Michael Lewis: After Moneyball comes softball

Albany Berkeley Girls Softball League team. Front Row (left to right): Grace Rusin, Maeve Gallagher, Quinn Lewis, Derby Gill, Griffin Campbell, Kaili Meier, Amanda Galbraith Back row (left to right): Coach Katie Vickers, Briahna Jackson, Adi Saaf, Coach David Wampler, Lila Simpson, Robyn Wampler, Claire Kaneko, Isabel Lavrov, Coach Marissa Drewery.

By Michael Lewis

One of the striking traits about Berkeley is the competitive spirit its residents bring to seemingly uncompetitive activities. They may not be playing the same game as everyone else, or be willing to admit an interest in victory, but the games they play, they play to win.

In addition to a lot of obvious intellectual and artistic achievement, our population can go head to head with any in its capacity to find what is morally objectionable in common foodstuffs; in its ability, as pedestrians, to make life miserable for automobiles; in its sensitivity to the presence of petroleum in products; and in its willingness to express political opinions, especially on bumper stickers. If the Olympic Committee ever were to replace cycling with recycling, our residents would not only take home all the medals, but know exactly which colored bin to put them in. And of course our tree sitters would kick the butts of tree sitters in any other similarly sized city.

That other people — people who do not live in Berkeley — not only fail to recognize a ferocious search for excellence in any of this  behavior, but actually mock it as “liberal” or “pinko”, is simply a failure of their small imaginations: in a world that appreciates only track and field events, we’re the curlers.

But, because Berkeley so often feels as if it is winning at games others do not play, it comes as fresh and surprising when Berkeley plays, and wins, at games that others do play. Softball, for instance.

The Albany Berkeley Girls Softball League is approaching its 30th season. By the American standards of girls’ softball leagues, it is, as people who do not live in Berkeley might suspect, a little quirky.

No toleration for cliques

It places great importance on having fun, and developing skills, and making friends, and little on personal triumph. Official scorekeepers keep official scores but only to make sure that no team wins too often. Opposing coaches collaborate. Players rotate around the field; the best players are as often found standing in right field as they are on the pitcher’s mound. Superstars receive no special treatment; cliques are not tolerated; every season, girls form teams with people they have never met, and learn to play together. At any given time, during any given softball game, a co-op is in danger of breaking out. All in all the league is a rich and delightful experience, and girls come back to play in it year after year after year.

(Spaces are still available for the upcoming season, for girls from the first to the eighth grade. You may register your daughter on the league’s website)

What it isn’t, at least to the untrained eye, is a breeding ground for big-time softball players. The experience it offers appears far too relaxed and pleasurable. The players seem insufficiently competitive. In short, the whole scene strikes the casual observer as way too Berkeley.

And yet, over the past six months, a dozen girls, aged 12 and under, plucked from this sweet-natured league and molded into an all-star traveling softball team, turned themselves into a softball force terrifying to behold. The so-called ABGSL “Sting” team played in nine tournaments, from Lake Tahoe to Santa Clara, against teams from Reno to the northeast to Santa Barbara to the southwest.

In six of the nine tournaments — tournaments which hosted as many as 24 teams in their age group — they played their way to the championship game. Three of the tournaments they won outright.

Where even predators are vegetarians

Raised in a safe and protected environment, this island on which even the predators are vegetarians, they ventured out into the wider world and not merely survived but triumphed. Their season had many defining moments but here is one: after a game they had won by a score of 21-0, the umpire complained that the kids and coaches from Berkeley needed to learn how to go easier on their opponents.

There are at least two mysteries here. The first and most obvious is how a group of children who are raised in a putatively uncompetitive environment can become so conspicuously competitive. The Albany Berkeley Girls Softball League obviously gave them certain tools. It taught them how to play softball, and how to enjoy doing it. But it did not teach them to stand up to girls twice their size and trained to go for the jugular. Yet somehow they did that.

The other mystery is what has become of their trophies.

Our local softball league was, in one way, unprepared for success. The parents of the players had no problem with it, of course, and neither did the league officials. They may have started out cheering equally hard for both teams, but they wound up longing for more success. But, after their daughters had returned with six gaudy trophies, they had no place to put them.

There was one old equipment shed beside Fielding Field, and another, newer one beside Cougar Field, behind the Albany High School, but neither had room for this kind of hardware. And so the trophies were passed around from girl to girl, without ever finding a final resting shelf. No player wanted to keep a symbol of an achievement that belonged to all — and the truth was that they now shared an important quality with all great competitors. They were all more interested in future challenges than in past triumphs.

One day the trophies simply vanished. A rumor spread that league officials collected them and, in the dead of night, buried them under one of their softball fields.

Who knows if it is true? It should be. It would be very Berkeley.

Michael Lewis is the author of the best-selling books “Boomerang”, “The Big Short”, “Homegame: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood”, “Liar’s Poker”, and others. His books “Moneyball” and “The Blind Side” have been made into movies. He lives in Berkeley with his family, including Quinn, who is a pitcher and outfielder on an Albany Berkeley Girls Softball League team.

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  • Anonymous

    I can’t wait to read “Money Berkeley-Bowl”

    Congratulations!

  • GPO

    Kids in Berkeley are wonderful.  They are possessed of all of those natural competitive qualities which make them strive for excellence and victory in all their endeavors.  They work hard to attain their goals and strive fiercely but fairly to carry off the cup in the end.

    It’s the adults in Berkeley, in my personal experience, who have serious issues when it comes to competition of all kinds.  There is this faux, passive/aggressive distain for competition in general (as though it’s somehow declasse or anti-social/Socialist).  I actually don’t have a problem with this attitude, except that beneath the veneer disdainful of competition there lurks an aggressive, but repressed desire to be best and first just like that Wall Street trader we all loathe.  This is pretence, sham, hypocrisy at its worst, in my view.

    If you like to win, want to be first or best or to outclass or outdo the next guy, just be frank about it!

  • deirdre

    Here’s a shout-out to Coach David Wampler, an all-around superlative human being.  But I never knew he was a softball coach until now.

  • Anonymous

    Not to digress or succumb to hubris, but our young people are full of surprises which give us hope.  Recently Willard Middle School students in a popular theater program approved by generous Berkeley taxpayers, produced, on their own, a fast paced  2&1/2 hour musical based on Harry Potter, which they fell in love with on U-Tube.  Without the benefit of written words or music, they recreated the words and music, added their own twists and performed at the School’s Metal Shop Theater to sold out audiences.

  • Bruce Goddard

    So happy to hear the ABGSL  journey continues.  Beginning in 2000, my daughter, Caroline, played on the Sting 10U traveling team, and later on the 12U team and 16U team.  This led her to an 18 Gold traveling team that made it to the national championship tournament in Oklahoma City in 2007. Before it was over, she earned a softball scholarship to the University of Vermont.   Thank you, Jane Hammond, for making it happen, and thanks to all who see that it continues.

  • Anonymous

    An utterly delightful story.  Thank you!

    Ira

  • PScott

    Fond memories of the Nolo Sharks in ABGSL. What the league does that is so important is to teach girls teamwork – a quality that can last their whole lives long. The competition is healthy and lively – they love to win but are not undone by losing, another fine human quality. Another sweet sidelight to our experience…one year the coach was an Academy Award nominee, the next we had one who had won a Pulitzer Prize.  (All of this was found out via google and not via boasting.)  What a great way to build community for parents and kids. My own daughter became a really great athlete but not in softball. What she learned at ABGSL carried her forward and is still working for her today.
     Thanks for a great article.

  • T.T. Nhu

    When our son was in the Reds of North Oakland Little League some years ago,
    the team lost consistently. Their wonderful coach David Schleicher (I hope I’m
    spelling the name correctly) would say whenever a kid stepped up to bat.  “Now
    take a deep breath….” And guess what?  After years of losing, the REDS won the
    championship in 1990.  
    So Berkeley, so great!

  • Suet

    Wow, if the adults are so awful, how did they create such wonderful kids?

  • rgoldfilm

    ABGSL builds not only character, but also family. And sometimes not in the way you might think. I coached my younger daughter’s team in micro, and my older daughter’s team for 8 years, both tremendous and wonderful experiences. In year 6 of the latter, my marriage was seriously on the rocks, and broke up before the season was out. Meanwhile, I couldn’t help but notice my team’s attractive if business-like, manager, and the following summer, ready to start dating again, I summoned the nerve to call her up. She was hesitant at first, not wanting to get involved with a guy on the rebound (sorry for the mixed sports metaphors here) but I said, “hey, I’m only inviting you out for dinner.” One date became two, then three. Six years later we moved in together, and two years after that (late last summer) we got married. I’ve got a two daughters and a step-daughter now, and consider myself (with apologies to Lou Gehrig) the luckiest man on the face of the earth. Thanks, ABGSL!