The Westfield District All Star players and their families signed a commitment letter to 10 practices in 14 days – rain or shine – no vacations, no skipping practice, no excuses period for missing practice or not participating in practice. Fairly standard procedure for a youth baseball organization who wanted 100% commitment from players and families so they could all focus on getting back to where there was unfinished business. The Dangers (Alvin, Bonnie, and Angie) all signed and were (for the most part) excited for the opportunity to play for the district title, then maybe the states again, and beyond.
Alvin kept his pessimism to himself and put on a happy face every time Bonnie or Angie would talk baseball. His daughter was the best player in the league, in his mind and heart, but the fact that she was a girl made her seem like an oddball or a sideshow at times. So many interviews and media posts and video views on YouTube – Alvin was so proud of Angie but could sometimes feel an icy stare or two from other parents whose sons were being asked to take a back seat so Angie could pitch or play shortstop. Was it her fault that she practiced daily at home, in the garage in the winter, took batting lessons from Alvin and others since age 7, worked out in her backyard jumping over the stone wall and back 100 times to strengthen her legs, hit off a tee in January into a snowy field, could throw a football 25 yards on a frozen rope, hit 10 free throws in a row at a visitor’s court, actively kept her arm in baseball shape all year long? Angie deserved the praise that was raining on her now. She put the work in, she earned the attention and the accolades and the fact that she was a girl should never have mattered.
From the moment Alvin walked Angie over to Prospect Field for her first District practice, the mood was set. Alvin noticed that the entire team of players was on the field and were all wearing their new District hats with the WLL logo and color scheme similar to the Washington Nationals (Red, white and blue) as well as their new practice jerseys. Angie had not been given any of this ahead of practice, but in true Angie fashion, she politely asked where her stuff was. Coach Larry pointed to Coach Bob Sawgrass who had a box of shirts and hats and was walking them back to his car. “Yo, Grassy,” yelled Ferguson, “we are going to need that box for the late arrival here.” Alvin hit Larry was a mean sneer and Larry fired back with a smirk of his own. “Dad,” said Angie calmly, “it’s okay, I will see you after practice,” and she jogged over to meet Coach Sawgrass as he was walking slowly back towards the field. Alvin left the field shaking his head and muttering to himself, “something fishy.”
Coach Sawgrass handed Angie her practice shirt, hat, and instructed her to “get a move on, practice ain’t gonna wait for you.” Angie nodded and ran over to the concession stand where the bathrooms were. The bathroom doors were locked, the concession stand door was locked. Angie walked around the building holding her new uniform in her hands and securing her baseball bag on her left shoulder and yelled out to Coach Ferguson. “Hey Coach,” she said, “do you have a key to open the bathrooms so i can change?” Coach Ferguson heard her loud and clear and completely ignored her and walked a bucket of baseballs out to the outfield and yelled “come on boys, let’s get started here and see what we got.” Angie stood staring out at the players as they ran out with Coach Ferguson and Coach Fernandez to the outfield grass. She was the only player on the team not present on the field. “There is a Porta John right over there,” yelled Emily Sawgrass as she overheard Angie yelling to the field. “You can go in there quick and change and get out there with those boys. We are all rooting for you Ang.” Angie nodded and spun around to see the Porta John just about 10 yards away and sprinted over to it. She quickly tossed her baseball bag on the ground, hopped inside, changed, and hopped back out, threw her bag over her shoulder and sprinted out to the field. After all, this was Angie – a girl playing baseball on an all boys team who was used to overcoming the odds.
Practice was intense. The yelling, the screaming of the coaches, the jawing back and forth between players and players, then coaches and players. If you missed a ground ball, you were screamed at. If you missed a cut off throw, you were chastised in front of the team. If you couldn’t catch up to a flyball, Coach Sawgrass would throw the bat down on the ground and scream out at you. “What’s the matter with you?” “Come on, you gotta catch that one.” “Sacrifice, you are not sacrificing everything you got to catch that.” But the intensity was ratcheted up a few notches whenever Angie’s turn would come up. Coach Sawgrass made it a point to hit the ball extra hard at her. The fly balls she was expected to catch were hit so far out of anyone’s normal range, not even Bo Jackson could track these down. And the screaming was even louder towards her. And the unnecessary comments and the ridiculous insults. Some of the players chimed in as well and at times it got really nasty. Angie, a seasoned veteran of dealing with stressful sports situations, just shrugged it off and ran to the back of the line after each attempt. She kept her focus on the next play, almost working a word problem out in her head as to where the coach may try to mess her up, anticipating where the ball would go, and envisioning a strategy to get it before it landed.
And that was how Practice One of Ten went. Angie pledged a vow of silence about the insults and comments from the players and coaches to herself. She could sense her father was feeling stressed out about the whole practice uniform thing and his rift with Coach Ferguson. After she packed up her things and walked towards the parking lot to meet her Dad, she remembered hitting 3 free throws in a row with :01 left in a basketball tournament game after a girl hip checked her into the stands for no apparent reason. Angie’s team was the visiting team and the home crowd was screaming at the top of their lungs, waving stuff in the stands behind the basket, holding up signs, doing everything in their power to distract Angie on the free throw line. Angie calmly walked up, took one dribble, and drained the first, then the second, then the third foul shot to lead her team to victory. After the game, as she and Bonnie were walking towards their car outside the arena, she was hit in the back of the head with a snowball. Angie looked at her mom, smiled and yelled back “is that all you got?” and the two had a big time laugh. So a few boys taunted her, a few male coaches felt the need to muscle up a few ground balls or fly balls, so she was going to have to silence the noise yet again. Angie was as strong mentally as she was physically. Or so she thought…