With camera in hand and a notebook in my back pocket, I'm watching a softball practice in Sequim last week, and somehow it feels like I'm standing in St. Louis' Sportsman's Park in 1934.
Ball players are jawing at each other, ribbing teammates time and again after every bobble of the ball, whooping at every diving stop or off-balance mitt-slapping throw across the diamond, playing with this stitched and dirt-encrusted ball like it's a yo-yo on a string and seemingly loving every minute of it.
This is practice?
And then I think, aren't I about four decades, 2,000 miles and two retired ballparks removed from Sportsman's Park?
That was home to the so-called "Gashouse Gang," the mid-1930s St. Louis Cardinal team with an embarrassment of riches on the field, on the mound, in the dugout. That team was a World Series winner and simply one of the best teams put together of all time. I only know them from books and Ken Burns' "Baseball" series, but the idea of that team - talented, successful, a little unruly and, most notably, never afraid to get a lot dirty - fits perfectly here.
While her coach takes time out to talk to the intrepid reporter, catcher Maddy Zbaraschuk - a feared slugger across the Olympic League with five homers and a .550 average - leads some infield duties, slapping the ball to and fro while joining in the chatter. Demiree Briones, the all-league pitcher and one of the top hitters in the league, gives herself grief for missing a couple of grounders as her teammates chatter. Slick-fielding infielders Bailey Rhodefer, Cindy Miller and Michelle Abell scoop grounders out of the dirt, sling it left and right while outfielders Jazzy Bradbury, Rylleigh Zbaraschuk and Lauren Hendrickson snare flies and throw lasers back toward home plate, all the while keeping a level of volume to rival their school's percussion ensemble.
And then there's the shortstop. Lea Hopson. Not so tall, not so loud, not so animated that you'd notice her at first - until the grounders start coming. And going. First, it's a sliding stop to her right. Then a running stop and throw across her body going left. A snag and spin on one knee to turn a double play. A fling to first base as she cascades across the second bag, as if a runner were racing at her in the bottom of the seventh inning of a tie game. A barehanded snare and throw, the ball pushing air out of its way as it hisses across the infield.
All the while at first it's Pop! Pop! Pop! in the baseman's mitt. It's a sweet sound, you know?
And then there's her bat ...
It's useless to compare players on the same team, much less generation to generation or, in this case, baseball to softball. I've heard some folks around town liken the Wolves' softball squad - particularly its rather potent lineup - to the Yankees' "Murderer's Row" of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Earl Combs and others. I'd like to think there are good comparisons for some of the players on this particularly talented team, even some comparisons to St. Louis' old Gashouse Gang.
But there isn't. Besides North Mason's Bulldogs, one of the state's best in their own right, Sequim is simply a juggernaut, top to bottom, from speedy and hard-hitting infielders like Miller and Rhodefer and Chelsea Winfield to equally versatile outfielders in Hendrickson, Rylleigh Zbaraschuk and Bradbury. Briones is a revelation on the mound and at the plate, while Maddy Z, the catcher, is likely the best player on any other team.
But Hopson seems to turn this very good team into great. True, if Hopson weren't hitting so well in that third spot in the lineup, her teammates at 4-5-6 surely would pick up the slack. But 13 home runs? A team-leading 46 RBIs? A .720 batting average? League co-MVP? Even in a league where the Wolves overmatch every team (save for North Mason and Port Angeles) by a Dungeness mile, that's ridiculous.
"It's mental attitude; she's just going to do it," Sequim coach Mel Hendrickson says, watching his squad practice.
Tools for the game
"She has tremendous upper body strength and bat speed," the Sequim coach says. "She just explodes on the ball."
A varsity letterman since her freshman year, Hopson played boys baseball in Little League for years before she joined Hendrickson's club at the high school level.
At shortstop, she's quick with the glove and the throw.
"She's aggressive; she charges the ball," he notes. "The only time she bobbles is if she hesitates."
Her coach says she's a solid college prospect for those same reasons.
"She's got everything; she's got good speed, she's strong, she can play any position," Hendrickson says. "She's my optimal No. 3 hitter. She can bunt and hit and doesn't strike out much. I could see them putting her anywhere they need her."
A few weeks back, I'm standing just outside the field of play near right field, taking in the game, when Hopson comes up. She tries to lay down a bunt and is thrown out at first. She's got a grin and a "Who, me?" look on her face.
I'm thinking, "I know she can knock the snot out of it, and she's bunting?"
Ten minutes later, she takes a much easier path around the bases, sending the ball toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca. She doesn't break stride crossing home plate for another home run.
The guy next to me remarks that she hits like a boy. It's not meant as a knock on girls, I know. I get exactly what he means. I'm thinking that if she keeps hitting like that, there may be more than a few boys wishing they could hit like her.
I'd like to think members of the Gashouse Gang, were they alive today, might say the same thing.
Reach Michael Dashiell at email@example.com.