I was facing Karen Franzen, pitcher for the Stanton Viqueens (an obvious girls’ counterpart name for the boys’ Vikings, right?). Karen was one of the best Iowa girls fast-pitch softball pitchers in the state in the early 1980’s, second only to Kay Hughes from Farragut, Iowa in that era. Aside from her outstanding pitching record, she was also the #1 slugger in 1984 in Iowa, with a batting average of .984 that year, according to the record books of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union.
Our team, the Essex Trojanettes, was in the top tier of our conference of ten teams in southwest Iowa. I was in 9th or 10th grade and the starting varsity second baseman. I can’t decide if that means that we didn’t have much of a team, or I was more of an athlete than I thought at that time. I was always adequate, even quite good sometimes, but I just didn’t have the heart for gritty athletic competition.
This exact scenario must have featured vividly in our coach Alan Stuart’s nightmares. We were down by one run. Bases loaded. Two outs. Full count. One of the batters from the bottom of the order is up to bat. A base hit at least ties the game but a decent hit could also put us ahead by a run. If I cause the third out, the game ends and we don’t make it to the next level of the conference tournament. The only thing going for me is that we are on our home field.
As Franzen kicked her toe against the pitching rubber, Coach called a time out and pulled me out of the batter’s box. I breathed a sigh of relief. Coach Stuart was from Tennessee, and his southern accent was an anomaly in our corner of Iowa, and somehow it added to the weight of the moment.
We stood nose to nose, me with our team’s favorite mint green aluminum bat hanging from my hand, and he said, “Ang, don’t swing unless you know for sure it’s a strike.”
Of course, excellent advice. What dummy wouldn’t know that? Well, me. I might not know that, which is why he had to tell me. He was also trying to reassure me and tell me I didn’t have to swing. My rational brain understood this. My fear-stricken brain was telling me not to lose the game, that it was all riding on me.
I stepped back into the batter’s box. I didn’t look at the pitcher. I focused on the ball. In one swift move she swung her arm around in a wide 360-degree wind up as she stepped forward, releasing the softball from her hip. Still today I can see the ball coming toward the plate as if in slow motion. It’s low. But is it low enough to be a ball? Not quite. Maybe. I get only a split second to decide whether to swing. I decided to risk dying by swinging rather than risk dying by standing still. I pulled the bat from behind me in an arc in perfect timing to meet the ball. I heard the bat crack against the ball and the CRACK! rippled its vibrations up through my arms. I knew I’d hit it hard, a line drive. For one split second I believe.
One split second later, Karen Franzen just barely tipped her body to the right and snagged my line drive in her glove at her right knee. That fast.
Coach didn’t yell. Nobody seemed upset. Maybe they all gave up when they realized I was at bat. Or maybe I just don’t remember that part.
After we went through the line doing our “good game” hand-slaps, we jogged off the field. Coach sidled up next to me and asked, “Ang, was that a strike?”
“I thought so,” I said, without looking at him.