Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Slowest Home Run Trot In History

Sometimes being a sports fan can start to make you turn somewhat cynical. I used to think that you needed to be pretty fluent in the language of sports, but it often seems you need a criminal law degree to understand SportsCenter. Most of the problems in sports today have been around for decades; some are only really finding their strides of late.

-The player who refuses to play for the team with whom he signed a contract. He will either sit out or just not try until they trade him.
-Performance enhancing drugs.
-Self promotion being more important then winning.
-Winning being more important than respecting opponents, fans, officials or other players.
-Daily DUI arrests, domestic abuse, parole violations, being on parole in the first place, shootings, brawls, drug use, rape, and the list goes on and on.

Sports and criminal behavior seem so intertwined that we are shocked when athletes don't act like the inmates have taken over the asylum. It is funny though, because in the midst of all the big money, big egos and big federal investigations, you can still find the great stories that made you fall in love with playing and rooting for sports in the first place.

Western Oregon softball player Sara Tuchalski was a senior playing in one of her last games. Her team trailed by 1 game going into a double-header at first place Central Washington. Of course Western Oregon won game one so the two faced off in the second game, now tied for the conference lead, with both schools' first ever NCAA Division II playoff berth perhaps on the line.

This game would not be remembered by anyone but the girls involved, but it would be the most important game of their lives. The stage was set for a typical hero and a typical goat to emerge. In the second inning, the score was 0-0 and the typical hero stepped up to the plate - rarely used Tuchalski, mired in a season-long 3-34 slump, standing at just 5'2", her bat nearly as tall as she is.

Of course, Tuchalski hit a bomb to dead center field, driving in three runs. Of course it was her first career home run, hit with only four games left in her career. Of course the hero had emerged. Of course she never made it to second base - not on her own at least.

Tuchalski was so excited as she rounded first that she missed the bag. She stopped to go bag, but her knee gave out and she feel to the ground after tearing her ACL.

If a teammate, coach or trainer assisted her to stand and run the bases, she would be disqualified and the play would go down as a 2-run single, since that was what base she got to before the play ended. The umpires mistakenly ruled that a pinch-runner could be put in, but the result would be the same.

So there was nothing anyone could do. Tuchalski needed a stretcher and an ambulance. Western Oregon needed a pinch-runner and the game was 2-0. Flashing forward to the bottom of the inning, Central Washington scored twice, so Tuchalski's run would have been the one to hang onto the lead, had she been able to score it.

Now here's where the story gets good: Mallory Holtman was a four-year starter for Central Washington at first base. This was her last home game and the conference title was on the line, so you can imagine what it meant to her to win it. Holtman holds nearly every offensive record her school has, but she probably remembers what hitting your first homer feels like. As she stood over her fallen foe and listened to coaches and umpires quickly run through the possible outcomes of this play, Holtman stepped up with her own solution.

She and shortstop Liz Wallace picked Tuchalski up and carried her around the bases, stopping to lower Tuchalski and allow her to touch each base with her foot. Of course they didn't know that when they lower her onto home plate (just before they lowered her onto a stretcher), that that would wind up being the winning run that completed the sweep and knocked them out of first place. But you get the impression that they would have done it anyway.

But that is not the best part of the story either. The best part is that Holtman doesn't understand why she is getting national attention. She doesn't see why this morning she had appearances on CBS' and ESPN's morning shows. When it seems like the only instinct you see in sports anymore is the same one a 2-year old displays when you show him a toy, Holtman acted instinctively in a completely selfless way.

"She hit the ball over her fence. She's a senior; it's her last year. … I don't know, it's just one of those things I guess that maybe because compared to everyone on the field at the time, I had been playing longer and knew we could touch her, it was my idea first. But I think anyone who knew that we could touch her would have offered to do it, just because it's the right thing to do. She was obviously in agony."

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