Sports

Greatness beckoned me back to the stands; fate took it from there

I watch a lot of softball.

My daughter, a junior in high school, plays, and over the years my wife and I have evolved from doting parents in the stands to binge-watching devotees with a softball problem. As we emerge warily from our late-pandemic bubble, we have become enamored of the sea-to-shining-sea coverage afforded by our ESPN+ subscription, which offers a panoptical glimpse of a nation at play. My wife, in particular, delights in scouring the endless availability of televised games until she alights upon the most obscure contest, covered on chilly spring fields by a single fixed camera with limited perspective but endless charm. The other day, I caught her watching Illinois State take on Southern Illinois, and when I asked, “How are the Salukis doing?” she responded with a deadpan “Ha ha ha,” and asked if I wanted to change the channel so I could catch Day 4 of the NFL draft. The more softball you watch, however, the more you seek it out, because it’s when you watch the Salukis or the Great Danes or the Warhawks (look ’em up) that you realize the appeal of the game is so powerfully and persuasively democratic.

Yes, a chasm exists between the powerhouse teams of the SEC and Pac-12 and the scuffling nondescripts fighting it out in front of aluminum bleachers where social distancing is a redundancy. But certain constants remain: pitching rules; even stars partake in silly cheers from the bench and even stars are often not on full scholarship. The stars who play for the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa and the stars who play for the Blazers in Birmingham have more than the University of Alabama in common: they all have been playing hyper-competitively since T-ball and they all have taken their talents as far as their talents can possibly go. Softball’s success at international and professional expansion has been iffy at best, and so whether it’s the Tide vs. the Gators or the Blazers vs. the Golden Eagles, there is no bigger stage than the one afforded by the NCAA. They are playing at the peak of their powers, and even the most anonymous of matchups on the least dream-dusted of fields have a life-or-death urgency that’s as moving as it is thrilling.

And yet, a few weeks ago, when I drove to Athens, Georgia, to watch a doubleheader between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Oklahoma Sooners at Jack Turner Softball Stadium, I wasn’t attending my first live sports event since the beginning of the lockdown simply to partake in the plurality of democratic excellence. I was making the trip to see if I could witness something singular, no matter the sport:

Greatness.

As a softball fan, I was well aware that coach Patty Gasso has made the University of Oklahoma a great softball program. The first televised softball game I ever saw was between the Sooners and Tennessee Volunteers in the Women’s College World Series of 2013, and it turned out to be a game (and a series) won by the pitching and bat of the greatest softball player I’ve ever seen, Keilani Ricketts. Oklahoma has won two more championships since, and finished as runner-up in softball’s last pre-pandemic season, 2019. Gasso’s team joins UCLA and Florida to form the sport’s enduring elite, with the fourth spot filled by a rotating cast of legacy powers that find pitching and get hot at the right time of year.

But a great team? That’s a different question, since a great team has to transcend the great program that produces it. A great team has to supersede even the great players who compose it, since we all know that greatness is not explained by talent alone. A great team has to discover a way to dominate and at the same time to be tested, and to make its claim to dominion a simultaneous claim of survival — without stumbling, it has to prevail in a trial by fire. A great team has to find a foil, an antagonist, and, if not quite a nemesis, then at least an opponent worthy of its own lonely quest. Can a great team subsist on a diet of slaughter? I didn’t think so, but that’s what I went to Athens to find out.

Softball, you see, has a slaughter rule — known, more accurately, as a run-rule — and the 2021 edition of the Oklahoma Sooners have played most of their games as if to force its invocation. They opened their season beating Texas El Paso 29-0 and came to Jack Turner after not simply beating but run-ruling then-No. 7 Texas in three straight games, a slaughter-rule sweep. They were 33-0; had won 40 in a row; and led the nation in nearly every possible statistical category, particularly home runs, where they were looking to make history. They had the nation’s two most prodigious home run hitters, Tiare Jennings and Jocelyn Alo, batting leadoff, on account of both players also batting over .500. Indeed, Oklahoma’s team batting average was more than 100 points higher than No. 21 Georgia’s, and the Sooners had hit 41 more home runs. In a sport of closely contested games often decided by iron-woman endurance “in the circle,” timely home runs and crucial mistakes, Oklahoma had achieved the kind of dominance that wins games before either team takes the field. But then, I knew they were dominant. I wanted to know if they were great, which is to say I wanted to know if they were Patriots great, Warriors great, UConn great, Alabama great — I wanted to reconnect with live sports by finding out if the 2021 Oklahoma softball team had the kind of greatness you can feel.

That was my excuse, anyway — the stated occasion for my journey as well as for this essay, when really I decided to go for the same reason everyone else is going to see live sports these days: To get out of the house. To get in the car and drive. To get stuck in the resurgent traffic. To taste Dippin’ Dots, which always struck me as a devious simulacrum of ice cream until they were taken away, at which point I realized they had been the real thing all along.

The game was on TV after all, along with, I don’t know, the Owls vs. the Mocs, or maybe the Crusaders vs. the Lancers, and my wife was able to watch it from the same couch where we’ve been watching sports since America decided that athletes were the equivalent of essential workers. Even Michele Smith and Beth Mowins, ESPN’s redoubtable softball announcing team, called the game “remotely,” which is to say from the comfort and safety of their own homes.

So why go? Why bother going? That was the question I was really asking when I decided to test-drive the presumption of Oklahoma’s greatness. Of course, sports fans go to sporting events in order to be participants rather than simply spectators — in order to root, root, root for the home team in the belief that their voices, their loyalty, their devotion, the sheer force of their crossed fingers, private rituals, and prayers will influence the outcome and maybe even prove decisive. That belief in the power of belief was one of casualties of the pandemic, because when sports returned to American televisions they looked remarkably like, well, sports, even in the absence of crowds. The games not only went on; they were often superb, their outcomes dependent not on “crowd noise” but on whether their true and sole participants, the athletes, were able to rise to the occasion. The bubble left the games intact, the athletes unfazed. The only thing that changed was us, with cardboard effigies taking our seats and the roar of the crowd preserved in the roar of the same overbearing sound systems that, in better times, blasted Gary Glitter.

I drove to Athens, then, not simply to see the game but to see what remained of the experience of fandom now that fandom had been proved extraneous. I wasn’t just going to a game; I was going back, and so was softball.

There was no softball championship last year. The sport was not deemed necessary for national survival, and its season ended when everything else did, a few weeks into March. And so a lot of the players I watched on TV in 2021 I had last watched two years ago, some of them fifth-year seniors who’d received dispensation from the NCAA to recover what was supposed to be their final seasons. We are used to seeing athletes grow up on the field, right before our eyes. But many of the best college softball players of 2021 seemed to have grown up elsewhere, as if they’d all taken a gap year that turned out to be no fun at all.

And that was the feeling at Jack Turner, at least at first. I had gone there to experience greatness, but what I first experienced was the unmistakable air of convalescence — an entire world blinking back to life after an enforced hiatus. No effigies filled the seats, but UGA’s athletic department had done such a scrupulous job of keeping spectators apart that the tape prohibiting whole swaths of the stadium from being inhabited served a symbolic function, reminding us of absent friends. There was a precise allotment of 150 people in the stands; there was also an imprecise level of lockdown observance, with some of us masked, some not, and at least one — me — awaiting a second shot. The result was an Irish wake of a game, half party and half memorial, and a reminder of why wise men throughout the ages have warned against thinking you can go home again. I went to Jack Turner wanting my live sports to have stayed the same and found that the only things unchanged were the Dippin’ Dots, which still tasted like freezer burn, slightly sweetened.

And yet as soon as play began, the human tendency toward belief once again proved itself imperishable. At least half the spectators who’d made the trip seemed to have made the trip from Oklahoma, and they were on hand not just to witness the Sooners’ greatness but to make them great. Five or six rows behind home plate, there was even a booming Sooner, who every time an Oklahoma player stepped up the plate, shouted the same confident counsel about Georgia’s pitcher: “Don’t help her out! Make her work! Make her pitch to you! Don’t help her out. …”

Now, this is softball talk; anybody involved in the game at any level has said or heard the same. But the inexhaustibly prescriptive fan in the stands boomed it incessantly, over and over again, for every player in the Oklahoma lineup, the entire game. He boomed it with the basso elan of Ving Rhames declaring, “We have the meats” in an Arby’s ad, and damned if it didn’t work, and if the Sooners didn’t listen. Ruthlessly disciplined at the plate, they didn’t help Georgia’s Mary Wilson Avant out. They made her work, they made her pitch to them. In the second inning, Oklahoma shortstop Grace Lyons made contact, with the sound of a watermelon being struck instead of a softball. I had the chance to see something that only live sports can provide, the spectacle of 150 heads turning in unison to watch a ball disappear over the wall 220 feet in dead center, and then I had the chance — the wonderful live liberty — to be entirely wrong about what came next.

The thing that great teams have in common no matter the sport is that they write their own scripts. The breaks, the bad bounces, the momentum, the entire invisible apparatus of sport — these they manage to turn to their own ends, as if by force of will. I have never believed for even a moment that “there are no accidents,” but great teams do, and if they’re great enough they manage to contrive a convincing brief for a universe in which the great and the gifted can actually “make their own luck.” Or maybe just silence doubters with overwhelming shows of force that make the entire concept of luck the last luxury of the losers’ bracket.

That, at any rate, seemed to be what was happening at Jack Turner after Grace Lyons’ home run, the beginning of a deluge, Oklahoma’s greatness having its way. But then something else happened, something that at first seemed part of the very purview of greatness: Georgia made a mistake.

It was a terrible mistake, one of the worst in sports, and like so many terrible mistakes it occurred in the midst of triumph. In the fourth, Jaiden Fields hit the ball over the wall, but such was the force of her celebration that when she approached home she took to the air instead of the earth. She didn’t touch the plate, and rather than hitting the home run that put Georgia ahead 3-1, she was credited with a triple and made the second out in a 2-1 game. My wife and I texted each other simultaneously, she from the bubble of our couch and me from the bubble of a small stadium taped up like a crime scene: “I hope this doesn’t come back to bite them in the ass!”

But of course it did, as any student of greatness knew it would. Oklahoma the Inexorable! Oklahoma the Inevitable! They kept making Mary Wilson Avant work; they pushed ahead 5-2 on a Lynnsie Elam grand slam in the sixth. In the bottom of the inning, trailing by three, Jaiden Fields came to the plate — with the bases loaded.

How did that happen? How could it happen? It is easy to see why people decried the national need for sports during the pandemic — a need so great that we risked the health of the very athletes we cheered from inside our deathly-quiet dwellings. Do we really need to be entertained that badly, they asked, forgetting that sport is not just entertainment, not quite. It’s entertainment plus fate, and if it exists for any reason at all it exists as fate’s laboratory, a place where under controlled circumstances we receive impossible data about the relationship between the accidental and the inevitable. It was impossible that Jaiden Fields, whose mistake had returned to bite her team in the ass, would step up to the plate with the game on the line, but anyone who watches sports knew that, more than impossible, it was inevitable — and anyone in attendance at Jack Turner knew that Oklahoma was no longer writing the script. The Sooners had lost control of the narrative, which was being written by someone else, something else, and there, live, we could feel it, the mad yet patient scribbling of fate’s invisible hand. Fields hit a two-run single to cut Oklahoma’s lead to one. Georgia tied the game up in the seventh, and then, as if the point hadn’t been sufficiently made, Jaiden Fields came up again in the ninth. I guess Jaiden Fields should have hit a home run in atonement, but she didn’t need to. With two on and two out, she hit a bounding bouncer to left, the runner came around from second, Jocelyn Alo threw off line, Mary Avant Wilson won the game for the Georgia Bulldogs and Oklahoma was no longer undefeated.

Did that mean the Sooners were no longer great? No, not really — they run-ruled Georgia in the second game of the doubleheader and though they’ve lost once again, they’re still ranked No. 1, they won the Big 12 title, and the upcoming NCAA tournament will give them all the opportunity they need to prove what they really are. But Georgia’s upset win did mean, to me, something far more significant: It meant that the lockdown was over. My wife had watched the game from home, and had felt its seismic shifts. But I had experienced them, and part of that experience included the risk, the dare, of breathing once again around other human beings, strangers who had traveled for the game and whose groans and gasps came in concert with my own. We have all been subject to fate over the last year and our messy struggles against its dictates have yielded mixed results, to put it charitably. But to watch a sporting event in person again is to be reminded that our struggles are always messy and the results are always mixed, even when they go our way.

I had driven a couple of hours to feel greatness, and in the end I had gotten what I had come for. I had felt the greatness of something that teaches us, even during a pandemic, that the accidental exists to serve the inevitable, that the inevitable is only an illusion projected by the accidental, and that the only way we can reconcile ourselves to our fates is to struggle messily and mightily against them. It was not the greatness of Oklahoma that I witnessed, or even of softball. It was the greatness of sports, which turned out to be worth the trip.

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