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THE VIEW FROM LEFT FIELD

My Wife's Fastball
By Craig Idlebrook

My wife has a mean fastball. It makes a popping sound when it hits my mitt and leaves a red mark on my hand. She also has a wicked curveball. Unfortunately, neither of us knows when it's actually going to show up, so I try not to wear sandals when we play catch.

Unlike me, she has no love for the game, more a begrudging tolerance. Frances loves me and I love baseball, so baseball is a fact of her life. She'd be just as happy playing Frisbee. I understand; baseball has bent over backwards to exclude her gender.

I helped. In college, I would play ball every Friday afternoon, never once thinking to invite her. You have to understand, Frances and I did everything together, except baseball.

Luckily, she did the brave thing of one day asking if she could play. Lucky for me, I was smart enough to say yes. There are many little make-or-break moments in a budding courtship, and I think that was probably one of them.

The first day we played ball together, she couldn't throw well. In fact, she was the stereotypical image of girl meets baseball. How could she not be? No one had ever taught her the physical mechanics of throwing a ball. Once we broke the process down step by step, it didn't take long for her to catch on. Now she can throw harder than I can, and with better aim.

Before Frances's success on the ball field, we both basically accepted the belief that women didn't excel at baseball because they weren't strong enough to compete. This was reinforced at the time by the news of a professional women's baseball team that spent a season getting slaughtered by men's semipro teams. If there were an exception to the no-girls rule out there, we thought we would have heard about it. Still, there was the unexplained matter of her fastball. It wasn't major league–caliber stuff, but she didn't work very hard for it either.

Then, one day I brought home from the library a children's book entitled The Girl Who Struck Out Babe Ruth. I had been searching for a book like this for a while; I thought if I could find stories about women in baseball, Frances might like the sport better.

The book is the true story of Jackie Mitchell, a seventeen-year-old girl who pitched in the minor leagues. As the title suggests, Mitchell struck out Babe Ruth—in an exhibition game—and Lou Gehrig as well. I thought I couldn't miss with this book.

Unfortunately, I didn't read the ending close enough. On the final page, it said that as news leaked out about Mitchell's feat, the commissioner of baseball voided her contract and banned women from the game. Mitchell continued playing ball for a couple of years on teams too small to be noticed by the commissioner's office, but eventually grew tired of feeling like a freak show and quit playing altogether.

When my wife read this ending, she quaked with rage.

"But that . . . that's not fair!" she shouted.

It wasn't that women couldn't compete; it was simply that they weren't allowed. My plan had backfired and she hated the institution of baseball worse than ever. I thought I would never get her on the ball field again.

Luckily, she was able to separate the institution from the game, as all true fans must do, and she remembered how much I loved baseball. (After all, everyone has to have a flaw.) Soon, she was popping her fastball into my mitt once again.

Last year, we didn't play catch quite as often as we would have liked. It's not that Frances was unwilling, only that she was carrying our first child—a girl, it turns out.

Now, I'm not one to push baseball on a child, but if she shows the slightest inclination . . . I mean, if she even picks up a ball just once, I am so ready. And Frances will teach her how to throw one hell of a fastball.

—EFQ

CRAIG IDLEBROOK loves baseball so much that he still roots for the Detroit Tigers. He lives with his wife and daughter in Ellsworth, Maine, and has written columns, essays, and articles for several publications. "My Wife's Fastball" originally appeared in the Hill Country Observer, a tri-state monthly newsmagazine in New England.

© 2006 Craig Idlebrook

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