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THE GUY CHRONICLES

It'll Be a Long Summer for Those Who Can't Take the Heat

July 25, 2001|Chris Erskine

Diary of a mad softball coach: Week One: The Epiphany

We are a strong team. Swagger is our friend. Or our enemy. As is often the case, there's a fine line between our friends and our enemies.

So we swagger into Torrance, our little-girl softball team, 16 all-star players ready for tournament play. We are confident. We are ready. We know songs.

There is a sign on the side of Coach Bob's RV alerting people that WE RULE! The world is a bright and wonderful place. Temperature, about 90. No wind to speak of. The world is a bright, hot and wonderful place.

"Wow, look at that pitcher," someone says.

We watch the game that precedes ours. The pitcher is throwing heat. It's 90 degrees and the pitcher is throwing heat, making the ambient air temperature something like 120. It's the wind chill factor, only in reverse.

"She's throwing serious heat," I point out to another assistant coach.

"We love heat," Coach Mark says.

Oh, I forgot. Sure, we have heat for breakfast.

In our first game, the other pitcher is throwing so hard that our hitters bail out of the box almost before the ball is released, then gasp and grab their throats like aging actresses.

We love heat.

In the third game, we score our first run of the tourney, though technically it should not count.

Leading 18-1, the opposing coach, a tall guy with a short fuse, is tossed after a frightening argument with the umpire.

"I sense," I tell Coach Brian, "that we have entered a different world."

Welcome to the tournament zone. Welcome to our summer.

Week Two: The Tie

This week, we're in Moorpark, way out yonder near Thousand Oaks. There's actually a breeze here, generated by 15 shortstops, all belching at once.

"These girls are humongous," I say as we pull into the parking lot.

Big, stocky, with muscle definition in their arms and legs. They seem even bigger than in Torrance. One has biceps larger thanmine, which isn't saying much. But she has a better mustache too.

"Dad, these girls are really big," says the little girl, who is beginning to hyperventilate.

Fortunately, we discover that we have taken a wrong turn and wound up at the high school fields. A mile away, we find the fields for teams like us, age 10 and under.

These girls are big too.

"Size doesn't matter that much," Coach Bob assures our players.

Which brings up life's lesson No. 1: When someone tells you size doesn't matter, it usually really, really does.

"We have heart," someone says.

"So?" says our second-baseman.

Later in the day, we find a team much like ours, new to tournament softball, with an indomitable spirit, supportive parents and SAT-9 scores that are through the roof.

Like us, they have yet to master the squeeze bunt, the 3-6-3 double play or the riser-sinker pitch, a fluke of physics that is thrown by many of the better 8-year-olds.

Final score: 11-11.

The local paper runs our team picture.

Week Three: The Marathon

Out toward the desert we head, Dante's playground, where the smell of manure graces the air from the fairgrounds across the way.

"What smells?" Megan asks.

"My socks," I say.

"Besides that?" asks Jade.

"Manure," says Coach Glen, who obviously spends a lot of time at Santa Anita.

We are one of those fortunate teams that have a lot of coaches. It's a frat house of coaches. Sigma Delta Softball. We don't allow hazing. Seems that coaching tournament ball is punishment enough.

"That girl can't be 10," Coach Chuck says, looking at the opposing first baseman. "No way."

It's the season's mantra: "She can't be 10." No player is supposed to be older than 10, yet we run across many opposing players who are almost as big as the dads of Sigma Delta Softball.

"We've got problems," Coach Brian says.

"Why?"

"I'm pretty sure their left fielder's pregnant," he says.

On Saturday, we have four games. That's right, four games. A double-double header. Amid the smell of manure. Ninety-degree temperatures. Dugouts that are frying-pan hot.

"It doesn't get any better than this," Coach Tom says.

"It doesn't?" I say.

Before the last game, light-headed from the heat, I give the pep talk of a lifetime.

I quote Vince Lombardi, Walt Disney, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ray Nitschke, Laverne & Shirley and three of the seven dwarfs, before becoming dizzy and lapsing into a sweet but temporary coma.

"What's wrong with coach?" I hear Courtney ask.

"Oh, he's just in a coma," Coach Dennis explains.

The team responds by playing great softball for two innings, then falling completely apart in inning 3, where we face 17 batters, who I'm pretty sure include several players from the 1956 Yankees. Mantle. Berra. Those guys.

"I see dead people," I say from atop the equipment bag, "hitting line drives."

"Somebody get him some ice," Coach Fred says.

The game is capped by a miracle catch by Lucy, our talented centerfielder. I think Linus was in left field. Peppermint Patty in right.

"Lu-cy! Lu-cy! Lu-cy!" we all chant.

Four games. By the time we get home, I am so wiped out that all I can do is sit on the couch with beer balanced on my midsection, on that little ledge your stomach makes when you slouch down, two inches from my heart.

"It doesn't get any better than this," I tell the little girl.

"It doesn't?" she asks.

In minutes, she is asleep next to me on the couch, 12 inches from my heart, her sunburned cheek warm on my shoulder.

Fortunately, we love heat. We have heat for breakfast.

*

Chris Erskine, whose column runs on Wednesdays, is at chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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