Natasha Watley goes to bat for others
For someone whose skills on a softball field make her one of a kind, Natasha Watley has made an equally significant impact because of her efforts to shape opportunities for others to become a part of her sport.
Watley, among the small number of athletes who have the chance to play softball beyond college, is one of the cornerstones of a professional league that could provide that chance to the next generation.
As one of the few prominent African-Americans in a sport that lags behind others in minority participation, she started the Natasha Watley Foundation, which gives girls who might otherwise never know the game of softball a place to begin playing.
To understand why Watley is one of the defining players of her generation, both visions need to be understood. Trying to separate them is like trying to distinguish between identical twins. It's only half a story.
Just ask sisters Elia and Jamia Reid.
A rookie outfielder for the Akron Racers in National Pro Fastpitch after an All-American college career at California, Jamia is part of a league that veteran stars like the 31-year-old Watley hope to leave on stable footing. Though sidelined much of this summer by a concussion, Jamia has star potential if she opts to stick around for a few seasons.
On the other side of the country in struggling south Los Angeles neighborhoods like Watts, Elia coaches girls just entering their teens as part of a program run in a partnership between Watley's foundation and the city.
It's the first time the twins, who graduated in May and completed back-to-back trips to the Women's College World Series shortly thereafter, have been separated for so long. But geography aside, together they represent something meaningful.
"These are the kind of girls that the younger girls need to see, that these two girls are living it," Watley said. "For me, that's what it's all about, that evolving idea that it can happen. It's just a matter of what you're doing every single day."
Only a handful of players are capable of pulling off a passable imitation of Watley on the diamond. She was a four-time All-American and three-time national champion at UCLA. She has twice represented the United States in the Olympics. Watley, who plays for the USSSA Pride in the NPF, is still a breathtaking combination of speed on the bases, power and precision at the plate, and graceful glove work at shortstop. But while those traits ensured she would stand out on any softball field, she also came to realize as the years went by that she stood out for reasons that had nothing to do with skill.
"I just wanted to spread the word, share the game," Watley said. "Especially for myself, I don't think I had a lot of role models that played softball that looked like me."
When Watley began her career at UCLA in the 1999-2000 academic year, only 8.6 percent of NCAA Division I softball players and 6 percent of softball players across all three divisions were African-American, according to ethnicity data released by the NCAA. Yet by the time the Reid sisters arrived at Cal for the 2008-09 academic year, those numbers had fallen to 7.9 percent in Division I and 5.8 percent across all divisions. For a point of comparison, African-American student-athletes represented 37.2 percent of Division I women's basketball players in 2008-09, 22.3 percent of outdoor track athletes and 13.5 percent of volleyball players.
Softball had made strides elsewhere. The same period of time produced a steady increase in the percentage of Hispanic representation in college softball, from 3.5 percent in Division I in 1999-2000 to 7.3 percent in 2008-09.
Changing that representation in the NCAA or NPF, which has fewer than 10 African-American players across its four rosters, isn't the primary goal of Watley's foundation; it isn't intended purely as a softball academy. Instead, the goal is to use the sport as a tool to teach what Watley calls the four points of the diamond: discipline, dedication, dignity and duty. But those college participation rates point to a softball culture that has traditionally failed to connect with largely African-American communities, even in places like Southern California, where the sport is otherwise prevalent.
"It's not a sport most minorities think to go to," said Jamia Reid, who like Watley grew up in the relatively diverse softball hotbed of Orange County. "I think it's more so basketball or track and field or soccer, other sports like that. But I feel like if we show them that anybody can play, then they won't feel that discouragement, thinking that the sport isn't meant for them."
That is precisely the message Watley set out to deliver.
Watley was initially recruited by John Young, founder of Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI), to bring a softball perspective to that program after she completed her career at UCLA, before the 2004 Olympics. She established her own foundation four years ago, when Young prepared to retire and the RBI program came under full control of Major League Baseball. Working in conjunction with the city's parks department, the program operates an eight-week summer league at 14 recreation centers in south Los Angeles.
For coaches, Watley recruits from the ranks of current or recent college players with ties to Southern California, like Elia Reid. The girls practice and play on a weekly basis, in addition to having clinics in the offseason. They also participate in an essay contest, with the winner receiving a trip to the NPF championship series.
"You don't turn on the TV and see an African-American softball player," Watley said. "It's not in your face, so it's not the norm. That's why I handpick the college girls that are coaching them, because I want them to see that it can be the norm. There is a place for you, there is a place for you to play collegiately and earn a scholarship. There's a place for everyone; it's just a matter of what you're doing every single day. If you're living by the guiding principles, if you're doing everything in your power to get to the next level, there is a place for you."
Not that simply saying the right words will make change happen. Watley's program still struggles with issues like keeping participants engaged. There were days early this summer when Elia showed up for practice to find only four or five players on hand. That's why, as much as she focuses on skills like basic techniques of hitting when there is a quorum for practice, teaching softball is only part of the task. At a recent practice, she had to stop at one point, not because the girl at the plate hadn't paid attention, but because players in the outfield, tired of standing in the midday heat, started to heckle their weaker teammate. Teaching the mechanics of swinging gave way to teaching about teamwork and respect.
Some will get the message; some will not. In that respect, the players are like kids everywhere. What matters in communities where too few opportunities exist is that softball can be one more way to reach even one girl.
"You want everybody else to love it just as much as you do," Watley said. "I think that has been the hardest thing for me to accept is that I'm not going to affect every single girl, and this program is not going to make every girl fall in love with softball and go on to the next level and get a scholarship. I think that's kind of been a learning lesson for myself, and I have to be OK with the ones that it does change their lives. And I think with the few that have fallen in love and do keep in contact, that's what I cherish.
"At the end of the day, that's when I know this program is making changes and changing lives."
For all their frailties and shortcomings, sports do have the potential to do that. The change might come from the inspiration of a role model playing on a big stage or the words of a mentor at a local diamond. It starts with an opportunity.
"When it comes to game time, these girls are ready," Elia said of her team. "They want to play, they want to win. They do not want to lose. They start getting mad when they're losing, and they're not happy. They want to play."