TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — The Greatest Game

In the end, I was thankful for what seemed like the thankless task of coaching a first-year women’s softball team in Jamestown, N.D., in 1985. Early on, I realized I had just one very good ballplayer, a third-baseman named Margo, who carried herself like Geena Davis in “A League of Our Own.” We had an OK shortstop, one outfielder who caught about half the balls hit her way and another, Dolly, a devastating hitter, who was a complete liability in the outfield.

Our pitcher, Sue, showed up for practice the day after giving birth. Runaround Sue, as I dubbed her, wasn’t a great pitcher. Not even good. But she had such an odd delivery, I figured it would confuse batters as much as it did me. She was so bad she was good.

In a league loaded with experienced teams with real athletes, we were lambs to the slaughter, the Worse News Bears. I spent the season teaching girls who’d never picked up a bat how to hit, throw and occasionally catch.

I immediately put Dolly on the bench, deducing correctly that anything that wasn’t hit directly to her in right field would roll to the fence for a home run. She was a big girl and could hit a ton — devastating, whistling line drives that many fielders ducked instead trying to catch, but she clogged up the base paths. A walking double play.

I remember the day Dolly turned in her jersey while I was on the air at KQDJ. If she couldn’t start, she wasn’t going to play, she asserted tearfully. “You know, Dolly, you’re the best hitter on the team,” I said with Barry Manilow fading in the studio. “I want you at the plate when it means something,” assuming that at some point, in some game, we’d be competitive. A few days later, after thinking it over, she retrieved her jersey because there’s no crying in softball.

In time, we improved from being terrible to just bad. We even won a few. Still, we finished in the cellar, so no one gave us a chance in the season-ending league tournament, especially against the swaggering perennial champion Holiday Inn team. They looked great just taking the field and were great once they started playing. Maybe Margo could have sat the bench for them.

While Runaround Sue’s unorthodox delivery had helped keep us in some ballgames, the Holiday Inn team had her number right off. Two players blasted monster home runs in each of their first two at-bats, and after the second inning we were down 9-0. It’s what the snoozing crowd expected.

Out of pure desperation, I intentionally walked their sluggers the rest of the game, loading the bases in doing so twice, maybe three times. The umpire looked at me incredulously each time, and the crowd groaned at the insanity, but we began to claw back. A run here, a couple there, and in the field, a series of miracles. Outfielders made snow cone catches. Line drives were snagged purely out of self-defense, and the Holiday Inn didn’t score another run.

By then, the crowd was with us. With the bases loaded in the seventh and the score 9-4, I sent Dolly to the plate. What she did wasn’t batting, exactly, it was attempted murder. She cleared the bases with a screamer and ended up on third where I was coaching. It was 9-7.

“Dolly,” I said, “I’m going to send you, so if the play comes to home, and the catcher blocks the plate, mow her down.” Because that’s the way I played. And that’s exactly what happened on an infield dribbler. The catcher flew one way, the ball another, and it was 9-8.

Even the girls who couldn’t hit, kept hitting and we had the tying run on third when we made the final out. The crowd groaned … then cheered. Us. Us! They cheered us!

In the dugout, their faces beaming at the realization of what they’d accomplished, I told the team how proud I was. Turns out there is crying in softball. Afterward, as I was loading up the gear, a fan walked up. “I just want to tell you that’s the best ballgame I’ve ever seen,” he said.

It was. It was the greatest game ever.

I soon lost track of the girls; the next summer, I was on the air in Denver, but I think of them often and what we discovered together that summer, that sometimes you win when you don’t.

I’ve still never seen a better game.

© Tony Bender, 2021

Leave a Reply