I remember the first time that I stepped on a field. I didn’t know what to expect. I was six-years-old and completely unprepared to play t-ball. White Keds, frilly white socks, and bows in the curled blonde hair. The t-ball team needed an extra girl – so I stepped away from the bleachers and became that girl.
I can recall every second of my first game. The red clay immediately stained my white shoes and socks. The smell of the freshly cut outfield. I had never played before so I was given a glove for a right-handed player – my dad promised to go out and buy my very own glove the next day. I danced in the outfield with my fellow teammates, picked wildflowers from center field and forgot to run to first base after hitting the ball off the tee.
I remember the car ride home with my mom and dad – my mom had filmed the entire game on our 8mm Sony Handycam. I couldn’t wait to watch myself on our television. I was in love with the game. The next day, I went with my dad and purchased my first glove. It was tiny and fit my hand perfectly. I tossed the white shoes for tiny cleats. Kept the bows in my hair and ran to first with pride during my second game.
My t-ball career only lasted three games. As an only child, I suffered from separation anxiety and my mother worked midnights at the hospital. Standing center field, she tried to sneak away so I wouldn’t get upset in the dugout. It didn’t work. Six-year-old Chelsea refused to continue playing that night and didn’t go back.
While I didn’t continue with t-ball, I continued to love baseball. Watching games on television with my dad, watching ESPN highlights and Baseball Tonight. Often wearing my dad’s Braves hat on my head despite it being too big. I didn’t give up on the game. My dad and I would play catch in the backyard – quoting A League of Their Own and pretending I was Dottie Henson and Kit Keller. Seeing Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa on my television. Hearing stories of my dad playing with Steve Finley and Terry Shumpert in high school. The way the game was played. Miracles in the ninth inning. I absorbed as much as I could even as a little kid.
My dad told me to pick whatever team I wanted – despite hoping that I would become a fan of the Braves like him. After all, I was born during a Braves game and it will forever be a part of who I am. I picked the Los Angeles Dodgers because of a single player – Mike Piazza.
In true fashion, he was traded to the Florida Marlins and then a week later to the New York Mets. I remember my dad sitting in our kitchen and watching the news on television. He found it amusing and asked if I would still root for the Los Angeles Dodgers – with my LA hat on, I told him that I would but I also wanted to like the Mets. It began a whirlwind love, the longest relationship of my life. I began to fall in love with the Mets, despite all of the flaws visible to the naked eye.
By fourth grade, I was fully invested in the New York Mets and found myself stepping on the field again. My first softball practice was almost cut short – my team’s coach decided that he didn’t want to coach so when my dad arrived, the parents asked him to step up to the plate. And for his daughter, he did. The first season for my softball team was not pretty. Other teams had been together since t-ball, we had been together for two weeks before the season even began.
I was the smallest on the team and left-handed but that didn’t stop me from wanting to be behind home plate. After endless begging and a few arguments, my dad gave in and let me catch before the end of the season. I loved it. And while I looked like a turtle in a shell too big, I gave it my all.
My mom and dad took me to my first professional baseball game when I was 11-years-old. We arrived at Bosse Field in Evansville, Indiana and watched the Evansville Otters play. I was too nervous to go down and meet the players, so my dad grabbed a baseball with Evan the Otter on it and had a few guys sign it for me. The ball still sits proudly on my desk in 2020.
Later that same summer, my dad and I went to see the Louisville Bats play in Louisville, Kentucky. Every single moment of the game imprinted a memory in my heart. Over the summer of 2002, I told my mom and dad that I wanted to be a part of the baseball world – even if I was a girl. I wanted to be on ESPN talking about baseball. I wanted to be in the clubhouse. I wanted to be on the field.
I switched from catching to pitching after my dad and other coaches noticed me playing around with the pitchers before a game. Three weeks later, while our main pitcher was off at summer camp, they gave me a chance on the mound during the summer of 2003.
I never caught again.
Endless pitching coaches which were often two hour drives to college campuses in the middle of snowstorms, thunderstorms and the dead of summer. When middle school started, most of my friends were getting boyfriends, discovering makeup and ultimately growing tired of spending their summer sweating in dirt – I continued to focus on the dirt, the rotation of a curveball and perfecting my bunt. The boys in school often made fun of me, telling me that I played like a girl and that I couldn’t be a part of the sports world because I was a girl. I wanted to prove them all wrong and worked even harder.
At 13-years-old, I broke my nose. I hadn’t been scheduled to pitch that night and had a cold, but after the other pitcher had given up too many runs, my coach put me in. After a blooper to center field, my teammate did not hit her cut-off and threw it straight back to me. The softball tipped my glove and collided with my nose. I had been hit before playing catch and being behind the plate – I wasn’t phased until the crowd went silent. My parents rushed me to the emergency room and I was scheduled for surgery immediately. The broken nose didn’t stop me. I continued to play softball and learn every single detail of the two games I loved. As I entered high school, most of my teammates had fallen out of love with the game.
I sat out during my sophomore year – I had been asked by another school to come play for them during my junior year but due my home address remaining in a different district, I was unable to play for the best team in our area at the time. For my senior year, I returned to my old school to finish what I had started with my original teammates.
While I had dreams of playing for LSU, life threw a curveball. Due to coaching problems on my team, I quit toward the end of the season out of heartbreak and anger. Looking back, I should have never let all of my hard work go to waste due to showing favoritism and lack of knowledge as a coach. A year later, I was diagnosed with skin cancer at 19-years-old – talk about a sinker thrown down the middle.
I lost myself and my love of the game for years – I lost my self-esteem, my confidence, the belief that I was meant for something special, and ultimately I did not know where I belonged. All I had was my mother, my father and my God. Through skin cancer, a toxic marriage that ended in divorce and the loss of my family dog – I found myself going back to two of the greatest loves I have ever known and that is baseball and softball.
Dugout Dish will soon be a year old and I am forever thankful for every memory that I have on and off the field. From falling back in love with the curveball to roaming Busch Stadium and giving a piece of my heart to the city of St. Louis and the Cardinals.
To baseball, I miss you.
To softball, I miss you.
(Photo Credit: Eddie and Kim Ladd)