They are athletes, for sure, but also good sports

Sometimes, it is the smallest gesture that can have the greatest impact.

No, I’m not trying to justify how little much we pay our reporters here, nor is it an early effort to explain my cheap heart-felt buying habits for loved ones during the Christmas season. There are just a few moments in time that stick out to me in their subtlety or genuineness, and those pure instances leave a lasting impression in a time when loud, zany and ridiculous often take center stage.

Let’s take the dual softball world championships being played in Roxana, for instance. The Pyle Center is hosting both the Senior League and Big League Softball World Series right now, and girls from Seaford, Milford, the Philippines, Poland, Montana and other points from around the globe are competing against each other to earn the title of “World Champion.”

And, make no mistake about it, these girls are competing hard. The intensity is ramped up to a feverish pitch, coaches are barking instructions from every angle and parents, loved ones and fans are wearing team colors and bellowing out words of encouragement from the stands.

I had the pleasure of covering the Senior League games being played on Connie Mack field the first three days of the tournament for our annual edition of Homeplate, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the emotions when watching games. Sitting in the stands with people who are connected to the players on the field is part-time jubilation as they celebrate what is happening before them, and part-time despair as you can see mothers’ hearts breaking when their daughters strike out with the bases loaded or make fielding errors with two outs that cost their team a valuable run.

It’s an emotional roller coaster, and I’m often quite thankful that I am there to eat copious amounts of hot dogs and put squiggles in a notebook, rather than watch someone I brought into this world struggle internally while the world watches — and often cheers.

And they do. Though these are some of the best athletes in the world at their sport, they are human beings under the visors and masks. You can see the jubilation on their faces when something good happens, and you can sometimes see them fighting through disappointment in something they did that could negatively impact the team. As a fan of sports, I can’t even explain how much I enjoy watching these athletes play softball. As a fan of human beings, I wouldn’t even want to explain the hurt I sometimes feel vicariously for individuals who feel they let down their teammates or loved ones.

Now, I know I haven’t gotten back to where I was going at the start of this column when I mentioned how important minor gestures can be, but I felt like I first had to explain the passion and fiery competiveness these young ladies show in trying to win a championship for their parents, their hometowns, their nations and themselves.

Because, for all the effort they put into each and every pitch, and for every sacrifice they have made in their personal lives or leisure time to get to this point, the thing that has jumped out to me about these athletes over the last 11 years of covering this amazing event is the level of sportsmanship and grace exhibited by these athletes time and time again.

Let me give you a few examples from just one game I covered earlier this week.

Without getting into specifics, a shortstop on one team caught a wicked hop off a hard-hit groundball right in the mouth. You could hear a collective gasp from the people in the stands rooting for both teams, and she immediately grabbed her mouth in pain. The umpires called time out after the play ended and her teammates and coaches ran out on to the field to check on her welfare.

She ended up being able to continue to play, and she was smiling and laughing about it with her teammates as play got ready to resume. When the inning ended and the players ran back into the dugout, you could see her teammates gravitate to her to make sure she was alright, as one would expect. What one wouldn’t expect, however, was the player from the other team who hit the groundball coming into the opposing team’s dugout to check on her.

That player did nothing wrong to cause the injury, but she was a world-class athlete, just like the player who was injured, and there’s a respect between them that shouldn’t be ignored. They will claw and fight and scratch for every run on the field, but they remain respectful. Our politicians could learn a thing or two from that small gesture.

Later in the same game, the catcher on the other team was hit in the facemask by a foul ball, and immediately dropped to the ground. As someone who played catcher competitively for years, I can tell you that those fouls off the mask usually sound much more painful than they really are. But sometimes they catch you just right and ring your bell. This one seemingly did that.

After being checked on by trainers and coaches, she strapped on her mask again and crouched down for the next pitch. The batter, who again did nothing wrong, reached down and tapped the catcher on her shoulder, just to wish her good health.

That was a simple gesture. And one I appreciated from afar.