To start, a warning: Turn back now because this goes on.
And also before we begin, an apology: This should’ve been published the moment Washington’s softball season ended and Gabbie Plain threw her last pitch in purple and gold. But words are hard, especially when you’ve been crammed into a canal boat in rural Netherlands for a minute with no internet and lots of thoughts to convert into language. So this’ll have to do.
My fifth word, give or take, was Edgar. Then there’s the photo proof of four year-old me sleeping in a plastic Seahawks helmet next to the hand-me-down plush cat who I carried everywhere, at all times gripping the neck with such force that the stuffing had long since left the body and migrated to the now bursting-at-the-eyes head.
My first Husky football game was at three — by all accounts enjoyable but much too loud. It was a couple years later when I started figuring out how football actually worked, when I saw on TV that Washington was already a whopping seven points ahead of UCLA only to be told that actually that’s only one touchdown, which five year old me decided was bullshit. Why seven? That’s dumb. Make it a normal number for Christ’s sake. Like one. One makes sense. “Well because there’s field goals, and those are worth three.” What is with these arbitrary-ass numbers, thought five year-old me verbatim. (She clearly had an expansive vocabulary that hasn’t gotten any better since.)
As kids, so many watch these teams and players with dreams of one day being there themselves. First round draft pick, “I’ve pictured this day since I was eight;” high school junior who’s self-proclaimed 10,000% committed, “This is something I’ve been working towards my whole life.”
Or so I’m told.
Occasionally I’ll wonder what it’s like to be a boy and watch the elite of the elite and think that one day that could be you. Or at least, failing the elite of the elite, the 2005 Mariners.
I’m sure most have the brain to realize that probability isn’t on their side. Right? But still... theoretically — it could be you.
For the girls of us, as kids we watch and we admire and we share in the joy or, let’s be real, complete misery of these teams of men. But there’s a pane through which we watch, like it’s in another imaginary dimension which we view from afar.
I’m not bringing this up as a pity thing, and it’s not accusing you of anything if you’re a guy. And if you’re feeling defensive like you expect me to want an apology, that’s a projection in which I’m not interested.
But it is context. Context that I find myself wondering — without accusation or bitterness — if half the population has ever thought to think of. “When you were a boy and you watched the 1995 Mariners or 1991 Washington and thought ‘I want to be there,’ did it ever enter your brain that that thought is for you and people like you alone?”
At eight, my dad bought me a king-sized Twix bar under our agreement that that would be my prize once I could throw a baseball across our yard over the boxwood into our neighbor’s property. As we all know, to a child a king-sized candy bar may as well be $30 million. “A king-sized Twix? In this economy? We must be the landed gentry!”
(Coincidentally, the neighbor whose yard we kept terrorizing is also kind of a Washington rowing ledge who you definitely know if you’re in that community, although that meant nothing to me at the time other than for his fun intel about how obvious the East Germans’ ‘roid usage was in the 70s.)
Shortly after The King-Sized Twix, the agreement was upgraded to a radio if I could hit a ball the same distance. The agreed-upon purpose for said radio was to listen to the Mariners and fall asleep to KPLU jazz. I mean shit dude, how Americana is that?
So I hit the ball there, got a radio, and used it every night and as an alarm for the next 11 years until the tuner eventually got jammed and then, nine months later, broke permanently.
(There’s another sidenote here about the jammed tuner, a very very bad year, and BC community radio, but that’s its own thing. Unrelated, if anyone knows an old former DJ for a defunct station named Scotty M. from Salt Spring Island, tell him thanks from me.)
Okay crap, sorry, we’re going on a bit of a sidenote rampage which I promise to stop.
But that’s pretty much what we did. Because there were two things child-me wanted to do: softball. And football. And I couldn’t play football, because football was For Boys.
Of course this wasn’t codified (or, at least, I assume not) — “ain’t no rule says the dog can’t play” applied to girls too. But it didn’t have to be. By the ripe age of six, I already knew that being a girl on a boys’ team sucked.
Playing baseball was fun; playing baseball with a bunch of paste eaters who couldn’t hit a coach pitch but still ostracized the one or two girls on the team was awful. There was always one kid who was The Best, then me at Second Best, then most of the rest of the team who, even by the standards of five to nine year-olds, were moderately terrible, and then one or two boys who were so irredeemably dogshit at baseball that it was glorious. Like watching a labrador try to run on a frozen lake. Just generationally awful. You know the kid — every little league team has one until a certain age. Left field sand castles, etc.
Generally speaking, the Really Good kid would be cool and the Really Bad kid would be cool. (To this day I adore the Outfield Sand Castle Makers.) The in-betweeners almost invariably made it clear you were some outlier of a person who happened to wear the same color jersey.
Of course I’m sure they didn’t actively try to make the girl or two on the team uncomfortable at best and miserable at worst — but it didn’t matter. I was uncomfortable at best and miserable at worst.
So by the time nine year old me switched to softball with all girls, the clearest memory in my brain was how relieved I was.
Poor timing as ever, it was that time that football became the thing I obsessed over for years despite knowing how miserable it’d be re-entering that dynamic of The One Girl Surrounded By Dudes Who Pretend You Don’t Exist. And I’m using the word “obsessed” in the correct way, not like the way when a college sophomore goes “Oh my god Nicole I’m obsessed with that top on you” bitchyouarenotobsessedthat’snotwhatthatwordmeansyoujustkindoflikethatshirt. Like, psychologically obsessed, carried a football with me everywhere obsessed, always wanted to tackle something obsessed, probably should’ve been diagnosed with something obsessed.
From then on, that was the one thing I wanted to do more than anything and knew I couldn’t, while meanwhile all the sports we watched were done so knowing they too were played in a separate universe by separate people.
So, softball it would be. I had minimal memory of seeing it on TV and wasn’t clinically hyperfixated on it like with football — on TV always — but it was still quite fun and I was still quite good, so it was a worthy consolation.
I adored softball and it came naturally, but most importantly softball was where I belonged. It was the only thing in the venn diagram of “sports I got to play with other girls,” and “sports I actually really enjoyed playing” (soccer was too strategically boring at that age, and my body refused to follow the physics of basketball).
But there weren’t any examples, as far as I knew, of it going anywhere. If you played baseball or football you could point to the Mariners and Seahawks and Husky Football. With softball it was just for us, a bunch of nine year-old girls doing trust falls with each other while waiting in line for a batting drill.
So I thought. At first.
“There’s this new kid from Sammammish.”
That’s my first memory of Washington Softball.
Actually, I vaguely remember knowing of them before that... but I couldn’t tell you what it was I knew until my dad said this sentence.
Thus entered into the world child-Gabey’s first UW Softball thought: Caitlin Noble is a god.
As a kid you don’t really have much context for, well, any quantifying measurements. How far up you were able to climb that douglas fir (five feet but you’ll say 50), how fast your best friend Sarah can throw (26 miles per hour but you’ll believe it’s just a hair under Shohei), how long that car ride took (38 minutes to Mukilteo but you’ll insist it was all day or at least the longest car ride in history).
Case in point: My nine year-old nephew is convinced his friend trains more than an Olympic swimmer — he’s never told me exactly what his friend actually trains for, only that certainly no one in the world could train more at, uh, something.
I include this all because at the time, I was convinced Caitlin Noble was the greatest pitcher in softball history. Did I know anything about softball history, or what it would take to be the best ever? Absolutely the hell not. Was that gonna stop me from this belief? Hell no it wasn’t.
Reality would prove this wrong — not because she wasn’t quite good at pitching, but because history wasn’t done yet. Just a year later, “There’s a new kid from” would end in another PNW town, this time just north of the 49th parallel Lynden border crossing. The next four years would show me — and all of us — just how good “good” could be. But it wasn’t time for that yet. Caitlin Noble was the one before The One.
This conviction was solidified by child-Gabey’s second Washington Softball thought: Heather Tarr, too, is a god. As are Eve Gaw and Geoff Hirai. I mean, they look extremely official and their team sure seems to kick ass, so that’s a good start.
But none of that would’ve really mattered if not for spending what felt like half this period of my life — remember that bit about how children are horsecrap at accurately measuring time and other stuff? — around this team.
In actuality, “half my life” was probably 10 UW Softball camps from the ages of nine to 13 or so, coupled with working the concession stand a few times. But every so often, “don’t meet your heroes” couldn’t be further from the truth; really, it wasn’t until meeting them (over and over and over again) that that became their title.
Because not only were they the first and only example of stars within this sport that was my identity, they treated you — even as a 10 year old — like a dignified, worthy-of-their-attention, real-life human being.
Since when did adults talk to you, a child, with dignity? Like equals? I mean sure, we weren’t debating the merits of Tolstoy or anything, but it was still for me a new level of trust for kids’ intelligence; you want to break down the mechanics of different infield release points based on your angle to the ball? Sure thing. But first let me show how we train our eyes to track the details of a pitch’s spin. (“Shit, that does not bode well for my future,” thought 12 year old me through her inch thick glasses.)
Even beyond that, even little interactions were validating in a way I’d rarely-if-ever experienced as a child
Maybe it was because she was young enough at the time to remember what it felt like being a #youth — I dunno — but Coach Tarr, her players, and her staff made a habit of considering that maybe kids are capable of more than we give them credit for. Looking back, I think that’s probably a key reason this institution has so been so consistently great while she’s been there.
I knew we weren’t softball peers, but it sure felt like we were human ones.
Of these people who I thought were the coolest, best, most incredible at what they did, in most cases I couldn’t point to anything re: tangible on-field play to tell you why I thought that. I just looked up one of the gals on those teams who kid-me was convinced was the epitome of cool and saw that her batting average was, like, .223.
Did that matter? Not even a bit.
Then, when we’d watch them play, inside I turned into the Leonardo DiCaprio pointing meme: Hey Marnie Koziol just slapped a single and she’s the one who tweaked my inside shoulder placement at Dempsey last week! And now Nicole Moojen’s up to bat, and she’s kind of intimidating because she’s so loud but, like, in a friendly way! And Caitlin (in my mind we were on first name basis) gets the last out, and that card from her and the team is somewhere in my room from when I helped out as their gopher in last fall’s tournament!
In hindsight, it was the purest combination of awe, admiration, and innocence.
The thought never occurred to me that I could play for them. These people were, once more, gods who were naturally superior to even the wildest imagination I could have had for myself. But the theoretical me could, and that was good enough.
And then I quit.
I quit because I was growing up (a dumb thing that scientists should really fix already), had new interests, and just wanted to do other things. But also because I was used from the age of seven to being Really Good and then as I got older went from Really Good to Quite Good to Good to Average, saw where that was going, and didn’t know how to stop it. And since those Washington players were such gods, I’d never entertained the idea that I could actually play at a level even close to that; so if I wanted to do other things and was getting worse anyway — on an existential level, why continue?
It was Sysyphian: If there’s no end goal in sight, why are you doing this?
Weeks later, Danielle Lawrie ended a Floridian’s soul on one last strike, and Washington won their first national championship.
But after that I was more or less over it.
I played music and hung out with friends who jock kids would’ve thought were beneath them and held my own in mosh pits and made crappy little videos and played rugby and worked for SIFF and moved to Canada and stopped playing rugby and wrote one-act plays and did stage makeup and wrote silly unhinged columns that people seemed to like and started standup and got pretty good at standup and then got insecure about my standing in the standup hierarchy because that world is insane and unhealthy and wonderful and messed up and I love it and hate it and it’s the worst and the best.
What I didn’t do, was think about softball.
Barely an iota. Sometimes half an iota, but almost always not at all.
Softball went from my first home to an awkward former-acquaintance.
It was my identity. It was the first organized space where I felt like a valid participant. It was the first thing that I loved that loved me back. Now it was a stranger who I used to know.
My glove got buried in the bottom of the closet while my catcher’s gear and bat became covered in the detritis of a 60 year-old decaying garage.
At one point, shortly after I moved to Vancouver, my softball-dad-who-bought-me-that-radio coincidentally ended up doing some work for a couple UW Athletics projects, including a softball thing. When he told me, I typed out “Tell Coach Tarr I say hi” over text before realizing: There was no way she would still have remembered some kid, it had been years since I had interacted with either that program or even the sport they played, and that the whole concept was ridiculous. I deleted it and changed it to some variation on “oh, that’s cool.” (Funnily enough, when we interviewed her a month-ish ago, she admitted she actually did. Because of course.)
The first time I played catch after quitting was years later in college, only to find that my shoulder’s muscle memory had crumbled such that any throw less than 30 yards was a complete crapshoot as to whether it would be at their ankles or sail over their head. My two skills had always been drawing and throwing — especially throwing hard and accurate for someone who could be generously described as scrawny. As illogical as it sounds, there’s something existentially jarring about seeing yourself become in a moment only 50% of what you’d always been.
A couple years after that, my car got stolen in front of my house in Point Grey. They’d recover it, but not the glove. It had been in the passenger seat alongside a 17-year long collection of CDs and one cook book.
During this time Washington Softball carried on. I, however, could barely have told you anything about it.
I could not do the things I once did and, besides a vague nostalgic affection, was completely detached from the one institution that had meant it all.
“There’s this new kid from Australia.”
Because of course that would be the sentence to bring me back home.
Is that a corny way of putting it? Whatever, don’t give a crap, if there’s a more accurate description I sure couldn’t come up with it.
After almost a decade of having abandoned the only team that mattered, of course it’d be another “this new kid.” Some new freshman pitcher.
Followed by “wait — from where?”
I don’t remember the first time I watched Gabbie Plain pitch. I do, however, remember one of my first thoughts:
“Were all pitchers this chill?”
When was the last time I saw a pitcher smile? Had I ever seen a pitcher smile? Does she ever stop smiling? Even when she’s scowling, she’s still kind of smiling.
Was it just my hazy kid memory remembering old players as more intimidating (and through extension intense) than they really were? I searched up Danielle Lawrie’s last inning in the national championship to confirm. No, my memory was accurate. She did have a murder-y vibe goin’...
How was this kid — from a place that we didn’t even know plays softball — so incredible? And how did she do all this with the same vibe as someone floating down a summer river with a beer in their hand?
I think I’m like pretty much everyone in this regard: Came for the inhuman pitch movement, stayed because seeing someone smile so much while crushing souls is contagious. Maybe there’s a sense of innocence in that that’s so appealing; Gabbie seemed to play in purple and gold with the same happiness that I used to watch them. And now do again.
And the longer I stayed to watch this New Kid From, the more I remembered why I’d imprinted on this team in the first place as an up-til-then out of place nine year old.
There are few things as wonderful as the rebirth of a joy you thought had long gone extinct.
I never thought I’d return to this home. And especially didn’t think, if I did, that it would be because of a smirking Australian ending lives at 56 miles per hour.
As an adult, I’m now much better at estimating how fast a car is driving (58 in the left lane), how far you just threw that football (23 yards), or how fast I can get a wristshot off from the slot during beer league (let’s be honest, probably like 32 MPH max).
I also know that these people hitting dingers in a Washington uniform are just some kids from wherever who happen to be really, really good at what they do.
Still... I have a hunch there will always be a blip of my brain, tucked between the parts responsible for “craving schnitzel” and “that creaking noise was definitely an axe murderer in my house,” where they really are, if just a bit, gods.
So to Gabbie Plain, for letting that be true again: Thanks.