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March 3, 2016

Hail to the Softball Queens

Hail to the Softball Queens

THROWBACK THURSDAY – Deana Smith-Casale had a mane of thick red Italian hair, a rocket of an arm, and the swagger of an all-star before she even played her first game. When she made an incredible stop at third or short, and pivoted in my direction at first base, I owed it to her to catch the ball.

Chris Baker, who lived on my street and competed with all the boys in every sport since as long as I can remember, played every other position on the field except right field or first base. I think she was happy to leave me those two spots. She was a fierce competitor back when our moms didn’t know what that meant in sports. So I guess we ripped it off from our fathers, and our mothers hooted and hollered as they saw us doing things they were not allowed to do.

Susan Lopez played catcher, first, and right. I was always glad when she was our only catcher. I had no idea how she dealt with that gear and squatting for so long. She could make the throw from her knees to first base harder than I could standing up.

What I loved about softball, a sport that bored me to death, was that I was on the field with players that were so much better than I was. They could all get up and hit with power as well as field with grace. I got up to bat and connected, and read pitches well, but I couldn’t get the ball far out of the field at all. When Deana sauntered up there, you couldn’t help but stand up and root for her, the cocky one that everyone still loved anyway.

Deana loved the stage sports gave her, and her parents, Bobbi and Tony, were always right there reveling in their family love and passion. Always decked to impress, they rooted wildly for us, and always looked out for the lone kid or little sister (Meghan Holohan) who needed some attention. They were not afraid to let Deana have the truth when they felt it should be given, but within seconds, Italian tempers cooled or someone cracked a joke or Tony said something nice about another player, like me, who wasn’t really that good.

Our biggest rivalry was when we went up against a team from Averill Park, led by a dynamite pitcher and pretty blonde named Colleen Seror. Colleen threw a windmill-style pitch harder than I’d ever seen. Just the thought of walking up to the plate, tapping it, and looking at her stare you down sent a chill up your spine. All I wanted to do was connect.

All Deana, Chris, and Susan wanted to do was crush it out of the park.

I ended up going to high school with these girls. I dropped softball for AAU hoops by my eighth grade year while all three of these girls continued to play and pursue softball. They won the sectional title more than once. Deana, one year my senior, was our setter on the volleyball team, where she passed the ball to hitters Marcell Harrison, Nickie Hilton, and Amy Stuffelbeam. With every strand of hair perfectly in place, Deana set these three remarkable players up to demolish the ball time and time again. Whenever Deana whizzed by the section of lockers occupied mostly by African-Americans in our school (along with me, Amy and Robin Finnegan), she gave us all a shout out that made everyone smile. Marcell and Nickie always thought D was one cool riot and she never let them down.

Deana had this ability to make you feel cooler when you walked through the hallways of our high school. Susan ran the team from behind the plate, and Chris held down the rest of the field. I stayed focused because I felt an obligation to not let them down.

That’s what sports does – it puts you in so many different positions where you learn about others – from the role players to the stars to the crazy coaches to the outstanding ones – you have to learn to find your role and make a wise decision on how to adapt to the call of the team or situation.

Deana now works at Verizon and lives with her partner, Doreen, in Clifton Park, NY. She lost her parents far too early, yet I am sure she carries their charm, character and passion with her wherever she goes.

Susan Lopez scored high grades in high school while helping her mother manage their catering company, Me and Thee. The company ended up hiring Chris and about ten of Sue’s classmates at Troy High, who appreciated the extra money and work experience in high school. Susan ended up becoming a real estate mogul in Las Vegas. She now lives in Kauai with her husband, Jim, and two kids.

Chris Baker is a mother of two boys and married to Pam (who hooped for Old Dominion and played in the final Four two times). Chris, one of four kids on our block who grew up to be New York State Troopers, is a lieutenant in charge of recruit training at the New York State Police Academy.

In photo, left to right:  Susan, Deana, Chris and me.