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Southern California's Young Faces : Cover Story

The Tiger

Blue Sky, Green Grass, Sunshine. Izzy Emrich Wants Softball Season to Last Forever.

April 22, 2001|SCOTT MARTELLE | Scott Martelle is a staff writer with The Times' Orange County edition. His last piece for the magazine was a profile of Arnold Beckman

What's it like to come of age in a place defined by outsiders and their cliches: surf, gang turf, Hollywood, Vine, the land of milk and honey? Do our children grow up too soon? Is Southern California the great springboard to a life of opportunity? On the following pages you'll find 17 children who are moving toward adulthood. Their stories are not the stuff of headlines or extremes: young criminals, star athletes, child movie stars. Rather, we went in search of "typical" kids. We talked to teachers, parents, tutors, coaches, counselors and school officials. Scores of names tumbled out. We then asked a dozen writers to spend time with these kids, and to try to find the small slice of each one that said something about their lives in Southern California. It is, we hope, a telling collage.


Isabel "Izzy" Emrich stands on the pitcher's mound, a dark-haired Pippi Longstocking with pigtails tied off in white ribbons. Her eyes, brown as coconut shells, dance expectantly as cheers build: "C'mon, Izzy!" "Let's go, Tigers!" Then, as though counting each motion in her head, Izzy takes two steps forward, windmills her left arm in a circle and lofts the softball in a slow arc toward home plate. It drops with a thud-puff of red dust at the feet of another girl. "Ball!" rules the umpire.

And so it begins.

This is opening day of the Irvine Girls Softball Assn., a glorious burst of spring that Izzy was sure would never happen, would be drowned out by rain that was being mean on purpose and falling on just the days she was supposed to play. When you're 7 in Southern California, rain can seem like a personal betrayal. Sunshine is the given, as constant as the green grass on the Irvine softball field or the painted map of the United States on the playground behind Izzy's school, Vista Verde Elementary. This is kid country because it is kid weather--always warm, rarely changing, as reliable as bedtime.

On this Saturday, a few clouds the color of baseball flannels drift overhead, strays from a rain herd, but otherwise there's only blue sky. These days of nice weather will grow into weeks, then months, a stretch of forever when you're 7 and the minutes and hours just seem to hold more time.

But that means time can move very slo-o-owly, too. Especially when you like to do things. This is Izzy's first season playing softball. She's played soccer before and liked it. Lots of action. Hockey, too. And cheerleading, though that wasn't as much fun. She'd rather be the one playing in bounds than out of bounds.

It's one of the reasons she likes to pitch. You do more than when you play right field, an impressively lonely position at an age when hardly anyone can hit the ball out of the infield. When you're out in the field, sometimes it's hard to pay attention. When you pitch, you have to.

"I like to concentrate," Izzy says, standing in the dugout waiting for her turn to bat, which, truth be told, is her favorite part. "You get to hit it as hard as you can and then you get to run."

Not to mention all those cheers from the stands.

"Yeah," she says, dark eyes brightening. "That's fun."

You get used to being nurtured when you're the youngest of three kids, with a father, Daniel, a manager at Books On Tape Inc. who also coaches the freshman rowing team at UC Irvine, and a mother, Susan, who works in your elementary school. You're not told what to do, really. Advised is more like it. A soft corrective touch. A redirection. In the child you can see the family.

During practice a week before, a teammate was having trouble throwing the ball. Is it the same foot forward, then throw, or the opposite foot forward? There was Izzy, patiently explaining what she had barely learned herself. "You do it like this," she says in her best parent voice, and the ball wafts up, then down and bounces off the other girl's glove. "Can you try that for me?"

So the student becomes the teacher--for the moment, anyway.

Izzy stands now in the batter's box, her role reversed from the opening minutes of opening day. Another girl is on the mound, her purple T-shirt contrasting with Izzy's orange one. Izzy stands self-consciously, remembering where the coach said to put her feet, how to hold her arms with the back elbow up and to wait for her pitch. You don't have to swing at everything, Izzy, just be patient and make the pitcher pitch to you. But this pitch looks close enough, a little inside. Izzy can smack it, so she does, and cheers and screams roll out of the stands as the catcher jumps to her feet and the pitcher darts in from the mound. "Run, Izzy! Run!"

But where is the ball? Izzy looks around. She's the one person who can't see that she has hit it straight up in the air. She steps toward first base, then stops and looks around again. Then she glimpses the ball dropping out of the sky and instinctively reaches out and catches it, cradling it in her arms, surprised and confused for just a second before she tosses the ball to the pitcher and runs the white line to first base.

It's spring, on the field and in life, and the weather's fine.

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