I never remembered softball being a real sport. In my mind, it was always a recreational game played in intramural or church leagues by overweight ex-jocks looking to recapture past glories. Sprained ankles, bad base running, and the occasional busted window were the norms. I could never imagine such a leisure pastime activity morphing into any sort of a major NCAA sanctioned sporting event. But that’s exactly what had happened as I discovered this past weekend when I was assigned by the Nolan Media Group to cover the UK women softball team’s postseason path to the College World Series.
First of all, let me just say that the current version of women’s softball is nothing like the game your mama played. These players are big and strong and fast and skilled and dedicated. They were all high school all-stars and heavily recruited by college programs throughout the talent laden SEC. They play in a $9.5 million state-of-the-art stadium with all the bells and whistles and for a coach who is the winningest coach in the history of the UK program. In other words, these UK gals are good. This year they could probably give the awful Reds a run for their money. The days of having to play their games in Woodland Park are a fading memory.
I’ll confess, I haven’t really followed the team much in the past. Actually, other than an occasional inning while channel surfing, I haven’t watched them at all. I’ve never been to a single game at John Cropp Stadium and I wouldn’t recognize Rachel Lawson or Kelsey Nunley if they bought my admission ticket. But the lure of another Cat championship quest beckons and who am I to back down when that next challenging media assignment is lurking. Let’s play ball!
I looked online and tickets for the entire three day regional event are $30 for a reserved chairback seat. Those looking to save money for a hot dog and coke can purchase general admission bleacher seats for $20. Whatever you decide, the entire stadium only seats 1500 so there’s really not a bad seat in the house. I’m getting in on my media credentials and am perched in the spacious press box behind home plate. From this panoramic perspective, I can see out toward Tates Creek Road to my parent’s old home in Turkeyfoot subdivision. Can’t help but daydream a little between innings about those carefree days of my youth playing box hockey in Ecton Park. I’m jolted quickly back to reality, however, by the appearance of master football recruiter Vince Marrow–no doubt impressing another four-star defensive lineman with the immeasurable benefits of joining our vaunted BBN.
Because I was late with my media credential request, I wasn’t even sure I would make the cut. With the impending heavy rain forecast, it was critical to slide in under the protective cover of the press box. Fortunately though, I’m in–squeezed between Dick Gabriel and the constant chatter of Buzz Baker and his ESPN broadcast. Nick Roush of KSR is live blogging right behind me. The atmosphere is surprisingly relaxed for a tournament game. Dick and I talk about all aspects of UK sports, like old friends reminiscing about the UK glory days of past. He’s friendly, disarming, and a professional in every sense of the word. His play-by-play commentary for the UK radio network is smooth and comforting, consistent with his experience as a long-time Wildcat scribe. Coach Lawson pops in for a quick interview, providing Dick with the necessary sound bites for his radio broadcast. How cool is that?
Something else which is cool is the media buffet. This weekend it consists of the standard fare of wraps, chips, cookies and drink–a far cry from the smell of funnel cakes, Louisiana crawfish etouffee, and chicken gyros wafting from the nearby concession stands. Did you know that fans who catch a foul ball in the stands aren’t allowed to keep it but can trade it in for a box of candy? Can’t help but bring a smile to the lips of every dentist in town.
The come-from-behind barn burner on Saturday night was hard to take. It’s always heart wrenching whenever your season or career hangs in the balance. Just like basketball season, those familiar pangs of anxiety and impending doom surfaced readily as the innings progressed with the Cats still behind. It didn’t matter that this was just a softball game. No, this was a “UK” softball game and therefore any of you with blue in your veins know exactly what I’m talking about. Some may say that there’s something inherently misguided about the emotions of a grown middle age man riding on the fortunes of twenty-year-old women playing a minor college sport. It is kind of creepy in a way if you think too much about it. But having said that, it is what it is. When Katie Reed singled home the tying run, I’ll readily admit that it was another euphoric moment of my sporting life.
There was no letdown in intensity on Sunday either. Watching UK come back from the brink of elimination was predictably exhilarating. I run into Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart coming out of the luxury suite and he’s visibly tense. For him, this is equivalent to the IU basketball game. Matt Jones of KSR makes it in from Louisville for the final game. He’s loud as usual, working the crowd to gather championship fodder for his popular radio show the next morning. He comes into my booth, quashing rumors of his alleged ongoing feud with Dick Gabriel. We talk politics and sports through the first four innings. As I bask in the warm sunshine and soak in the excitement of the crowd, I can’t think of many other places I would rather be at the moment.
Overall, despite the final game defeat, this weekend’s experience did not disappoint. There’s a reason women’s softball enjoys such high television ratings. It’s fast paced, competitive, and extremely skill based. The fans are into it and player personalities easily shine through. Losing always hurts but I’ll definitely be back again next year, especially to cheer on the Cats! Hope you’ll tag along for the ride.
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