No joking, Sam Fischer is world-class
Loyola Marymount softball coach Gary Ferrin was preparing for his team's final fall exhibition game some years ago when he got a call from a local high school shortstop whom he was recruiting. Sam Fischer wanted to know if the coach would be at her game that day in San Diego, but he explained he couldn't be because of his own game in Los Angeles.
Ferrin hung up, listened to more than four decades of experience in the sport rumbling in his gut, and came to a snap decision.
His assistants could handle Loyola Marymount's game that day. He was going to San Diego.
"I knew if I could not close this deal rather quickly it just wasn't going to happen, because the Pac-10, the SEC would swoop in there and find her," Ferrin said of the conferences that hoard college softball's best recruits.
He eventually got his shortstop, and Loyola Marymount added a player who rewrote the school's record book by the time she wrapped up her college career two months ago. It's only now, thanks to the Team USA jersey Fischer wears, that the rest of the softball world is catching on to what Ferrin knew the first time he watched her play.
Softball's best-kept secret couldn't stay hidden forever. Fischer is too good not to get this opportunity. And she's too endearingly goofy not to enjoy making the most of it.
"The road less traveled" might as well be the motto for this month's ISF World Championships in Whitehorse, the capital of Canada's Yukon. At the very least, it is all but a requirement for getting to this edition of what is softball's premier international event in the wake of the sport's exclusion from the Olympics. While the rest of the sports world turns its attention to London, softball heads to a city more than a thousand miles north of Vancouver, British Columbia, that enjoys more than 18 hours of daylight at this time of year.
It's also the road traveled by this American team, largely devoid of stars familiar from past international tournaments, but rich with eager young players ready to prove their worth. Yet even if short on names like Jessica Mendoza, Cat Osterman and Natasha Watley, it's still a collection of players who hail from close to the beaten path in softball. Most played in the Big 12, Pac-12 or SEC. Most are veterans of the Women's College World Series.
Perhaps, their résumés suggest, they got here ahead of schedule because the previous generation stepped away almost en masse, but a jersey with USA across the front awaited most of them at some point.
And then there is Fischer. She didn't take the road less traveled to Whitehorse; she took a road that wasn't even on the map.
Fischer led the nation in batting average and on-base percentage and finished second in slugging percentage as a senior at Loyola Marymount, but she wasn't among even the 25 initial finalists for USA Softball player of the year. She wanted to play in National Pro Fastpitch after graduation but wasn't selected in the draft held during the college season, a draft in which a player's talent is only as important as her interest in playing in the league. Until Team USA called, Fischer was instead left to search out details on open tryouts and send emails introducing herself to the pro teams. She was simultaneously one of a kind and just another face in the crowd.
"You've got the popular prom dates all the time, the standbys, and they come out of the big football programs," Team USA coach Ken Eriksen said. "And then you've got a lot of other players in this country that can play. The identification now has been widespread. Sam is one of those type of kids. ... Sam just happens to be a great player on a not-so-household-name type of team. But she can play. She didn't back down from anything."
When Fischer arrived at the national team selection camp in June, ditching her dad in the airport like the new kid on the first day of school upon encountering a group of players she'd seen play on television, many of her future teammates didn't know who she was. Fortunately for Fischer, Eriksen did know her -- and not just by her numbers. The coach at South Florida, in addition to the national team, he had faced her in three of her four college seasons. The game her freshman season was the first in a weekend tournament, and he spent the rest of the weekend with one eye on the remarkably polished shortstop with the strong arm and smooth swing. By the time Fischer was a senior, he watched with grudging admiration as she hit a three-run home run against his team to give Loyola Marymount a win, one of 10 games South Florida lost in the regular season.
All the same, even Fischer, for whom the email invitation simply to try out induced fits of giddy crying, viewed herself as a long shot to do anything more than make an appearance at the selection camp.
"I was trying to think very realistically because I played in a very small conference at a very small school," Fischer said. "I knew I had to go out and have a pretty good tryout to prove myself there."
By her recollection, Fischer had one hit in four plate appearances the first day players scrimmaged, but she felt like she put together good at-bats each time. Coming back the next day, she had three hits while facing the pitchers who had already earned places on the team. For the first time, she started to think a roster spot might not be out of reach, even with such a small amount of time to turn heads in the three-day camp.
"She made a pretty big impression, just hitting the ball hard," said Team USA catcher Jessica Shults, one player who did know Fischer from travel ball in California. "She had like a triple, a double, just a ridiculous tryout. But it is tough. You get one at-bat against each pitcher, and that's how they decide. It's nerve-racking."
Only five spots were up for grabs that weekend, the bulk of the roster already having been filled with players who competed for the national team last summer. One of the five went to the kid almost nobody knew.
They know her now. Anyone who watched the United States play Canada on the 40th anniversary of Title IX or in the World Cup knows Fischer, if only because she is impossible to miss. Every time the camera panned to the Team USA dugout during those nationally televised games, it seemed to find her making a face, dancing or just generally enjoying herself. She isn't just happy to be here, but she's sure happy to be here.
"I'm more of a goof -- I don't know if you've gotten that vibe or anything," Fischer deadpanned. "But on the field I'm always messing around, dancing around, just being totally goofy. That was something I really had to control [while trying out] because I didn't know, maybe they didn't like that, maybe the girls would react to that weirdly. So I was pretty serious [about] softball at the camp, and then when I made it, I started to let loose a little bit, mess around in the dugout, dance a little bit."
It's how she got there in the first place.
Some college players don't watch much softball when they're away from the field. Fischer, by contrast, watched every minute she could find on television. But as the years went by at Loyola Marymount, it grew increasingly difficult for her to watch the NCAA tournament and Women's College World Series, unable to escape the gnawing sense that she was good enough to play against the best of the best. Ferrin does wonders with limited resources. Loyola Marymount memorably eliminated UCLA in a regional in 2007, but it is a program with no delusions of grandeur. It led Fischer to approach Ferrin before her senior year and admit she was thinking about transferring to a bigger program to see if she could indeed hold her own on that bigger stage.
Fischer said Ferrin promised he would put a bow on her and send her wherever she wanted to go, if that's really what she wanted. His recollection was of a moment of panic, his entire season potentially walking out the door.
Both believe she's on Team USA because she decided to stay at a place that encouraged her to be herself, to be the goofy David playing, and often losing, to the somber Goliath.
"When you're a mid-major, with our highs and our lows, you've got to be a little goofy," Ferrin said. "If you realize you're playing [against] the UCLAs, the Pac-10, the SEC, that's a lot of pressure on these kids at a mid-major level. And if you take yourself too seriously at that moment in time, you're probably going to fail. So you need to have that loosey-goosey mentality, that the game is fun and that's what it is all about. The results will take care of themselves."
Able to play shortstop and second base, Fischer is part of what amounts to a three-person depth chart in the middle infield, along with holdovers Molly Johnson and Lauren Gibson. All three have played significant innings so far this summer, and it's likely all will play large roles in Whitehorse. But with each passing game, as when she drove in all four runs in a 4-2 win against archrival Japan in the recent Canadian Open, it's clear that Fischer is an asset on the field. Through the World Cup and Canadian Open warm-up events, she's hitting .485 with three home runs and 17 RBIs, all three totals second only to Valerie Arioto on the team.
Fischer gave an immediate indication of what was to come when she hit a pinch-hit home run against Canada in the Title IX anniversary game in Oklahoma City. It was her first at-bat in an international game.
But it was her reaction to walking onto the field at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, home of the Women's College World Series and a place she had seen on television for years, that makes her valuable in any capacity.
"I was so excited to be out there," Fischer said. "There were girls taking pictures of us, and I was smiling for all the camera -- we're probably not supposed to do that. But it was awesome because I've watched the girls on TV and looked up to them, and now that's what the girls are doing to us, they're watching us and looking up to us.
"It's like, 'Holy cow, what a freaking privilege to be someone's idol or someone's role model.' "
All of it is why Ferrin decided all those years ago that his team could live without him for a game if it helped convince Fischer to come to Loyola Marymount. Players like her don't come around often; people like her even less frequently.
"This is a game; it should be fun," Ferrin said. "And she makes it fun. She makes it fun for all the people around her."
That's now plain for all to see when it comes to softball's best-kept secret.