A hit sequel for Sam Fischer
By the time she had her first at-bat in the nightcap of a recent doubleheader between the United States national team and a Virginia-based team of collegians, Sam Fischer knew she was seeing the ball well.
Batting cleanup for Team USA in the first game, she had totaled three hits in as many plate appearances. So even as she fell behind in the count in the first inning of the second game, she remained relaxed. With two strikes, she told herself to put the ball in play, to let the ample open spaces available on a diamond do the rest. But when she saw the next pitch drifting just enough up and in to find her sweet spot, she knew she could do more than put it in play. Weight back, head down, she whipped the bat through the strike zone and drove the ball over the fence for a two-run home run.
Any home run feels good. This one felt better than good.
"I felt everything from the last year in that hit," Fischer said. "All the disappointment, all the excitement, everything that it was possible to feel, I felt get out with the ball. I was so excited. I tried to play it cool, but inside I was like 'Oh my God, oh my God.'"
Then she did it again a couple of innings later. Sequels are kind of her thing. She wasn't supposed to make the national team once. She's done it twice.
Fischer's home runs came in the final exhibition game Team USA played before the national program trimmed its roster to 17 players after a series of practices, scrimmages and exhibitions in Virginia and Ohio. Those 17 players will play dozens of games across four countries this summer, a schedule that culminates in August with the ISF World Championship in the Netherlands. There the United States, which lost to Japan in 2008 in the final Olympic softball game ever played, will look to reclaim the world title it lost, also against Japan, two years ago in the most recent world championship.
And if Fischer's big day at the plate in Purcellville, Virginia, wasn't the sole reason she earned a place on that roster, it put the exclamation point on a performance during the tryouts that secured the spot.
It also completed a comeback as remarkable as the initial rise.
Two summers ago, Fischer emerged as one of the unlikeliest of breakthrough names. Coming off a college career in which she put up big numbers in the smallest of spotlights at Loyola Marymount, she arrived at Team USA tryout camp knowing almost nobody among a collection of players from big-name programs. She earned a place on the team. She didn't stop there. She made herself a regular part of the lineup and one of the best run producers on a team that took Japan to extra innings with the gold medal on the line in 2012.
Added to an outgoing, charmingly goofy personality that shone through on television, the skill made her a summer success story and more than validated Team USA coach Ken Eriksen's desire to bring her to camp.
"I really don't give a crap where you come from; I don't really give a crap what school you went to," Eriksen said. "All I know is that if you walk onto the field trying out for Team USA, if you fit the mold of a national team player, you're going to play. You have an opportunity to get into that lineup and do things. Crystl Bustos, what was she, the University of Mars? Yeah, I think that was it. It doesn't really matter."
It was actually Palm Beach Community College, but Bustos, the former Olympian whose power is such the stuff of legend that her name remains an adjective in the world of softball, will always be the gold standard by which such out-of-nowhere stories are measured. Yet by the end of the summer two years ago, Fischer was at least within sight of the podium.
Perhaps the best measure of how far she had come was how far there was to fall.
When Eriksen and the national team staff told her she made the team in 2012, she jumped out of her chair and hugged each one of them. A year later, she didn't even get out of bed when bad news arrived after another selection process.
Eriksen's recollection, and it wasn't an attempt at hyperbole, was that Fischer struck out 13 times in 14 at-bats during tryout scrimmages in June of 2013. She came up with a slightly more modest number of whiffs, but there wasn't any disagreement as to the overall performance. It was awful. At the plate, in the field, nothing went right.
Nothing felt right, either. Months earlier she had begun to feel pain in her throwing shoulder. She put off going to the doctor, fearful that any treatment would keep her out of action beyond tryouts. She didn't tell the national team coaches, but by the time she took the field, even brushing her hair induced a wince. It was little wonder that, to Eriksen, she looked out of shape. Normally so positive and outgoing, she was anxiety ridden and downcast.
"She was freaking out the whole time," said Amanda Chidester, her roommate at the camp and one of her closest friends on the team.
By the time Fischer returned home to California to await word of the final cuts, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Alone among players who were part of the team in 2012 and tried out again in 2013, she was shown the door.
"Honestly, I knew what the email was going to say before I got it," Fischer said. "I wouldn't have picked me for the team, either, last year. It was depressing, but luckily we got the email really early, California time, so I just woke up, read it, told my dad I didn't make it and went back to sleep."
If possible, she would have liked to have stayed in bed for months and let the world carry on around her. She wanted to wallow. She had committed to help with a softball camp Chidester put on in Michigan, but it was clear to the latter that her friend wasn't herself. Was she a national team player? A former national team player?
"I had zero confidence," Fischer said. "I was just a total hot mess. [Getting cut] was just a realization that other people knew I was a hot mess, too. I thought I was doing a really good job of covering it, but clearly I'm like the worst actor ever."
Shortly after she got the email from the national program that told her she didn't make the team, she got another message from Eriksen, a native Northeasterner who hasn't lost his bluntness after years coaching the University of South Florida but whose players generally rave about his positivity. His words in this case were a lifeline. The door closed on that summer but it didn't have to remain closed. She would have to work to erase the memories people had of the tryout, but it could be done.
Tests soon revealed no structural damage to the shoulder, and with massage therapy -- the kind that produced some of the worst pain of her life rather than the relaxing spa variety -- she regained strength in the joint. In March, she paid her own way to Tampa to make sure Eriksen could see the progress. She wanted to show him in person that he should keep the door open.
Like many of her teammates who are out of college, she faced the challenge of training for what is ostensibly a professional environment without any professional assistance. During her first year without the structure of college softball, the year that led up to the disastrous 2013 tryout, she faced little live pitching. So after she took a job this past year as an assistant coach at Division III Cal Lutheran, she took the advice of head coach and former Arizona All-American Debby Day and joined a local men's fastpitch league. She took up the CrossFit workout routine and improved her physical conditioning. She spent 12 months doing all she could to erase a bad week.
"Somebody like Sam gives hope, and legitimate hope, for everybody in this country to realize that it doesn't matter where you play," Eriksen said. "If you're good, you've got a great shot to move on and be a national team player. I think those are the things Sam Fischer brings, the everyman type of person, the blue-collar type of worker who just goes out there and busts her can every single day."
This team needs her, too. And not just for her power.
The national team no longer has the same mainstream reach it had when the Olympic spotlight helped introduce a wider audience to names like Lisa Fernandez, Cat Osterman and Jessica Mendoza. But put the current players in USA gear among fans in an autograph line or at a clinic and the difference in eras fades away at least a little. USA is still USA. Even in that setting, no one draws quite the same reaction as Fischer. Not that she is the biggest star or the one to whom kids instantly flock, but she is the one who won't just lend her face to a fan's selfie request but will match the picture taker goofy expression for goofy expression to personalize the snapshot. She makes an impression.
"Little things like that go so far with those kids," Chidester said. "Not many people would do that. They would take the picture or they would sign the autograph, but she engages with everybody. She makes them feel special. And I think she does it without even realizing it sometimes. She just loves to have fun with them."
That hasn't changed. Her experience could have left her more guarded than the newcomer who seemed endearingly, almost naively, happy to be where she was two summers ago. The up-close look at the lack of sentimentality inherent in international or professional competition could have tempered her enthusiasm even as it stoked her passion to reclaim her place. None of that happened. Instead, she's happier than ever that she beat the odds. Again.
"It's almost that it's more fun right now because, holy crap, I almost had softball just completely taken away from me," Fischer said. "That was horrible. I did not want to have to deal with Sam Fischer the person. I never want to be just Sam Fischer the person; I always want to be Sam Fischer the softball player. I almost had it totally taken away. It was almost the end. Now that it's not the end, I can't help but feel exhilarated."