For Love of the Game

Rick Reilly, ESPN, May 25, 2010

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It happened at a junior varsity girls’ softball game in Indianapolis this spring. After an inning and a half, Roncalli was womanhandling inner-city Marshall Community. Marshall pitchers had already walked nine Roncalli batters. The game could’ve been 50-0 with no problem.

Yes, a team that hadn’t lost a game in 21⁄2 years, a team that was going to win in a landslide purposely offered to declare defeat. Why? Because Roncalli wanted to spend the two hours teaching the Marshall girls how to get better, not how to get humiliated.

It’s no wonder. This was the first softball game in Marshall history. A middle school trying to move up to include grades 6 through 12, Marshall showed up to the game with five balls, two bats, no helmets, no sliding pads, no cleats, 16 players who’d never played before, and a coach who’d never even seen a game.

One Marshall player asked, “Which one is first base?” Another: “How do I hold this bat?” They didn’t know where to stand in the batter’s box. Their coaches had to be shown where the first- and third-base coaching boxes were.

That’s when Roncalli did something crazy. It offered to forfeit.

Yes, a team that hadn’t lost a game in 21⁄2 years, a team that was going to win in a landslide purposely offered to declare defeat. Why? Because Roncalli wanted to spend the two hours teaching the Marshall girls how to get better, not how to get humiliated.

“The Marshall players did NOT want to quit,” wrote Roncalli JV coach Jeff Traylor, in recalling the incident. “They were willing to lose 100 to 0 if it meant they finished their first game.” But the Marshall players finally decided if Roncalli was willing to forfeit for them, they should do it for themselves. They decided that maybe–this one time–losing was actually winning.

That’s about when the weirdest scene broke out all over the field: Roncalli kids teaching Marshall kids the right batting stance, throwing them soft-toss in the outfield, teaching them how to play catch. They showed them how to put on catching gear, how to pitch, and how to run the bases. Even the umps stuck around to watch.

“One at a time the Marshall girls would come in to hit off of the [Roncalli] pitchers,” Traylor recalled. “As they hit the ball their faces LIT UP! They were high fiving and hugging the girls from Roncalli, thanking them for teaching to them the game.”

This is the kind of thing that can backfire with teenagers–the rich kids taking pity on the inner-city kids kind of thing. Traylor was afraid of it, too.

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Roncalli wasn’t done. Traylor asked all the parents of his players and anybody else he knew for more help for Marshall–used bats, gloves, helmets, money for cleats, gloves, sliders, socks and team shirts. They came up with $2,500 and worked with Marshall on the best way to help the program with that money. Roncalli also connected Marshall with former Bishop Chatard coach Kim Wright, who will advise the program.

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And that was just the appetizer. A rep from Reebok called Sullivan and said, “What do you need? We’ll get it for you.” A man who owns an indoor batting cage facility has offered free time in the winter. The Cincinnati Reds are donating good dirt for the new field Marshall will play on.

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white-girls-team

The Roncalli team.

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