Natalie Hernandez swinging away for mom
The average collegiate softball player draws a walk every eight at-bats. The average leadoff hitter walks even more frequently.
Natalie Hernandez is not average. In any sense of the word.
Exactly 167 times during the regular season, Hernandez stepped into the batter's box for the University of Illinois-Chicago. Not once -- not even as the team's leadoff hitter for part of the year -- did the junior walk to first base.
This startling fact is not due to a lack of offensive talent, of which she has plenty. Hernandez, a shortstop, led the Flames in hitting this season (.377) and was the only Horizon League hitter to earn player of the week honors more than once. So what explains her off-the-charts aggressiveness?
In February 2011, during Hernandez's freshman year, UIC arrived in Las Vegas for its first tournament of the season, and Hernandez was released from the team to go to dinner with her family at In-N-Out Burger. That's when her parents dropped the bomb on her: Mom had stage 4 breast cancer that had metastasized to her liver and bones.
The ensuing months were brutal. Hernandez battled through her freshman season, her mind constantly wandering back to her home in Southern California, where Bonnie, her mom, battled through aggressive chemotherapy, enduring treatment three to four times a week for more than two months.
Against odds almost as steep as those against Hernandez drawing a walk, Bonnie's cancer went into remission. For a full year, the Hernandez family was at peace. Then, at the beginning of this season, almost two years to the day since Bonnie was diagnosed, the cancer returned. This time in the form of 12 brain tumors -- a diagnosis so severe and in an area so delicate that aggressive treatment and a full recovery are nearly impossible.
Needless to say, this season was dedicated to Bonnie, and what a season it's been. After starting 0-10, UIC won 23 of its final 36 games to get back to .500, win the Horizon League, and host this weekend's Horizon League tournament, putting the Flames in pole position for an NCAA tournament berth.
"Sometimes when you have the ability to play softball, it gives you a release in life," said UIC coach Michelle Venturella, recently named the Horizon League coach of the year. "It's that two hours a day when you don't have to worry about things going on around you. Ultimately, softball becomes a replica for life. There will be ups and downs and things you can't control. They're so parallel, and this is one of those things we can't control, but you always get to see character revealed from the people involved."
Hernandez's character has been palpably revealed at the plate, and it has been sterling. Game after game, opponents try to pitch around her. High and outside, low and inside, it doesn't matter. Hernandez, like her mom in a doctor's office, stands strong at the plate, pink cancer-awareness ribbon in her hair, hands unconventionally set apart on the bat. And whatever pitch she sees -- no matter how fast, slow, high or low -- she attacks.
"I play more for my mom now than I do for myself," said Hernandez, who has made her mom even more proud by being on schedule to become the first member of her family to graduate college. "I used to play to be good and have fun, but now I know my performance is one of the only things that makes her feel proud and good. Every time I play now, it's for my mom. I know she needs me to do well, and you can tell she's proud when I do well."
The team has fed off of Hernandez's energy and motivation. Senior Coryn Schmit, who graced the All-Horizon League list alongside Hernandez earlier this week, ignited a FLAMEingo fundraiser this season, intending it to be an annual UIC softball event to raise money for those affected by breast cancer. On top of this effort, UIC parents recently pooled some money to bring Natalie's family to Chicago for the conference tournament this Mother's Day weekend.
"I'm just going to say to her that we're blessed to have another Mother's Day together," Bonnie said. "We're blessed to have friends and family and people from UIC that care about us. I'm looking forward to being there and screaming for her."
The screaming, that real-life voice in the stands, will drive Hernandez in Chicago this weekend. In response, she will try to continue her season-long hot streak for the most selfless person she's ever met, a mom who once tried to sell her own jewelry when she found out her daughter wanted an iPhone.
Almost everyone in America knows someone who has battled this evil disease. Each of them has a story, and each story is unique. In the Hernandez family, sport has become a religion, softball a haven. One in which both mom and daughter can cleanse themselves, thank one another, and fully embrace one another, both physically and emotionally, for however many days are left.
"She has made me promise her that I'll keep the family together," Hernandez said.
Not an easy task. But Natalie will take a swing at it. And with her mother's flame burning inside of her, don't bet against her.