When the girls found their spines of steel

The coach started to walk away then stopped, put down his equipment bag and turned around to look out upon the softball diamond one last time.   The field was empty now, the players and parents having made tracks to the local pizza parlor to celebrate their championship.  He inhaled deeply, as if trying to take one last drag of this winning feeling which experience had taught would be all too fleeting.
    It had been a run for the books, one he hoped would still bring a smile to the players' faces long after they became mothers and doctors and engineers.  The regular season had seen just one loss, and that had occurred when a family commitment had made unavailable their stalwart shortstop.
    The playoff stretch had not been as smooth for this Darien Family Dental team, though it did contain all the drama one could hope for in Little League – or any other level on which America's Pastime is played.  The coach could look back on it now and smile over the dicey moments when it seemed less like a game and more like anxiety divided into innings.
    The tournament had started with a solid victory over Uncle's Deli, but then the seeming lock the team had on the championship was picked wide open by the cat burglar of fate.
    First, there had been a 5-4 loss to McDonald's, its perennial arch-rival.  Nine runs is an unheard of scoring paucity in this league, but both teams had played defense with a deftness coaches hope for, but rarely see.
    The girls were then but one loss away from a season-ending double elimination.  Against Prudential Wheeler, their seesaw contest went into extra innings.  The challengers scored five runs in the top of the seventh and things had looked grim.
    Somehow a rally was started and sustained through a combination of timely hits, walks and more than a few lucky bounces.  The largest crowd of the season had turned eerily still and was not resuscitated (or completely drained, depending on for whom they were rooting) until the winning run crossed the plate.
    Taking the title had now been a matter of winning two games in a row against McDonald's.  And that's exactly what happened.
    This had been the third season of collaboration for the manager and coach, who had met by happenstance and now had won back-to-back championships.  After the last victory, the players' parents had congratulated and thanked them profusely.  But they both knew that their biggest accomplishment was remembering to remember that this game belongs to the players, and not to the adults.
    Little League players grow up and move on every year and the coach knew it was the last time this very special group would ever wear the same uniform.  A few favorite images flashed through his mind: The catcher gunning down a runner for a third out and removing her helmet to reveal a smiling face streaked with sweat and dust. The astonished look of an outfielder when a fly ball hit her glove and stayed there.  The resolute shortstop reaching for a grounder and firing to first to beat the runner by half a step. The unflappable pitcher with the starbright grin.  And the way each of them suddenly transformed from doe-eyed teenybopper to steel-eyed competitor when they took bat in hand and stepped up to the plate.
    He ran through the roster of his players’ names in his head and committed it to memory (hopefully).
    The mental slide show continued a little longer and then faded out as the sopping wet coach (a victim of the now time-honored winner's tradition of dousing the coach with ice water) stood on the periphery of the diamond.  He lingered there trying to steal a few extra moments, like a child at recess after the bell has rung.  Then he picked up his equipment and walked out to the car.
    The kids were over at the pizza parlor – and it was time to celebrate.

June 29, 1999