NEW YORK -- The only thing more imposing to me than the 25-block trek through unfamiliar Harlem streets was the thought that I might fan against a 13-year-old girl.
So as I headed into New York Tuesday to try to squeak a hit off Sammi Kane Kraft, the hard-hurling Little Leaguer-turned-movie star, I was nervous. After all, she'd recently struck out the side -- every side -- for an entire game. And that was just one of the impressive tidbits I'd dug up while I Googled news about Sammi's natural athleticism and comprehensive arsenal of sinkers, sliders and nasty 70 mph fastballs.
But with my apprehensions (and humility) checked at the dugout door, I'd accepted the invitation to take my cuts against the phenom at an RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) media event on the Upper East Side. Behind a garish grin and under the glare of the summer sun, I faced the wrath of Sammi Kane Kraft.
Two days later, I have to admit: I'm still pretty sore.
It must be from raising that finger as I called my shot to left field.
I took the kid deep.
It had to be done.
* * * * *
Sammi has been well-known on the California Little League circuit for years. But recently, she's been making Hollywood headlines as the feisty female in this summer's remake of the 1976 classic "The Bad News Bears," which opens Friday. Unlike Tatum O'Neal, the original Amanda Whurlitzer who is the daughter of actor Ryan O'Neal and who had already appeared in "Paper Moon" before her turn in the first "Bad News Bears," Sammi hadn't acted a day in her life when she stepped in front of the camera with Billy Bob Thornton.
A Junior Olympian, she earned the role with her convincing skills on the baseball diamond.
|Bad News for this Bear
I would have none of that.
Sammi can play. And I should know, because it wasn't that long ago that I was a little junior mint like her, lacing up my pink Pumas and putting in my time with the fellas in youth baseball. Like Sammi, I made my fair share of little boys cry their eyes out in shame before I moved on to fast-pitch softball and a single-season, record-setting .564 batting average in high school and then four years as a starting shortstop in a D-I college program. Sure, that was three years ago; but I figured I shouldn't be totally washed up at the ripe age of 24 -- no matter how many times I take the elevator to get to the vending machines just two floors up.
So what was I worried about? She's 13!
Still, ever since the Sammi summons, I'd been haunted by that age-old inquiry of the once-upon-a-time athlete
Do I still have it?
That question cast an uncertainty over everything I hoped to prove against this little chicken wing. I wondered if my batting gloves were still stowed in the side pocket of the duffel bag where I'd shoved them after my last game. I wondered how long it would take my hamstrings to recover from a two-hour train ride down from Bristol. I wondered how quickly Tom Emanski could ship me that timeless tutorial of his, or if Harold Reynolds would give me the company discount on some tips from Tony Gwynn.
But I shook myself out of that deluge of doubt and resolutely affirmed that I would not, could not, possibly be schooled by a sixth-grader.
Back in the day, I was a stud; and today, I had the chance to lace 'em up again. As any has-been will tell you, if you ever get the chance to show off (or dust off) your stale skills, you step up to the plate Uncle Rico-style and embrace the opportunity like the championship trophy back in '82 depended on it.
This was my chance to relive the glory and all I had to do was tee off on a little girl's splitter.
* * * * *
I arrived at RBI Field an hour before the young chucker did, so I had a chance to case the place. As the groundskeepers hosed down the field, a scandalous Plan B popped into my head: I could lay a bunt down the damp third base line! But I dismissed the cowardly notion and sized up the distance down the lines.
The young spectators at the field were excited to see ESPN on-site. That's right, we're the Worldwide Leader, baby. I was mindful of the task at hand. ESPN isn't your local news affiliate who sends the weatherman to stand in and tell the same old story about how impressed he is with the cute little bear's braids. Heck no! I had a strict assignment. I was to go to New York and humble a 13-year-old Hollywood hurler.
I was to take her deep.
I was to sweep the leg.
I was to show no mercy.
Well, I was supposed to make contact, at least.
I anxiously awaited Sammi's arrival while my mind swirled with detailed analyses of the velocity and physics involved in the cerebral act of hitting a baseball. When I realized I was about to induce my own choke, I forced myself to simply picture the little shrimp on her way to the field, sitting in the back of a limo and sipping Tang through a curly straw while she caught up on her summer reading list.
|Want to learn more about how Sammi became a Bad News Bear? Read Tom Friend's story.|
She finally arrived with her publicist and her mom. I think if Roger Clemens had to travel with his mom all the time, even his fastball might seem a little more palatable.
We introduced ourselves, and her entourage informed me that Sammi would need to warm up a little bit before the ordeal. I welcomed the chance to get an up-close look at this storied young gun, so I grabbed my glove and invited her into the outfield for a friendly catch. As we loosened up, Sammi asked me some good-natured questions about my baseball and softball days, what positions I played, what I liked best, when I made the switch from Little League to softball, and all of the other intricacies that led me to her on this steamy Tuesday in July.
We exchanged similar stories of life as the only girl on a Little League team. She told me about baseball coaches calling her house and asking for Sam, assuming she was a he. I told her about the time I was presented with an all-star trophy errantly engraved "Mark" instead of "Mary." She told me about plotting fathers/coaches who tried to force her out of their sons' leagues because they're ''afraid she will get hurt.'' I remembered being told by a father/coach five minutes before a playoff game that his son would have to take the mound in my place because I'd disrespectfully refused to follow league rules and wear a cup.
Inspired by the little spark plug with whom I was playing catch, I realize now that I should have shoved two cups into my sports bra and put another one in his ear just for good measure.
I was thoroughly enjoying my conversation with SKK; but through the chitchat, I kept a watchful eye on her rifle. The kid can bring it. She backed up to a sturdy 50 yards away and tossed effortlessly until she declared that she was ready to roll.
The time had come.
* * * * *
Sammi hustled right to the rubber, clearly anxious to give me the business. I grabbed a bat and dug in but not before I demanded a helmet. Did I mention that she can bring it? She launched into her windup, and I watched, knowing better than to swing at her first pitch, a heater.
She is no joke for a 13-year-old.
I fouled a few back, then pulled a hard grounder down the third base line. I was feeling pretty good now that I had her timing down, and I drove a few shots to the outfield grass and lined one into the left field fence. But Sammi was relentless, and I whiffed, both on something sliding away from me and on one of her high heaters.
She taunted me with some "Bad News" banter.
I think she might have even winked at me.
And for that, I took her deep.
When she hung a fastball up in my wheelhouse, I taught her a lesson she won't soon forget. I sent a crowd-pleasing dinger well over the left-field fence that bounced off the building on the other side of 100th Street.
As my dad used to say, "Sometimes you eat the bear; sometimes the bear eats you."
And as only The Boss can so eloquently put it: "In the wink of a young girl's eye, glory days!"
I still had it! Thank God!
For a second, I wanted to flick my bat and trot proudly around the bases. I was tempted to tell her mama to take the day off because I was taking Sammi to school today! But as I watched the ball sail over the chain link fence, I didn't want to beat up on my peerless little pigtailed protégé any more. I'd developed a fondness for this kid. The last thing I wanted to do was bruise her ego too badly.
Before I'd even closed my gaping mouth, young Sammi was asking the crowd for another baseball, ready to try to hurl another one by me. She's resilient. She's resolute, and she's sanguine -- and you don't expect that out of many 13-year-old Hollywood darlings.
Sammi Kane Kraft might be a hot name in the box office right now, but don't be misled. She isn't just another Sarah-Michelle-Melissa-Joan-Jessica-Parker. Sammi is a sass -- and I mean that in a good way. She's got a lot of moxie. She's a kid with a competitive edge, a boatload of talent, and a movie deal; yet she manages to keep her feet on the ground and her real-life ambitions in check. She told me she wants to go to college and play softball. She said USC and UCLA are looking good because of their solid programs and their proximity to the beach.
I like the way she thinks. And although no one knows what the future has in store for this sparkling young personality, it will certainly brim with the potential of pitching, catching, surfing, acting and strumming her six-string on Sunset Boulevard.
She's got attitude. She's got talent. And she's got charisma, all of which you can't coach unlike that chest-high fastball she threw me.
The one I made her pay for.
Mary Buckheit is an Associate Editor at ESPN.com who covers college softball, X-Games and Page 2 odd jobs. She can be reached at Mary.J.Buckheit@espn3.com.