What happens when you go searching for the soul of sportsin a college softball team and find it unraveling from scandal instead?
A little over a year ago, I gave a speech to the Auburn Tigers softball team. I did not give it at a banquet or any kind of offcial ceremony; I delivered it from the aisle of a tour bus, at the prompting of a coach who wanted me to explain to the girls—and he never called them, nor did they ever call themselves, anything but girls—why a writer with a precarious rious hold on middle age had decided to travel with them for their three-game series with the Florida Gators. ¶ And so, on a highway somewhere between Alabama and Florida, I told 19 Division I softball players what I’m telling you now, I was traveling with the Auburn softball team because I love softball, and I love softball because I love my 15-year-old daughter, who is a softball player. I was traveling with the Auburn softball team because the year before, when I watched the Tigers play the Oklahoma Sooners for the national championship in the Women’s College World Series, I saw something I’d never seen in a lifetime of watching sports. It was the seventh and final inning of the third and final game; they were down a run with two outs. Oklahoma’s best pitcher was in the circle, and Auburn was down to a sophomore pinch-hitter named Court- ney Shea. She was overmatched and knew it, and to give herself courage, she began singing a Beyonce song. She fouled off one pitch, then another; she wound up fouling off four straight pitches, singing the whole time, and when at last she grounded out, she sobbed as she reached first base.
It was not her tears that led me to the bus, or even her song. It was what the tears and the song represented to me—an unfettered access to feeling that made the range of emotion on display in men’s sports seem narrow or even impoverished by comparison. As freely as softball players surrender to sadness they are able to give themselves over to joy, and so their sport retains a sense of freedom that makes even its routine rituals revelatory. There is something fleeting about the games we play that softball miraculously preserves—the simple fact that these are games and that we play them to attain a kind of joy. You’ve heard—of course you’ve heard— that there is no crying in baseball? There is crying in softball, lots of it, and the tears offer a corrective to the casual corruptions of the sports most men watch as a matter of habit.
I spoke from the heart, as a softball dad who saw, in the young women sitting in rows before me, the fulfillment of my fond wish for my own child. And I wish I could say that after my speech the players welcomed me to their privileged place in the back of the bus, the environs they occupied with an armament of personal electronics and a DVD of Zoolander and a border between front and back they’d electrified with an inviolable awareness of their own distinction. And there was, come to think of it, one player with her hair in braids, one of the freshmen who’d been allowed to travel with the team, who smiled and said: “Cool.” But the rest of the Auburn Tigers were a narrow-eyed lot, and they regarded me with cool inscrutability. I could not have suspected, much less known, what they, even then, had to know—that the very dream I extolled would, within the space of days, be broken and that the bastion of simple joy I described would, before the next season began, lay in ruins, with their coaches disgraced, their athletic director resigned in the wake of scandal and investigation, and two of the players on the bus shunned by their teammates. I could not even have guessed that a year or so later, the question they had to be asking of my presence would be the question that I am asking too, even now:
Why was I allowed to get on the bus in the first place?
“TOM, ARE YOU a good man or a great one?” Auburn coach Clint Myers asked after I sat down next to him in the front of the bus.
“I’d like to think I’m a good man trying to be a great one.”
“Oh, everybody says that. They’re afraid of sounding like egomaniacs. But that’s just the easy way out.”
“Are you a great man?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said. “Words have meanings. Is great better than good?”
“Then I have to be great. When I look in the mirror every morning, I say, ‘Hello, Awesome.’”
It was March 24, 2017, and Clint Myers was at that time possibly the greatest, maybe the most famous and definitely the most recognizable coach in college softball. He had won two national championships at Arizona State, in 2008 and 2011, and had made Auburn a title contender within two years of his arrival in 2013. He was inducted to the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2015, and on the weekend I traveled with his team to Gainesville, Florida, he was seeking his 1,500th combined win as a softball and men’s baseball coach. He wasn’t just a successful coach and teacher; he was a transformational one who, in the words of ESPN softball analyst and two-time Olympic softball gold medalist Michele Smith, did “something almost unprecedented—he made average players good players and good players great ones. He took .250 hitters and made them into .400 hitters.”
Like all winning coaches, Myers did it by persuading his players to buy into his process, or his program, or what he called his philosophy—by persuading them to surrender something of themselves, including their autonomy, to the cause of the greater good, the byproduct of which just happened to be winning.
He made them cry, he said. Just that morning, he told most of his freshmen that they couldn’t board the bus and had to stay behind in Auburn, and one of them had cried in his office for half an hour. It was a power that seemed to discomfit and dismay him—“they tend to cry when they come to my office. I don’t know why that is.” But he also cried with them, because he was involved in so many aspects of their lives, from the tragedies they experienced back home to the occasional miscreancy of their boyfriends. “I meet all their boyfriends,” he said. “I believe that they should be treated like ladies, like their opinion matters, like they’re important. Because they’re important to me.” Of course, they also cried when they lost the Women’s College World Series in 2016, but he told them they had nothing to be ashamed of. They had done what he had asked them to do. They had performed “at the highest level on the biggest stage,” and more important, they understood what he wanted them to understand: that greatness is a way of life. “I believe,” he said, “that these girls have accepted the philosophy of making the world a better place one at-bat and one play at a time.”But there was something else about Clint Myers: He was an old man. Though only 65, he could have passed for 80, with a raw, pained pinkish face, eyes dark with watchfulness, a parroty mouth given to grimace and white hair dented by a lifetime of ball caps. He wore black spectacles and white support socks, and though sealed in what seemed a permanent layering of coaching gear—the billowing nylon pullover in Auburn orange, the polyester shorts in Auburn blue—he bore an unmistakable resemblance to the Letterman sidekick Larry “Bud” Melman, with the same gnomic peculiarity. He was still feared and fearsome on the field and so exacting that a big yellow stopwatch hung from his neck like an article of religious devotion. But as he was growing old, he was not just, in his words, “mellowing,” but becoming so familiar and downright cute that some of his players treated him like a mascot and called him Coachie. He was also in the process of trying to extend his legacy with the girls by relinquishing power to the men.
He called the men boys because they were his sons; Casey was 38 and Corey was 36. But they were men. They did not call him Coachie, but rarely did they call him Dad. They called him Coach, and Corey’s children called him Grandpa Coach. Like their father, the sons had played baseball at very high levels—Casey in college and in the minors, Corey as a touted prospect who never made it to the majors—and like their father they had decided to build their lives around the invincible calculus of the three-strike out and the three-out inning. Indeed, Casey had been working as a minor league coach and Corey as a coach for the Birmingham Bolts, a softball travel team that functions as the source for much of Auburn’s roster, when Coach left Arizona State and came with his wife, Katie, to “the loveliest village on the Plains,” between Atlanta and Montgomery. He had done it for them; he had come to Auburn at least in part because Arizona State wouldn’t let him work with Corey and Auburn would. Now he had what he wanted; the coach’s sons were coaches, and he lived between a split reflection of himself, Casey the thinker and teacher, and Corey—well, as Corey told me, “If you want to know what [Coach] was like when he was young, just look at me.” Coach was, in his own words, “an arrogant prick, self-proclaimed” as a young man, and certainly Corey had some of that belligerent arrogance about him, combined with the almost pleading insecurity of an heir. His father had chosen him as his successor; Corey was, after all, a father and a husband himself and now worked as associate head coach. “When we put this thing together, that was the plan,” Coach told me. “It would be Corey’s program, Casey would help, and I’d come on as a volunteer coach. I would get to be a consultant. I would love to raise money, I would love to holler at umpires from the stands, I would love to support these guys in every way and say, ‘Those are my boys!’”
And there it was. When I traveled with the Auburn softball team, Clint Myers was on the verge of achieving an ambition that was nothing less than dynastic. He was on the verge of making Auburn softball a family business, closely held, and he was in the process of making his players believe that his family was also their family, with the men and the girls sharing a single table. All were invited; all were welcome; and when the bus finally stopped rolling and the team went to its first practice at the University of Florida’s softball field, I stood on the outside of a meeting the coaches had with their players, and Coach motioned me in. “Come on, Tom,” he said. “You can go to any meeting you want, and you can ask any question you want. You’re part of the family now.”
I BELIEVED HIM.
I believed them, the men, the girls, the graduate assistants, the trainers, the assistant SID and his videographer, the team manager, the associate professor of kinesiology who worked with Coach to bring a scientific basis to his sometimes whimsical decisionmaking, and the big bald bus driver named Robin. And so, the first night, when the whole traveling caravan finally settled down to dinner in a Gainesville restaurant, I saw a place at the long banquet table set for the players and only the players and asked if I could sit down. The player next to the open seat was senior third baseman Kasey Cooper, the most lauded and accomplished of the Tigers, espnW’s 2016 Player of the Year.
“No,” she said flatly, before explaining that the seat was spoken for.
The girls had created a family of their own. They had come to Auburn because Auburn, a land grant institution of 30,000 students, was “all about family.” They played for the Myerses because the Myerses were not only all about family, they were a family—“they’re all blood relatives and they all live next to one another,” one of the players told me as a measure of her approval. With the exception of the players recruited from the softball hotbed of Southern California, they were, for the most part, from the state of Alabama, and if they weren’t, they were from the South. Most were raised either in small towns or the suburbs; they were overwhelmingly white and Christian and conservative. They never asked me about my work; they asked me about my family, and one afternoon, when I was sitting by myself at one of the round tables in the hotel conference room that had been reserved for the use of the players, Kasey Cooper walked up and said to me, with her characteristic absence of preamble, “Don’t you miss your wife and your daughter?” I told her I did, and she wound up sitting and telling me about her plans to become a surgeon. She was a naturally shy person whose success had forced her to speak for her team, a trial she endured with public aplomb and private discomfort; she wanted to be a surgeon because it was the only job that would allow her to help humanity and at the same time remain in control and essentially alone. “I hate people,” she said for effect, but also with something like resignation.
It was what made the family of girls like the real thing: They were cranky and sometimes unfriendly, they were exclusive rather than inclusive, and they adhered to rigorous protocols that set them apart, whether eating or boarding the bus. Like most families, they also had a member who was as set apart from them as they were set apart from everyone else. She was a player who did not often play, but she stood out because she was so often alone. Wherever the team was, she wasn’t, and she was always occupied by the life apparently unfolding on her phone. I would have thought her simply stand of fish if she didn’t also seem so sad, as isolated as she was enigmatic.
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