A coach and a pitcher with more than 152 no-hitters between them
Decades before his weekends were spent standing along foul lines with other dads, partaking in the distinct mix of pride and discomfort that comes with watching a child compete, John Hanson was just a boy doing what boys in the 1970s did in Meriden, Connecticut.
Situated about halfway between New Haven and Hartford, Meriden perhaps more notably sits near the invisible fault line dividing Red Sox and Yankees territory in that part of the Northeast. Occasionally, he and his grandfather would make the trip to Boston or New York to see one of those teams in person, their players the iconic figures of an era. But in a time before every big league inning was available with the click of a remote or the swipe of an app, seeing games for yourself more often meant heading to smaller, nearby parks.
As was the case the day his grandfather took him to see the local ace in a new league that was trying to gain a foothold in professional sports.
Hanson watched Joan Joyce pitch a perfect game that day for the Connecticut Falcons. Then he watched her pitch another in the second game of the doubleheader. To a boy of about 10 years old, it was a revelation. Right in his town was someone who dominated batters in a way not even Yankees or Red Sox pitchers could match.
Soon he rode his bike to the park if his grandfather couldn't go, hopped the fence in lieu of a ticket and watched Joyce befuddle batters.
"I never really thought of it as women's sports when I was that young," Hanson said. "I played baseball, and softball was similar. Obviously [the dimensions were] a little bit smaller. ... But it was a fast-paced game. I just enjoyed watching her because I was a catcher and a center fielder and watching her throw amazed me."
Joyce amazed plenty of people. Before Title IX put down roots, before the NCAA sponsored softball, before the Olympics included the sport and then ditched it two decades later, she excelled in a manner that leads many to insist to this day that she -- not Monica Abbott, Lisa Fernandez, Jennie Finch, Cat Osterman or any more recent name -- remains the greatest pitcher who ever lived. Primarily with the amateur juggernaut Stratford Brakettes and then the Connecticut Falcons of the International Women's Professional Softball Association, the league that Billie Jean King helped organize and that operated for four seasons beginning in 1976, Joyce accumulated folkloric numbers -- at least 150 no-hitters among them.
She even got the best of Ted Williams in a 1961 encounter.
And it is possible that if you spend enough time around the woman who is now 75 and in her 22nd season as the only coach in Florida Atlantic University softball history, you might hear that story about the Splendid Splinter.
"Her striking him out?" Kylee Hanson mused. "Only once a day."
A pitcher at Florida Atlantic who was recently named one of 25 finalists for USA Softball Player of the Year, Kylee is John's daughter. She is also the biggest reason that one of the more remarkable stories in sports, a sprawling epic that began in the 1950s and spans multiple pro sports, keeps adding new chapters just a few years after it seemed to be winding to a quiet conclusion.
Hanson's ERA makes FAU relevant again. Her experiences make it clear that Joyce's legend never ceased to be.
In the kind of plot twist that feels impossible to pull off in our age of specialization, Joyce became a pro golfer in her 30s. She just decided she would, so she did (playing both softball and golf professionally for a time). She didn't even take up golf seriously until she was an adult, but she played on the LPGA Tour for two decades. It was as a golf instructor at a club in Florida in the early 1990s that an assistant athletic director at FAU approached her about coaching a softball program that then existed only on paper.
She told him she was a golfer. He told her he knew who she really was.
Soon enough she was the softball and golf coach at the school in Boca Raton.
College softball was arguably more of a meritocracy two decades ago than now. The West Coast generally, and the Pac-12 specifically, ruled, but in an era before many schools invested significant resources in their programs, there was room for isolated success stories to emerge. So it was at FAU, where the Owls went 33-18 in their 1995 debut season. They truly took flight four years later when Nikki Myers arrived as a freshman. Still the program's all-time leader in wins, ERA and strikeouts (as well as batting average, home runs and RBIs), Myers starred on teams that went 214-71 and made the NCAA tournament in all four of her seasons.
A high school standout in the Tampa area, Myers knew who contemporary pitching stars Lisa Fernandez and Dot Richardson were. She didn't know anything about Joyce's athletic exploits until someone suggested she look into the new program. An internet search floored her.
"Holy smokes, this lady was legit," Myers recalled of her reaction. "I knew she was going to know pitching, and that's all I wanted. I was such a softball geek that all I wanted to do was just get better at softball. So I didn't necessarily care that it wasn't Florida, Florida State or whatever."
The Owls continued to win even after Myers departed. But by 2009, the team finished with a .500 record for the first time. A 15-39 record in 2012 marked the first losing season, followed by the second a season later. Whether time had finally caught up to someone so long ahead of it, or whether the growth of college softball in the South had simply squeezed out a mid-major program of modest means, it looked from afar that a softball story that began with a 16-year-old phenomenon in 1956 was near its end.
Except that wasn't how it looked from the proximity of Jupiter, Florida, where the Hansons settled after moving when Kylee was a toddler.
A recruit talented enough to draw interest from Florida and Florida State as a preferred walk-on, Kylee wanted an opportunity to play right away. Florida Atlantic offered that, as well as a chance for her parents and grandparents to see most of her games. It also offered a chance to play for the person her dad showed her in old newspaper clippings from one of his boyhood scrapbooks.
Not that Kylee arrived a starstruck acolyte. Joyce wouldn't have liked her so much had she been. Put two competitors together and the results were predictable, as exemplified by a battle over where the young ace should locate her best pitch, the rise ball that jumps away from batters. Kylee liked to throw it high, tempting hitters to chase it well out of the strike zone. Joyce wanted it to start at the knees.
"I would get her so frustrated at times that I swear she would want to kill me," Joyce said. "We went through a month of just working on that pitch and me not giving an inch. And guess what, she can throw it now."
Even that battle of wills may not be quite such settled history.
"We go back and forth on that a little bit," said Kylee, now a junior. "She really enjoys my low rise pitch, and she thinks that's where I should stay. She thinks no one swings at the super high ones, but sometimes we go back and forth on that because I think they do."
Hanson has the freedom to dissent. Myers recalled similar moments when Joyce would come out to the circle and tell her to walk a batter. Ever the competitor, the player would tell the coach she didn't want to concede the base. All right, Joyce might respond, then Myers had better strike out the batter. Whether or not the latter did, and the records suggest it worked out more often than not, such exchanges extended both the privilege of independence and the responsibility of personal accountability.
How do the mechanics of a rise ball leave a lasting impression on a life? Well, that's how. As do all the small moments of the daily grind.
"We have a lot of discussions about Dunkin' Donuts," said Hanson, the owner of a 22-3 record, 0.66 ERA and 227 strikeouts in 170 2/3 innings this season. "I'm not even kidding, we really do talk about coffee quite a lot. But I can talk to her about pretty much anything. If I have anything going on with my family, my friends or even my teammates, I've been able to talk to her about anything.
"We have a lot of bullpen conversations that don't always relate back to softball."
Now a hairstylist in Minneapolis, Myers gives pitching lessons to girls who mostly have no idea who Joyce is or what she accomplished. Joyce herself guesses that maybe 50 percent of the players she recruits or instructs at camps know anything about her history.
"It's all about the shiny things these days, and Joan Joyce is not shiny," Myers said. "She's not going to show up in all of her Nike gear and her fancy warm-up suit. She doesn't have all the shiny things, so I would expect that most of this generation, the really [top-tier recruits], would not know who she was and would overlook her.
"I think that when people do finally figure out who she is, then she commands the respect."
Joyce believes it is still possible for a school like Florida Atlantic to reach the Women's College World Series, believes that success is built with a pitching staff. She has one with Hanson and Amanda Wilson, a junior who limited eventual national champion Florida to four hits and one run in an extra-inning loss in last year's NCAA tournament. With these two pitchers, Florida Atlantic reached 40 wins faster than all but three teams this season, and at 41-7 FAU is in excellent position to make the NCAA tournament.
Yet however this season ends, Joyce will be back. Retirement holds little allure for someone who already lives in Florida and already played a life's worth of golf. She will be back teaching throwers to become pitchers, talking about life and a little coffee, and telling stories about Ted Williams.
It didn't matter to John Hanson, years ago in Connecticut, that it was softball instead of baseball or a woman instead of a man. What he witnessed was someone who was one of a kind.
Perhaps that's not so different for a new generation.
"I didn't want to go to a school where you are who you are when you walk in, and that's who you are when you walk out," Kylee said. "I wanted to be able to grow for the better as a person, as a player, as a teammate and, of course, as a pitcher.
"Learning from Coach Joyce, I knew that would be possible."