“Baby, I am so proud of you,” Vernon Mills relished the news, standing beside his daughter with the long reach of his arm draped across her back.
Lizzy Mills failed to share in the joy while fighting to keep a tidal wave of emotions from surfacing.
“What an honor,” Vernon let his thought escape in an exuberant tone.
Lizzy kept her watery eyes forward, staring at the game in front of her.
She had just been informed by Coach Foster that she would be moving up to the 16’s for the rest of the season. Foster had reasoned that her 14u team just wasn’t posing enough competition for the young pitcher so she would be better off playing with the older group.
Before Lizzy could even offer an opinion, her father had celebrated the opportunity.
“Coach, are you serious?” Vernon Mills beamed with joy.
“Absolutely,” Foster had replied. “Lizzy could really help our 16’s and I think with her in the circle, we have a great chance at Nationals in three weeks.”
Lizzy didn’t even try to smile. The thought of not playing with her friends, abandoning them just weeks shy of their own national tournament made her feel instantly sick at her stomach.
Vernon Mills, overjoyed at the idea, hugged Coach Foster and shook his hand, holding its grip as he thanked him for the chance for Lizzy to play up with the older group.
“Vern,” Coach Foster nodded with confidence, “your daughter is one of the best young pitchers I’ve ever seen and we’d be neglecting her development if we didn’t find her better competition.”
Lizzy turned away to hide the tears now spilling from the edges of her eyes.
“Coach, I just cannot thank you enough for thinking about my daughter.”
Vernon turned to Lizzy and wrapped his arm around her shoulders.
“Wow, Lizzy, isn’t it great?” He didn’t wait for an answer, turning his attention back to Coach Foster. “What do we need to do?”
“Not a thing, Vern. I’ll send you the schedule for next week’s practices and you can go ahead and pack your bags for our tournament in Denver, next weekend.”
Vernon thanked the coach again and waved to him as he strolled away before pulling a phone from his pocket to spread the news.
Later, during the ride home from the field, Vernon finally noticed Lizzy’s somber mood.
“Lizzy, baby, you feeling okay?”
Lizzy held a gaze out the window, searched for the words to express her frustration, but was reluctant to disappoint her father.
“I’m fine, daddy.”
Vernon sat up a little straighter, still smiling, and continued.
“Lizzy, your mom would be so proud if she were still with us.”
Lizzy thought about that and decided her mom would likely have sided with her. It had been nearly a year since she passed unexpectedly. Since it had been only Lizzy and her father. Just the two of them immersed in softball, trying to forget about the awful tragedy that had left them alone.
“You have to know, Lizzy, she’s smiling down on you today. There was nobody in this world she loved more than you and she always believed you were destined for amazing things. Today proves that.”
Tears trickled down Lizzy’s cheeks as she remembered her mother standing and clapping with her hands high above her head every time Lizzy or one of her teammates had made a play. Yes, mom would be proud. She was incapable of being void of pride for her daughter. The difference, mom would have also been concerned about Lizzy’s feelings.
Vernon added with flare, “My baby girl… playing with the big girls – on the big stage in Colorado.” He shook his head as if he could hardly believe it while a grin inched from one ear to the next.
The first practice with her new team was a disaster.
Lizzy felt out of place and could sense numerous sets of unwelcoming eyes staring at her throughout the afternoon.
When Lizzy was first introduced, it was obvious some of the team members had big feelings about the addition. Some tried to fake it and act as if they were happy, but they were no more excited about Lizzy being there than Lizzy was for abandoning her own team.
After practice, Coach Foster found Lizzy alone in the dugout collecting her things.
“Hey, I thought you did a good job today for your first practice.”
Lizzy shoved her glove and cleats into a bag and without looking up mustered enough voice to say, “Thank you.”
Foster grimaced and tried to assure the young pitcher.
“Lizzy… they’ll all have your back once they see you pitch and see for themselves how you can help the team win… They’re a bunch of competitors, just like you, and they just want to win it all at Nationals.”
It came out a little fast and while Lizzy didn’t mean any disrespect, her retort was firm.
“You mean that’s what you want.”
She hurried past him as soon as she said it, nearly inadvertently swiping him with her bag as she slung it over a shoulder.
Vernon had been close enough to the dugout to see it all play out and tried to excuse it away with his palms facing the sky. “Girls… right?” He shook his head and apologized, “I’m sorry coach – I’ll talk to her.”
Vernon Mills took a deep breath as he opened the door to his car. Inside he could see his 13-year-old daughter sitting in the front seat with both arms folded defiantly across her chest.
He slid onto his seat and took a deep breath before starting the car.
“…Lizzy,” their eyes both fixed forward through the windshield. “I think you owe Coach Foster an apology.”
Lizzy fumed but didn’t break her silence.
“He’s taken a chance on you and given you an opportunity that I’m not sure you’re appreciating.”
Lizzy’s lips flattened as she mashed her teeth together.
“You need to know that playing up with the older girls is the best thing for you.”
Finally, Lizzy couldn’t take it anymore.
She swung her head toward her father, mouth gaped open, her brow furrowed, eyes glistening.
“You don’t get it – do you?
Vernon Mills was taken back by the fiery look in his daughter’s face.
“You think that two grown men know what’s best for this little girl and all the other little girls this decision affects?”
Vernon started to speak, but Lizzy had more to say.
“Did you ever think to ask me if I wanted to play with a bunch of older kids, I don’t even know?”
“Did it ever cross your mind that maybe I wanted to keep playing with my friends? You know the ones I’ve been playing with since the first day I started playing softball!”
“What you don’t understand is that I’d rather lose with my teammates than win with anyone else.”
Vernon Mills closed his eyes and dropped his head. He had only wanted the best for his daughter and now he suddenly realized his mistake. He knew what had to be done and acknowledged it with a silent nod and exited the car.
He found Coach Foster putting the last piece of equipment in the shed next to the field.
“Coach, can I talk to you for a minute?” he asked.
Foster brushed away the dirt from his shorts and looked expectantly to Vernon Mills.
“Sure, Vern – go ahead.”
“Lizzy isn’t going to play with your team. We appreciate the opportunity but think it’s best she stay down for the remainder of the year and play with her friends.”
Foster placed his hands on his hips and held a rigid pose.
“That won’t work, Vern. I’ve already added her to the roster, and she won’t be allowed to go back down.”
Vernon Mills thought about this as Foster continued.
“Let me talk to her. I’ll make her understand. It was one practice… These kids, they have no idea what’s best for them.”
Vernon reacted with a strong shake of his head.
“No, Coach, you’re wrong about that.”
Foster immediately took offense.
“I beg your pardon,” Foster took an aggressive step toward Vernon and lectured him with a pointed finger,” I’ve been doing this for twenty years and this ain’t the first time I’ve seen little girls like yours get all upset and go cry to mommy and daddy. It’s time for her to grow up – understand that life ain’t always exactly what you want it to be.”
Vernon closed the remaining distance between himself and the coach and angrily defended his daughter.
“I think she damn well knows that. Losing her mom last year was more than any kid her age should have to ever deal with.”
Foster shouted back, “Then she ought to stop acting like such a baby.”
It took all Vernon Mills had not to slug Foster and he still might have done it if not for hearing his daughter’s voice from behind.
“Stop!” Lizzy screamed.
Both men turned their attention to see Lizzy only a few feet away.
“Just stop!” Lizzy wiped at her tears.
“Why are you two acting like this?”
Both Foster and Vernon Mills let the tension go from their postures.
“Softball is nothing but a game we all play because it’s fun – most of us do it to spend time with our friends.”
She stepped forward, tears streaking her cheeks.
“Yes, we want to win but that’s not the most important thing for us. It’s parents and coaches who pressure us into thinking that’s the most important thing – but really it’s not!”
The men stepped away from one another, creating a comfortable space between them.
“Coach Foster I am flattered that you want me to play with your team. I know you think I can help you win games, but I don’t want to play if I can’t play with my friends. And that has nothing to do with you or your team. It has everything to do with me and my teammates.”
Sheepishly, Foster tried, “But Lizzy, playing up is what’s best for your long-term development as a player…”
“You really think I care about that right now? I just want to be a kid. I just want to play with my friends. I could not care less whether that means I’ll reach my potential. I just want to have fun experiences I can remember and if you think that’s going to stunt my growth as a pitcher – then so be it.”
“It’s a mistake,” Foster tried again in a gentle tone.
Vernon Mills, in a calm voice, responded, “Maybe so Coach – but it’s our mistake to make.
Vernon walked away from the coach, hugging his daughter.
“C’mon Lizzy – let’s got see if your team will have you back.
“Don’t do this,” Foster issued a weak warning as the father and daughter walked away holding hands.
Without looking back, Vernon Mills smiled at a distant thought, squeezing the hand of his daughter a little tighter.
“Lizzy, I was wrong earlier how I characterized your mother’s feelings.”
Lizzy looked up to her father with a puzzled look.
“This… You right now… This is what she would be proud of.”
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This story was originally posted on Jerrad Hardin’s website. You can read more of Jerrad’s stories by clicking here