach Judi Garman, who will take the Titans (52-18) into a best-of-three NCAA regional series today against top-ranked UCLA. "She never ceases to amaze me and everybody else. It's just one exceptional play after another. When you think you have seen the best, she comes up with one better."
Van Kirk, the only Fullerton player who has been with the team four seasons, has been the starting second baseman since she arrived. She has missed only 16 of 266 games in four years, four of them when she missed the College World Series after she broke her hand in the NCAA regionals last season, and three of them after she broke her nose this season.
Although she has worked hard at her defensive skills, she has always been a natural.
"Defense has always come easy," she said.
Hitting, on the other hand, has not, which is a large part of the reason that Van Kirk has never made better than second-team All-Pacific Coast Athletic Assn., despite her reputation as one of the best-fielding second basemen in the country.
Before this season, she had never hit better than .240, and she twice hit below .200. This season, working closely with a first-year associate coach, Marty Rubinoff, she has spent more time on hitting and boosted her average to .259.
A .259 average with only four extra-base hits--all doubles--still isn't the sort of average to land a starting position, though, and Van Kirk knows well that her glove is her reputation.
"I don't try to do anything fancy," she said, "just field the ball and make the play look easy."
She is a student of the struggle between pitcher and batter. She watches the catcher's signals, shifting according to the pitch that is coming. She watches the way a batter fouls a ball off, reading the clues and shifting again. And she remembers batters, from at-bat to at-bat, from game to game.
Time after time, she manages to be where the ball is.
"Once in a while," Garman said, "she'll pick up an unjustifiable error just because she's able to dive and knock the ball down."
As the only player among four seniors who has been at Fullerton all four years, Van Kirk is a leader on this team. Of the three other Fullerton teams she has played on, none has finished lower than third in the country, including the 1986 national championship team.
This year has been different. The Titans have lost more games (18) than any year since 1980, when Fullerton was 30-25 in the first year of the program's existence.
"It's a change," Van Kirk said. "It's frustrating. You're used to winning all the time. When you lose, it's not what you're used to."
Still, she likes Fullerton's chances against UCLA.
"I think we'll do well, because it's the first time we've been down in the rankings playing a top team. UCLA always thinks they can beat us when it counts."
Last year, UCLA had a point. The Bruins eliminated the Titans in the College World Series before finishing second themselves. This season, the Titans and Bruins split a doubleheader in April.
Whether Fullerton makes it to the World Series again or not, Van Kirk will graduate this month. After a summer of playing softball in Italy, she will return to look for a way to put her degree in criminal justice and sociology to work.
And next year, Fullerton, for the first time in ages, will be trying out new players at second base.
"I just can't even think of an infield without her," Garman said.