Monday, April 20, 2020

The Final Pitch

Posted By on Mon, Apr 20, 2020 at 8:09 AM

I would give three years off the end of my life for one more season of high school baseball with my teammates from way back when. My daughter Elena — a senior pitcher for the White Station Spartans — would simply like to live the “one more season” of high school softball she knew was coming her way as recently as Valentine’s Day. It appears athletes in her senior class — and this is the nationwide Class of 2020 — played their last game when they didn’t even know it, the fates throwing a pandemic in the way of what should be a bittersweet ride into sunset, teammates arm-in-arm one last time.
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When a virus is killing people all over the world, a softball season is meaningless. And the only team that matters is our species, living to see another lap around the sun. But here’s the catch in that arithmetic: we enjoy our laps around the sun for the softball seasons they bring. Tell everyone except a high school (or college) athlete a team’s season is meaningless right now and you’ll get a nod of the head. Tell the same thing to a senior athlete . . . and duck.

I have an especially tough daughter in Elena. And she’s had a remarkably successful life as a high school athlete. She helped the Spartan soccer team beat mighty Collierville last fall for the first time in almost a decade and earned All-Metro recognition at season’s end. She helped the Spartan softball team earn a berth in the state sectionals for the first time in the history of the program as a freshman pitcher in 2017. She’s compiled more happy memories on a soccer field and softball diamond than the vast majority of Team Species. But she doesn’t get to say goodbye, not to softball and, more importantly, not to her teammates, not the way athletes are supposed to say goodbye.

I’ve cried in a uniform twice in my life. The first happened when I was called off the floor for my last high school basketball game. Our team was dreadful that season; it needed to end for the sake of the program’s supporters. But it was the end for me in high tops. And it hurt. Happened again after my last baseball game, this time the end of a very good season, in a state championship that we lost. I remember those moments as vividly as most others in my 51 years . . . and the others are almost entirely happy. When you connect your saddest day as a baseball player with, say, the arrival of a baby girl . . . well, the moment matters. For the Class of ’20, that moment has been cruelly, if naturally, extinguished.

Elena knows a pandemic. No one under the age of 107 can say they knew one before COVID-19. (I’m giving that 107-year-old a very strong memory of the 1918 Spanish Flu. She would have been a perceptive 5-year-old.) Elena and her teammates have not been griping or whining about the games they’ve missed. They’ve been itching to suit up, to grab the bats and a bucket of softballs. But they’ve learned that fighting a pandemic is, yes, a team sport. Haven’t we all? And the grieving she does over the loss of her final season will pass in the stages we’ve long associated with the process.

My favorite picture of Elena in a softball uniform captures her during the Spartans’ sectional playoff game at Brighton. It’s from behind home plate, just as she’s delivering a pitch to a Cardinal batter. Her face is contorted in a ferocity I haven’t seen in many others, all of them considerably older than Elena was then (14!). She was focused beyond her years as a pitcher, beyond her time as a human being. And it will be that focus — that channeled ferocity — that will keep her strong in the face of future challenges. Because they’ll come.

Don’t be surprised if it’s a member of the Class of 2020 who someday brightens your day beyond expectations. They’ll live with a perspective on unexpected loss distinct to their generation. And they’ll relish victories — large or small — in ways the rest of Team Species must learn on our own.

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