The gift moved bywire and satellite, leaving a saltwater trail. It came from a field on the edgeof the Cascade Mountains and traveled around the world. The gift was a story.It began with a hanging curveball and ended with a strange, slow procession. Itgave gooseflesh to a phys-ed teacher in Pennsylvania, made a market researcherin Texas weak in the knees, put a lump in the throat of a crusty old man inMinnesota. It convinced a cynic in Connecticut that all was not lost.
This is an article from the June 29, 2009 issue
At an office inthe South, one woman tried to tell another woman the story but cried so muchthat the second woman had to find the details on the Internet, and then shecried too. At an office in the North, a 250-pound man was wiping his eyes whena colleague walked in, so he lied and said his contacts were bothering him. Ata trucking company in the Midwest, a jaded executive cried the first time heread the story and then went back and read it again, because it made him feelso wonderful.
Yes, men cried. Asmuch as women, maybe more: a retired cop in upstate New York, his body confusedby conflicting orders from his nervous system; a fire-protection engineer inWashington State, his heart rate and blood pressure soaring and plunging; abiology professor in Montana, his breath coming in long sighs; a self-describedredneck logger in Oregon, warm water running in rivulets down his cheeks.
The economy wasfaltering then, in the spring of 2008. Gasoline was $3.56 a gallon. We werefive years and 4,000 dead soldiers into Iraq. The story jolted us back tosanity, people said, and restored our faith, and reminded us that goodness anddecency and honor still exist.
All it took was animprobable swing by a .153 hitter.
A broken strand ofconnective tissue.
A situation withno clear precedent.
And an astonishingproposal from a young woman named Mallory.
What a fantasticperson you are!
CLARE KING, WESTALLIS, WIS.
Mallory Holtmansleeps in a king-sized bed with seven pillows. Mounted in a plastic displaycase above her head is a Louisville Slugger engraved with her name, and underthe bed are two 41-quart storage bins full of fan mail. Pictures surround herbed. There she is with Rudy Giuliani at the 2008 All-Star Game at YankeeStadium. There she is with Justin Timberlake at the ESPYs. There's theproclamation from the day she was honored by Congress. There's the baby inSurprise, Ariz., whose mother made her Mallory's namesake.
To millions ofpeople who know the story, Mallory Holtman is defined by 40 seconds of herlife. But what about the rest of it? Who is she, and what gave her that wildidea?
Her first namesays nothing about her. Mallory comes from the Old French maloré, which means"unfortunate." The name was her brother's idea. He got it from acharacter on the 1980s sitcom Family Ties.
Her nickname isnot much help either. One softball teammate used to call her Heifer, which,despite her ability to eat a cheeseburger for lunch and a top sirloin fordinner, does not accurately describe her appearance. To at least one male fan,she looks like Ashley Judd. ("You really could be her little sister,"he wrote.)
It would beconvenient if Mallory's tattoos had rowdy stories behind them. They do not. Thedragonfly on her left ankle was applied when she turned 18 because she wantedsomething girly that was not a flower. She had a flame put on her lower back tomatch her older sister Amanda's flame. And then, on a trip to Fort Myers, Fla.,with her best friend, Kelli Spaulding, she walked into a tattoo parlor, lookedthrough the available images and chose a flower after all, for her leftwrist.
Thediamond-studded silver cross has promise. She has worn one around her neck forfive years, including the four she played first base for the Wildcats of NCAADivision II Central Washington University. Was it a gift from a special youngman? No. Mallory is fixated on James Dean, judging from the posters hanging inher bedroom, but she has never had time for a serious relationship. She justloves diamonds, and she figured it would be a long time before anyone gave herany, so she bought the cross for herself and wore it as she methodicallychopped down Central Washington's career records for home runs, RBIs, hits,runs and doubles. After a while she had to keep wearing it, if only out ofsuperstition.
Mallory lives inEllensburg, Wash., population 17,000, an old rodeo town 110 miles southeast ofSeattle. She shares a house near the Central Washington campus with two otherassistant softball coaches. They keep an arsenal of plastic yellow Nerf guns inthe top of a closet, next to a string of Christmas lights, and they mixpale-green margaritas in a deluxe Cuisinart blender. Their head coach is GaryFrederick.
To explain whyMallory works for Gary Frederick, you could talk about the time he brought in abarbershop chorus to serenade his players on Valentine's Day, or you could talkabout the priorities he lays out at the beginning of each season (family first,academics second, sports third), or you could tell a story, from many years agoduring his days as a baseball coach, when his team was in the districtplayoffs. They had won the first game of a best-of-three series. Then rain cameand turned the field to mush, and the rules said if another game couldn't beplayed, the Game 1 winner would automatically advance. But Frederick got on thephone and found a playable field, and his team played two more games and lostthem both. "I'm sorry you feel that way," he said to his players whenthey grumbled, "but I don't want to back into a championship."
On April 26, 2008,the brilliant Saturday of Mallory's last regular-season home games with theWildcats, Central Washington faced the Western Oregon Wolves in a doubleheader.The Wildcats lost the opener 8--1, putting themselves one loss from eliminationin the race for the NCAA playoffs. Mallory was hitting above .360 for hercareer, and she held the Great Northwest Athletic Conference's career recordfor home runs. But her failing knees were already scheduled for surgery afterthe season, and she would not be going pro. None of her college teams had madethe playoffs. This was her last chance.
I am a 45 yr oldmale who has played little league baseball and adult softball for many years. Itoo have never hit a homerun in my life. I had tears in my eyes while watchingthe story. I could totally relate to her goal.
BOBBY ASHWORTH,KING, N.C.
Game 2, top of thesecond, no score, Western Oregon runners on first and second. The catcherflashes two fingers and then two more, calling for a curveball outside.
The Wolves' SaraTucholsky stands in the batter's box. Her teammates call her the Ocho, becauseshe wears number 8. She is a backup rightfielder in a hitting slump, startingthis game only because the first-string rightfielder misread a line drive byMallory in the first game and the coach made Sara a defensive replacement.
The curveballcomes in at about 50 mph, as yellow as a grapefruit and just as large. In adramatization of this moment produced for Japanese television, the Americanactress playing Sara imagines herself in a ray of white light, hitting herfirst career home run. In reality she is just trying to make contact. Thepitcher has missed her target. The ball is over the plate.
In the Japanesedrama, Sara swings with her eyes closed. In reality she stares at the ball,picturing it as even larger than a grapefruit. She connects. There is a soundof vibrating aluminum as the ball sails toward the horizon, toward Lion Rockand Flag Mountain, over the leftfielder, over the fence.
Sara runs alongthe white stripe of powdered limestone that Frederick poured on the field thatmorning. Behind the backstop, Central Washington parent Sue Wallin captures themoment on her ancient Sony eight-millimeter video camera.
Mallory sees theball disappear. Dang it, she thinks, walking from first base toward thepitcher's circle to huddle with her teammates. She sees the first runner score,then the second. She looks for Sara.
But Sara is behindher, out of sight, and Mallory hears an awful noise.
Wallin turns offher camcorder.
I simply cannotexpress how much your team has lifted me this day.
AL WAZLAK,VIRGINIA BEACH
Mallory grew up inWhite Salmon, a no-stoplight town on the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon. TheHoltmans lived in a neighborhood called Pucker Huddle, across the river fromMount Hood. Mallory was the baby of the family, five years younger than Amanda;12 years younger than her brother, Gabriel; much too young to be anyone'srival. For Gabriel and his friends, she was something of a mascot. It helpedthat she was, in his words, "freakishly coordinated." She could ride abike by age three.
When Mallory wassix, Gabriel took her snowboarding on Mount Hood, down slopes with names likeDaisy and Buttercup, but those didn't sound tough enough for Mallory. For herbenefit he renamed them Deathblow and Frontside Intimidator.
When she was eighthe took her windsurfing on the Columbia River, through white spray and 15-footswells, and sometimes he stole her out of school so they could go cliff jumpinginto the deep green lakes along the Columbia. Gabriel was a muscular 6'4",with a black belt in taekwondo. When she was with him, nothing could touchher.
One day on theschool bus, a teenage boy said something despicable to Mallory, something noone should ever say to an eight-year-old girl, and she mentioned it that nightat the dinner table. Unfortunately for the boy, Mallory knew his name. "Iknow where he lives," Amanda said.
Gabriel went andtook care of it. Nobody bothered Mallory again.
Will you marryme?
Just kidding; I'm74, happily married, and a grandfather. But I am one of countless people acrossthe country, and probably across the world, who truly love you for what you andLiz Wallace did for Sara Tucholsky on April 26. How could we not?
REV. JOHN M.SALMON, PORTLAND
On the firsthome-run trot of her life, Sara Tucholsky is heading for second base when shehears a coach yelling behind her. "Get back! Get back!"
The Americandramatization of this game is a six-minute film directed by Ron Shelton, whoalso wrote and directed Bull Durham and White Men Can't Jump. In thatsimplified version of the story, part of a series from Liberty Mutual thatcelebrates everyday virtue, Sara is injured when she trips over first base. Inreality she misses first altogether, and 10 feet toward second she turns to goback. But her metal cleats catch in the dirt, and she looks down to see herright knee rippling like a wave.
Sometimes there isa popping sound when a person tears an anterior cruciate ligament, one of fourmajor threads of tissue that hold the upper and lower leg together. Sara hearsno sound. What she feels is an immediate and concentrated pain unlike any shehas had before. She falls to the dust, moaning, and the crowd goes silent.
Mallory turns tosee Sara on her back, holding her knee. The first base coach is still yelling,"Get back to first!"
Sara crawls backto the base, perhaps eight feet, and holds it like a pillow. Breathing deeply,she asks the first base coach, "What do I do?"
"Don't touchher," says the base umpire, Bill Wagner. By rule, if anyone from her teamtries to help her, Wagner will have to call her out.
A voice comes fromthe audience, near the home dugout: "She needs the wheelchair. Use mywheelchair. Get her around those bases." It's Bobbi Frederick, wife ofCoach Frederick, mother to the Wildcats. She is fighting Lou Gehrig's disease.Her entreaties are lost in the chaos. She will hang on for eight more months,and Gary will sprinkle her ashes in the Yakima River, and Mallory will use hernewfound political clout to have this field named Gary and Bobbi FrederickField.
What happens nextwill be the subject of some dispute. Remember: Sue Wallin has turned off hercamcorder. The coach of Western Oregon, Pam Knox, will recall an exchange withthe home plate umpire, Jake McChesney, that goes like this.
KNOX: If she can'trun, what's going to happen?
MCCHESNEY: It'llbe a two-RBI single.
Mallory willremember the same words. At least two others will say they saw Knox conferringwith McChesney. But McChesney will say he never spoke to Knox.
The other umpire,Bill Wagner, who makes his living as a blackjack dealer, never had the talentto play sports at a high level, but he loves facilitating the game. Rules arehis obsession. A few times a week, when he's eating lunch alone, he opens theNCAA softball rule book at random and studies one of its 271 pages.
In eight years asan umpire, Wagner had never seen a player injured on a home run trot. Now,standing a few feet from Sara's prostrate form, he scans his internal database.There's got to be a rule for this, he tells himself. Later he will look it upand realize there are two rules for this, and he could have applied either one.Contrary to what Knox was led to believe, neither would result in a two-runsingle.
Rule 18.104.22.168: Ifan injury to a batter-runner or runner prevents her from proceeding to anawarded base, the ball is dead and substitution may be made. The substitutemust legally touch all awarded or missed bases not previously touched. Thiswould give Western Oregon all three runs, but Sara's only career home run wouldbe wiped from the record books because she did not personally cross theplate.
The other rule,22.214.171.124, was designed for extraordinary circumstances, such as when a fielderor runner is badly hurt and the ball is still in play: When necessary toprotect an injured player, the umpire may suspend play immediately and beforeresumption, award a base or bases that offensive players would have reached, inthe umpire's judgment, had play not been suspended. This would be an easy call.Sara would have made it all the way home. She would get her four bases and becredited with a home run.
There is notelling how long she lies there. To Sara, it seems like at least four minutes.To Wagner, it seems like only 90 seconds. The answer is on the tip of hisbrain. Subsequent evidence will show that, at least for a moment, he toobelieves the mistaken two-run-single theory. The confusion drags on. Finally,Mallory has had enough.
"Excuseme," she says.
And would youplease thank their parents for raising such compassionate young ladies? I knowthat we as parents often wonder if we have made any difference in the world.These parents need to know that they have.
JAMIE AND BECKYCRIPPS, KALAMAZOO, MICH.
Mallory is afraidof snakes, and failure, and lightning, and the high wind that used to slicethrough the gorge and rattle her bedroom window while she was sleeping in thedead of night.
"Dad," shewould say, wandering into her parents' room, "I think someone's outside mywindow. You have to go look."
And Greg Holtman(volunteer fireman, home builder, former timber cutter) always got up, stumbledto the door, did a token search of the perimeter and came back, telling hisdaughter, "No one's out there. Go to bed." This made Mallory feelbetter, but sometimes, for additional security, when she was as old as 16, shecrawled into the queen-sized bed between her mother and father and floppedaround till morning.
For Mallory's 16thbirthday, Greg installed a batting cage with a pitching machine in thebackyard. Her mother, Christy, a first-grade teacher for 30 years, sat in alawn chair and provided running commentary while Mallory worked on her swing.She even announced what the imaginary fielders might have done: "Oh, goodcatch. Robbed ya."
Mallory had asoftball scholarship offer from Canisius, a Division I college in upstate NewYork, but she chose Central Washington so she could play for Gary Frederick andso her parents could see her play. In her four full seasons they missed fewerthan five games. One day Greg drove 350 miles to Nampa, Idaho, through twosnowstorms, over two mountain passes, and drove home that night. Mallory'ssister knows nothing about sports, but she attended the games too and cried forjoy at every home run.
Even when Mallorystruck out, Christy found a way to make her feel good. "Your hair looksnice," she would say, or, "Honey, you look really great in your pantstoday," or, when the Wildcats lost, "There's worse things thanlosing," and then they all went out for some red meat.
Now that Malloryis famous, people walk up to Christy and say, "You must be so proud ofher."
This is howChristy replies: "We've always been proud of her."
I coach a team of11--12 year old boys here in Pampa, Texas and we recently had an 11 year oldyoung man hit his first homerun in the bottom of the last inning to draw ourteam within 2 runs. However, in his exuberance, he evidently missed 1st base orbarely touched it. After he touched home and while our other kids werecongratulating him, the other coach protested that he missed 1st base and thehome plate umpire agreed and he was called out.
That showedextremely poor sportsmanship and I have printed this article out and mailed itto the opposing coach so that he can hopefully learn what true sportsmanshipreally is. By the way, we ended up losing the game by 2 runs.
KEVIN HUNT, PAMPA,TEXAS
As it turns out,the rules have no bearing on this story. What matters is the perception of therules. One way or another Mallory has been given to understand that Sara isabout to lose her home run. That would mean her injury is to CentralWashington's advantage. In the Wildcats' fight to avoid elimination andMallory's quest to prolong her career, they would have one less run to makeup.
But Mallory justwants Sara off the field, getting ice on her knee, and she wants to get on withthe game. She does not confer with her teammates or her coach. She knows whatto do. She has a brother and father who will let nothing harm her. She has amother and sister who affirm her without condition. She has spent more thanfour years learning from a coach who would rather lose in the mud than win by arainout. She has spent nearly 23 years getting permission for what she doesnext. "Hey," she says to the umpires, "can I help her out?"
"Can I helpher around the bases?"
"Why would youwant to do that?"
Wagner scans hisdatabase for rules against this proposal. No, he decides, it's not obstruction,because the fielder isn't getting in the runner's way. It's not interference,because the runner isn't getting in the fielder's way. Well, if she wants tolet the other team score an extra run, then I'm going to let her.
He consults withMcChesney, who says, "It's Senior Day. It's their field. If they want to doit, who am I to stop it?"
Wagner turns backto Mallory.
"Allright," he says. "Do it."
I would like totreat you and your team to a small something, an ice cream, a soft drink, ormaybe a slice of pizza. Please accept the enclosed check with that in mind, orif you wish to donate it for another cause, feel free to do that. It is littleenough.
I have threedaughters, and thank God, I know they would have acted in the same manner asyou and your team did, given the opportunity.
PAUL NEWMAN,DERBY, CONN.
P.S. I'm sorry todisappoint you, but though the name is the same, and we live in the same state,I am not the actor, nor am I any relation to him.
Money poured inafter the game, along with candy from strangers. Gary Frederick's team gotnearly $25,000 in donations, including at least one check from a soldier inIraq. The university matched every dollar. The Wildcats got new uniforms for2009 and new protective screens for pitching practice. Instead of riding toaway games in three vans driven by the coaches, they were chauffeured aroundthe Pacific Northwest in a luxury charter bus.
Mallory wants tobe Central Washington's next head softball coach, whenever Frederick, who turns72 in July, decides to retire. In the meantime she and Sara have formed anonprofit organization, the Mallory Holtman and Sara Tucholsky SportsmanshipDefined Foundation, with the aim of doling out scholarships and teaching kidsthe right way to play. They have a publicist and a booking agent. Corporationspay them to deliver motivational speeches, including a recent appearance inFlorida to educate five or six thousand mortgage brokers on character andresponsibility.
Her mother saysfame has not changed Mallory, not in the least, but Mallory does admit to oneprima donna moment. Last summer, when they were on vacation at a cabin inIdaho, Christy asked Mallory to take out the trash. Mallory had just returnedfrom several plane rides—from a televised awards show to the All-Star Game andback—and she complained about being tired.
"Mallory,"her mother said, "you're with family now. You need to check yourself."And Mallory took out the trash.
I am 100% disabledwith Multiple Sclerosis and anytime someone helps me I do not know whether tobe embarrassed or thankful. This was very, very kind of them and very, verywonderful.
CHRIS A. ROCK,NAVARRE, FLA.
Mallory scans thefield for potential accomplices. "Liz," she says, locking eyes with theshortstop, Liz Wallace, a Navy wife from Montana who can turn a double playwith unusual speed and grace.
Liz puts down herglove. Yes, that's the right thing to do, she thinks, walking with Mallorytoward Sara. She can see tears on Sara's cheeks, powdered limestone on herright hand.
"We're goingto pick you up," Mallory says, "and carry you around thebases."
Sara nods."Thank you," she says, overwhelmed with relief. Mallory bends down andputs her left hand under Sara's left thigh and her right hand under Sara's leftarmpit. Liz does likewise on Sara's other side. They lift her off theground.
Behind thechain-link backstop, Sue Wallin presses RECORD on her Handycam. Four days latershe will hustle to her hometown post office just before it closes and drop the8mm tape in the mail to her daughter in Ellensburg, and it will arrive just intime to be shown to visiting reporters, and it will be seen on national TV andplayed nearly 200,000 times on YouTube.
Mallory and Lizhaul Sara toward second base, moving with awkward sideways steps. They musttravel 180 feet. Don't trip, Mallory tells herself.
"Thank you,guys," Sara says again. At 125 pounds, she does not feel heavy.
"You hit itover the fence," Mallory says. "You deserve it."
Mallory lowersSara's left foot to touch second base. "This has to look hilarious toeverybody who's watching," Liz says.
"I wonder ifthey're laughing at us," Mallory says.
The spectators donot laugh. They stand, feeling a certain euphoria, their applause a mildhailstorm. Mallory lowers Sara's foot to third base. An umpire hovers nearby,just to make sure.
As the women turntoward home, a wheat farmer named Blake Wolf takes aim with his Pentax10-megapixel and snares a crisp vertical snapshot, the only known stillphotograph of the event. The picture will be licensed by a nonprofit groupcalled The Foundation for a Better Life and printed on nearly 1,400billboards.
Sara looks up tosee her teammates standing at home plate, clapping for her. Beyond hergratitude she feels a twinge of pride, because she has just hit the first homerun of her career in what will prove to be her last at bat.
Mallory and Liz donot linger. As Sara is carried to her dugout to have her knee iced, the twoWildcats walk back to the pitcher's circle for a team huddle. They are stillone loss from elimination.
"Allright," Liz says. "Down three-zero. Let's get these outs and go in andhit."
I have seen manyof the greatest moments in sports: Willie Mays' catch in center field, BillMazeroski's World Series winning homer, Kirk Gibson's homer in the WorldSeries. I was present to watch Hank Aaron hit his record breaking homer, sawYastrzemski win the triple crown . . . and on and on and on.
Nothing will livein my memory longer or with greater impact than the sportsmanship of Malloryand Liz.
GARY JOHNSON,VANCOUVER, WASH.
There was a greenmetal box in the bushes outside the bank. There was a threatening phone call.The police chief showed up, along with a captain and a bomb technician. Thebomb technician scanned the box with an X-ray machine and decided it was partof a hoax. He carried the box into the bank. The chief and the captain wentwith him. The bomb technician tried to open the green metal box, and the chiefand the captain tried to help him. The green metal box was not part of a hoax.The bomb exploded, and it killed the bomb technician and the captain, and ittore off the police chief's leg.
This all happenedon Friday, Dec. 12, 2008, in a small Oregon town called Woodburn. The wholestory is tragic and complicated, but the relevant portion concerns insurance.Woodburn belongs to a self-insurance cooperative called City County InsuranceServices, and when the bomb exploded, the men and women of CCIS foundthemselves handling a crisis.
They had to spendhours on the phone in search of a grief counselor with four-wheel drive andsnow tires who could be at Woodburn City Hall by 8:45 a.m. Monday. They had tofill out a bundle of paperwork for the city recorder, who would normally handlesuch things except she happened to be the dead captain's wife. The policechief's medical bills would total more than $500,000, which meant CCIS neededanother insurance company to help pay. One claims supervisor, Susan Lavier,drove down an icy road with one hand on the wheel of her Dodge Durango and theother hand holding a cellphone on which she negotiated with the excess-coverageprovider to make sure the chief got the care he would need: a plastic surgeonfor his face, a vascular surgeon for his amputated leg, an orthopedist for hisbroken bones, an ear specialist for his perforated eardrum, a wheelchair, awheelchair van, hallways at home wide enough for his wheelchair, a drivewaylevel enough for the van. Lavier would have to justify every cent.
Earlier this year,CCIS recognized Lavier, Valerie Saiki, John Dalen and Janie McCollister fortheir exemplary service on the Woodburn case. The company has a phrase for whatthey did. They call it Doing a Mallory.
I know I willnever forget their good deed; whereas, had they even won the entire NCAAsoftball tournament, I'm sure I would have forgotten their name as soon as thenext team won.
DENISE AND GARYIAMS, MARION, OHIO
Central Washingtonscores twice in the bottom of the second, closing the gap to one run. WesternOregon scores again in the fourth to go ahead 4--2. Central leaves the basesloaded in the sixth. Mallory has two hits but no runs batted in. The score isstill 4--2 when the game ends. Even if Sara's home run had been called asingle, Central would have been one run short.
Some will say thatonly a woman would have done what Mallory did, that a baseball player in thesame situation would have left his opponent in the dust. Some will say thatonly an amateur would have done what Mallory did, and only a player from aDivision II college or lower, because in Division I and professional sports thepurity of competition is tainted by money. There will be plenty of debate,except on one point. Almost all of us who hear Mallory's story will search thehigh meadows of our souls for hope that we would have done the same thing, orthat we will, if we are ever given the chance.
Mallory walks offthe field into the arms of her mother and father. "We're so proud of you,honey," they tell her, as always, and the evening holds the promise of atrip to Outback Steakhouse. But right now the game is over, and her softballcareer will expire in seven days, and the playoffs are forever out of reach.And Mallory Holtman weeps.