For Sara Tucholsky, it was the senior year she dreamed of. She was not a stand-out (batting only .153), but she was a starter. A utility player. Her team, however, the Wildcats of Western Oregon University, had a winning season this year. That Sunday afternoon in Ellensburg, Washington, they were up against a tough Central Washington University for a spot in the NCAA Division II playoffs. It was a double-header, with everything on the line for each team. Tucholsky’s team won the first game decisively with a score of 8-1.
In spite of the high stakes, there were barely one hundred on-lookers in the bleachers. No one imagined that this college diamond in a small town somewhere on the long road between Seattle and Yakima would that very day be the focus of the national media.
When Sara picked up the bat in the second inning of game two, she glanced at the runners on first and second. And then at the pitcher. She willfully ignored a handful of guys who were taunting her from out there beyond the outfield fence – and had been there the entire afternoon. She stands all of five foot two in the batter’s box, and the gaggle of guys shouted out loud that she was an easy out. Later, she said that in baseball, you’ve got to tune out the noise and focus on the task at hand. She stepped up to the plate. Took a strike. And then on the second pitch, for the first time in her baseball career, something spectacular happened.
She hit lots of line drives. Hot grounders. Foul balls. But never the long ball. She’d been swinging a bat since she was a little girl. She envied the taller, stronger girls with the big swing and the capacity for the high, towering fly balls. She learned early on not to expect it of herself. Now here she was in the game of her life, a senior about to graduate with the possibility of leaving her alma-mater with a mighty victory posted in the history books for generations to see, and “Crack!” right in the sweet spot of the bat, her most powerful swing ever, and the ball took off… right in the direction of the hecklers outside the fence.
She’s a sprinter. Off she went, in a burst of disbelief and excitement. Would it carry? Would it go? The few fans there jumped to their feet. The pitcher turned and watched in a moment of deflation that only pitchers know. Her teammates in the dugout – noses to chain-link, with wide eyed wonderment – watched and prayed “C’mon… c’mon!” The two base-runners kicked in the after-burners. And the ball hung up there in slow motion. Sara half watched the baseline as she charged toward first, but mainly, she had her eye on the ball… go, go. Go! Over the fence! It cleared and bounced on the grass outside.
The crowd cheered. Sara jumped, arms in the air. She turned toward second and boom. It hit her. She missed first base. Caught up in baseball’s best moment of all, a soaring home run, the rules clicked in like a lightning bolt. “Oh no!” she thought, and she extended her right leg for the quick turnabout. Her head snapped around. The push stressed the Anterior Cruciate Ligament beyond its limit, and the popping sound of a torn ACL collapsed her powerful leg into a heap of sharp pain just past first base on the dry, hard infield. Celebration turned to awful hurt – just like that. In the agony that only an athlete who popped a knee appreciates (and there are lots of them), Sara crawled through the dust, pulling herself on two elbows and one good knee, dragging the bad leg, back to first base, slapping it with an open hand.
Onlookers were stunned into silence. Everyone – coaches, players, fans, sports-writers, umpires, even that band of guys out there shagging the ball – now shrugged. First – “What happened?” And then, “What happens next?”
If you are an umpire or referee, you know the feeling. Something will come along that day that never occured before in the history of the game. It will test your knowledge of the fine print in the rulebook. You know you have only a short time to make a decision. You also know that the world will be second-guessing your judgment. It will be some sort of exception, some special case, something that doesn’t fit. You don’t have time to Google. No time to consult the experts. No time to call a hearing. No booth for instant replay.
Umpire Jacob McChensey had such a moment. Here’s a homerun hitter collapsed into a heap on first base. Here come the coaches. A couple things he knew for certain. To book the home-run, she needed to touch all four bases. That’s the rule. The umpire knew that if the base coach touched her, she would be called out. If the team put in a substitute, there would be no home run – it would be called a single with two runs batted in.*
Home-run hitter (the league home-run champion for the season) and first baseman Mallory Holtman surprised everyone with a modest proposal. She went first to Umpire McChensey. “Can we give her an assist, you know, carry her around the bases?” The umpire thought for a moment. “Why not?” He could think of no rule preventing such an action – unprecedented in his career as an Ump. So Mallory went to her second baseman, Liz Wallace (an honors student) and asked her to help. “Sure,” she said. And then the two players on the opposing team, went to Sara, still stunned and perplexed and in intense pain, and offered to lift her up, and carry her around the bases to home plate to forever put Sara Tucholsky’s homerun in the history books.
The simple gesture had a powerful impact on the crowd. It was an umpire’s nightmare – a mind bending dilemma. But the solution was so self-less, such a contrast to the rough and tumble win-at-any-cost mentality that we assume dominates athletic contests that people found unexpected tears rolling down their cheeks as they watched the spectacle. Throats swelled. Words were there, but couldn’t be spoken. Applause began, slowly at first, and then a crescendo rolled over the ballpark like a wave. Two Washington players in white uniforms carried the Oregon home-run hitter around the diamond, pausing at each base to lower Sara’s dangling feet to touch second, then third and finally home-plate.
And for one shining moment, character reigned. Selflessness trumped selfishness. Giving trumped getting. Caring overcame indifference.
Mallory, the home-run hitter, knew what it was like to collect the rewards of the long ball. She wasn’t about to let a snapped ACL take it away from Sara, even though she was on the opposing team.
It’s Monday morning. You are a leader. Get out there with the intention to win.
But remember this. The best wins of all come from giving.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008
*Later, an obscure corner of the rule book would reveal another option not known to the Umpire or anyone else on the field at the time – but it was not considered. In the case of a home-run, the team is allowed to replace an unjured player to complete the run around the bases.