We’re down by one, two outs, no men on, no men anywhere: This is bantam-division softball, and we’re 11-year-old girls. Michelle, our best player, is approaching the plate, helicoptering the bat over her head like this is the World Series and not just another Catholic Youth Organization game on a garbage-strewn blacktop in a far-flung corner of Queens.
Michelle scans the handful of dads behind the backstop and is surprised to see hers. A soft-spirited man but a serious alcoholic, he turned up only five minutes ago. But when they lock eyes, he smiles and musters the “you can do it” fist pump, and that’s all it takes. Michelle stamps into the box, curls her lip and smacks the first pitch into left field for a double.
As the pitcher winds up again, Michelle sprints off to steal third. After just two strides the pitcher eyes her and rockets the ball to the third baseman. It should be over. But then Michelle does something that no one on our team, or the other team, has ever seen before. She slides. On asphalt.
We aren’t the Bulldogs, or the Tomcats, or even the Lady Bulldogs or Lady Tomcats. We are St. Gregory the Great.
The teams in the Catholic Youth Organization didn’t have any nicknames or mascots; they were just named after the church. The more colorful ones in our division in the early ’90s were Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament, Our Lady of Perpetual Help and St. Pancras, named for the 14-year-old martyr beheaded by Emperor Diocletian. That day when Michelle slid into third we were playing the Immaculate Conception Youth Program. It was us against the greatest miracle of all time.
This being New York City, not every team in our league had access to cars, and any given Saturday, you’d see two girls tag-teaming a duffel bag of equipment the size of a sixth grader up the subway stairs, sweat-soaked before the game even began. Most others crisscrossed the borough in a caravan of tiny sedans smashed full of girls, a floral arrangement of arms, bats and banners poking out the windows as they flew down the Van Wyck Expressway. The league represented what seemed like every neighborhood and ethnic group, regardless of creed. I remember a Muslim girl who wore a ball cap over her hijab and a long-sleeve shirt under her St. Something or Other jersey.