Every year, about this time, I make it a point to tune in to the Annual “ESPY” Awards. This entertaining ESPN sports awards event has been a television mainstay since 1993. The name was created to represent Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly, and the production itself easily rivals that of the Oscars, Emmys, Grammy’s, or Golden Globe Award shows. The coveted awards are given for individual and team athletic achievement and other sports-related performances that occurred during the previous year. The greatest names in the world of sports are gathered in one incredible auditorium for this very exclusive evening. The ESPY Awards is more of a novelty type of show rather than a traditional one, and it always provides many moments of humor, achievement, and inspiration.
This year I happened to be in Boca Raton at show time and was able to catch the entire show in my hotel room on a gigantic widescreen TV. The many inspirational moments always seem to be fan favorites, and this year’s show offered more examples than ever. However, in my mind, one particular story was almost too good to be believed. It brought tears to the eyes of the entire live audience on TV, and I doubt whether there were too many dry eyes in the home-viewing audience. It so inspired me that I had to research it even further on the Internet. The more I learned, the more I was mesmerized. This narrative couldn’t have been better illustrated for the big screen at your local theater. Here’s the story.
It was a bright sunny April day in the small 300-seat stadium on the Central Washington campus in Ellensburg, Washington. Two girls’ Division II softball teams that had never reached an NCAA tournament found themselves at the top of the league playing a double-header, which may well determine which team moves on to the playoffs. It was the 2nd game, top of the 2nd inning, 2 runners on base, and the score still scoreless after Western Oregon’s 8-1 win in the first game.
Up to the plate comes a very diminutive 5 ft. 2 in. Sara Tucholsky—a senior right fielder, only a part-time starter with a mere 34 at-bats for the entire season and a .153 career average. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the game, that’s not a very impressive average. However, on this particular day, Sara achieved something she had never done before, even in practice. She hit her first home run. She connected solidly with the ball and sent it soaring over the center field fence driving in the two runners on base!
In her exhilaration, Sara missed first base on her home run trot and quickly reversed direction to go back and tag the bag. In making the turn, her right knee gave out apparently, tearing her ACL and leaving Sara lying in tremendous pain in the dirt near first base and a long way from home plate.
Her first base coach realized what had happened and quickly shouted to gathering teammates: “Nobody touch her!” She knew the rules stated that if anyone from her team or one of the coaches touched Sara, her home run would be invalid and would go down in the record books as a single. The coach felt she couldn’t take that away from Sara as she was a senior and this was her first, and probably last, home run. The coach quickly asked the umpire if there were exceptions to the rule, and the umpire responded with a firm “no,” explaining that the only option under the rules was to replace Sara with a pinch runner and have the hit recorded as a two-run single rather than the coveted three-run home run. Seeing no other alternative, the coach prepared to make the substitution, taking both the run and the cherished but short-lived memory from Sara.
At that moment, another voice entered the conversation. It belonged to Mallory Holtman, the senior first basemen from the opposing team. Mallory was a four-year starter who owns just about every major offensive record there is to claim in Central Washington’s record book. She also boasted an amazing .419 batting average which, by the way, would have earned her millions in the major leagues. She was also the all-time home run leader in the conference. Now, with her own opportunity for a first postseason appearance very much hinging on the outcome of the game—her final game at home—she stepped up to help a player she knew only as an opponent for four years.
Mallory said to the umpire: “Excuse me, would it be okay if we carried her around the base path allowing her to touch each bag?” Don’t forget, this is the game that could determine which teams goes to the playoffs, and she’s offering to give the other team another run. The umpires huddled for a short discussion and then decided that there was nothing in the rule books that prevented the opposing team from helping someone score a run.
So Mallory and her shortstop, Liz Wallace, lifted Sara off the ground and supported her weight between them as they began the slow arduous trip around the bases, stopping at each one so Sara’s good left foot could touch each bag. As they rounded second base, they realized that the audience was on their feet in a tearful standing ovation.
As the trio finally reached home plate, Mallory and Liz passed the tearful home run hitter into the arms of her own teammates. Then Mallory and Liz returned to their positions and tried to win the game.
Central Washington did rally for two runs in the bottom of the second—runs that might have tied the game had Sara been replaced on the base path—but Western Oregon held on for a 4-2 win. Some would say that Mallory and Liz left the field as losers at the end of the day. I think not. I think everyone emerged as winners when all was said and done.
Mallory was later asked why she did what she did knowing it might lose the game for her and deprive her team of a playoff berth. She quickly replied, “I didn’t even think about it. Honestly, it’s one of those things that I would hope anyone would do for me. She hit the ball over her fence. She’s a senior; it’s her last year … she was obviously in agony. It was just the right thing to do!”
Sara’s coach was obviously touched as well. She said, “It kept everything in perspective and enforced the fact that we’re never bigger than the game. It was such a wonderful lesson we learned—that it’s not all about winning. And we forget that, because as coaches, we’re always trying to get to the top. We forget that. But I will never, ever forget this moment. It’s changed me, and I’m sure it’s changed my players.”
I’m quite certain Hollywood would struggle to write a better ending to this exceptional experience. Unfortunately, like so many things today, there had to be a dark side to this wonderful story. Many sports writers and thousands of Internet regulars shared the view that Mallory and Liz made a very poor and illogical decision in assisting Sara as they did. To help an opponent, they relinquished an opportunity to not only win the championship league game but to also move on to and maybe even prevail in the NCAA tournament.
Maybe these doubters and nay-sayers would benefit from Mallory’s insight. She said, “Years from now, people won’t talk about who got hits and who won; they’ll talk about what happened on the field. And it’s kind of a nice way to go out, because it shows what our program is about and the kind of people we have here.”
As I look back at this rare occurrence, I gain renewed faith in our future. With young people like this in our midst, our future holds great promise. Thank you ladies for reminding us that winning is much more than the final score—it’s how you feel at the end of the day!