Reflecting on special memories and milestones from my youth

My niece finished her college softball career this week, marking the milestone with a post on Facebook that said how much she’d miss the sport she had played for sixteen years.

I thought I’d read that wrong … she’s 21, but started playing organized athletics at the age of five.

It made me think … what a difference a generation makes.

When I started playing organized softball, I was in fourth grade. Our “uniforms” were blue jeans and plain pink t-shirts (no team logos or numbers, but our mascot was a ladybug), and we wore sneakers, not cleats.

We had a great coach, who taught us sound fundamentals, and when we went to all-stars, we were outfitted with hand-me-down uniforms from a local boys’ little league team.

A couple of years later, we got our own uniforms, but our moms had to take in the waistbands, as the pants were clearly made for boys. We had to figure out our boys’ shoe size to get our first pair of spikes.

But we had great coaches, and as we grew up became a pretty good team; more importantly we became great friends, playing together all through high school.

In the summertime, we’d join a co-ed slow pitch team, part of a farm league. (Not farm as in minor leagues, but farm as in dairy farmers who would play weeknight games and some weekend tournaments.)

We could not have imagined watching fast pitch softball games on television.

Today, there are softball Olympians; the best of them is even competing on Dancing with the Stars. College softball is all over ESPN, with ratings for the NCAA playoffs growing exponentially over the last decade of coverage.

My niece does now know a world without girls’ uniforms: custom batting gloves, helmets and headbands. Even in our small rural home town, she and her twin sister played travel ball for years before and during their high school varsity careers, seizing all opportunities.

I love seeing how far women’s athletics have come.

But some things haven’t changed, like the friendships. My niece has a phone full of team pictures, none of which are softball action shots. They are photos of people on busses and in dining halls, weight rooms and restaurants.

The experiences she’s had go far beyond the diamond, and have impacted her more than she can possibly realize right now.

Like so many who’ve spent their youth on fields, courts, tracks or pools, she’s learned to perform under pressure, to pursue excellence, and to work toward something bigger than herself; all with people who will forever be special to her because of the experiences they’ve shared.

The opportunities have expanded for softball players and throughout women’s athletics over the last three decades, but the lessons learned through sports are

Goodman Shaffer can be reached at Her column appears on Tuesdays