Although I grew up as a pitcher and catcher, and although I came close, I never pitched or caught a perfect game. I learned the central essence of a perfect game from one of my pitchers, Emily. This is Emily’s story and how her story was the beginning of SAPP, the Self Adjusting Pitching Process.
I met Emily when I took over the Blue Valley High School Softball Program. This was a truly unique and challenging coaching endeavor. You see I became the Head Coach the year after the BV Softball Program lost three players in a tragic car accident as five players were traveling from the school to the softball complex about a mile from the school.
I still remember getting a call from the athletic directory after two interviews. He asked to meet with me before he put my name in to the school board for approval. When I arrived at his office he said, “Don’t sit down I just have one quick thing I need to say. I want to make sure you understand by taking on this job you will be more than a softball coach to these players.” My response was, “I understand that I will be as much a counselor to them as a coach.” With that, we shook and I became the Head Softball Coach.
To this day I can still hear the comments of the parents, my assistant coaches, the teachers and administrators — “just help them get through the season, coach.”
My task was made even more difficult by the fact that the year before they had lost 8 starting seniors to graduation. I had one returning full time starter and a junior pitcher, Emily who had shared pitching duties the year before. Once tryouts ended our team was comprised of five seniors, four juniors, two sophomores and one freshman. As play began they struggled to come together as a team. The upper class-men had dedicated the season to their teammates. Their goal was simple, win Conference. If they won Conference they would get to hang a board in the gym and on that board they planned to hang three black ribbons, one for each of the players that had died in the car accident. But the under class-men were not part of this loss and felt detached.
I remember a practice where we were doing what I call a “Team Karma Drill”. This is a drill where there is a penalty for the entire team if someone messes up. After our freshman messed up three times in a row and all the players had to do ten push ups each time one of the upper class-men looked at her and said, “You need to get it together. If they were here they would…” and then paused realizing what she had said. I pulled the two players to the side and had a discussion. There was an apology and some tears. These two players eventually became friends.
In a word the hurt and the pain was still raw and open. I struggled to find a goal all the players could rally around that rose to the expectations for the Conference Board but without leaving the under class-men behind. And then it all came together in a game and a practice.
At four and two in our fourth double header of the year we faced a cross town rival. For the first time all year we took the lead in the first inning when we scored one run. As we got together to go out on defense I told the players the one run changed everything. If they don’t score we win so I asked them to come up with a goal. There were blank stares. There was mumbling. Then a hand went up and everyone got quiet. It was Emily. Emily was quiet and did not say a lot. She let her pitching speak for itself. She was respected by all her teammates. The seniors respected her because they knew their season and their goal of a Conference Board was ridding on the back of Emily’s pitching. The under class-men respected Emily because she took care of them.
You see I once received a call from the mother of one of the varsity freshman players. This is after I had given strict orders to the captains that we were ending the school tradition of initiations for new varsity players. This mother said, “Coach I don’t know what you are doing with those players…” I thought, “O No! My captains initiated my little freshman.” The mom continued, “but whatever your doing I appreciate it. My daughter feels so welcome on that team. The Seniors are even leaving the Senior Lunch Room to eat lunch with my daughter. They make her feel special.”
One of the main players responsible for this was Emily.
So as Emily raised her hand and it became quiet. I said, “Emily, do you have a goal we can use?” Emily responded, “Yes.” “What is it Emily?” Emily’s voice cracked as she said, “It’s the same goal I have every time I pitch, Coach.”
Emily’s voice cracked because she had never shared this goal before. She was stepping out and in so doing was becoming vulnerable.
“What goal is that, Emily.”
“No one gets to first.”
Our lead Senior Captain, Casey, was standing next to Emily. She put her hand in the center of the circle and said, “I like that one coach. Can we use that one?” My response was yes. With that all the hands went in and on three everyone said, “No one gets to first.”
We continued that all through the game. At the start of each inning on defense the players would get together and say, “No one gets to first.”
It was amazing what that simple goal did to inspire. I remember our little sophomore catcher Karen, who was doing all she could just to catch Emily. Toward the end of the game the best hitter on the other team fouled off four or five pitches. Then she popped one up towards the back stop on the first base side. Karen sprinted and then dove headlong into the fence, caught the ball and then went head over heals and landed sideways up against the fence. She held up the ball to the umpire who gave the out sign. Emily came running over. Karen tossed Emily the ball and then said, “She didn’t get to first Emily.”
We eventually won the game 3 to 0. As was our tradition we met in the outfield grass. I congratulated the players on a great game. Then I asked Emily to step forward. I handed Emily the game ball. This was something I had never done before. Unlike some coaches I do not give a game ball out every game and at the end of the year everyone has at least one game ball. I only give out game balls for something truly significant or unusual like a home run. Or say we score the winning run by a player getting on, a player sacrificing to move the runner into scoring position, and another player hits their teammate in. In this case the game ball goes to the player who moved the runner on the sacrifice.
So as I hand Emily the ball I can see her wheels are turning. She is trying to figure out why she is getting a game ball.
“But Coach, I pitched a shutout before.”
“Emily, its not for a shutout.”
Emily looks at the scoreboard, “But Coach I’ve pitched a no hitter before.”
“Emily, its not for a no hitter.”
Emily’s eyes get big, she looks at me and says, “I pitched a perfect game?”
“Yes, M, you pitched a perfect game.”
And I love what Emily says next. “But I was just trying to keep the runners off of first base so we could win.”
“Well M, you didn’t allow any runners to get to first so we won the game. But when no one gets to first its also called a perfect game.”
What is truly powerful about this story is Emily didn’t even know she had pitched a perfect game. She was focused on not allowing a runner to get to first so her teammates could win. And in pursuing that goal for her teammates Emily accomplished one of the most difficult achievements in all of sports — a perfect game.
© 2012 – 2013, Greg Loveless. All rights reserved.