Caitlin Lowe builds her life around softball

Graham Hays/ESPN.com

Caitlin Lowe long dreamed of being a center fielder for the Yankees and has become a softball legend in her own right.

Growing up in Southern California, Caitlin Lowe lived a short drive from the home of the Angels. But with a father who was a Big Apple transplant, she harbored a familiar childhood aspiration.

"I wanted to play center field for the New York Yankees," Lowe recalled of the franchise of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.

Fast forward to a few weeks after her 27th birthday this year, and Lowe indeed looked comfortable as she prowled the center-field grass against a backdrop of Yankee Stadium. The distinctive surrounding skyline hidden by night, the predator's crouch in which she awaited each pitch was nonetheless betrayed by the shadows she cast under the stadium lights.

She did her hunting in plain sight.

A center fielder is technically a defensive designation, but the great ones seem to attack as much as react. Few, perhaps none, ever played the position as well or as aggressively in softball as Lowe, the four-time All-American at Arizona and former U.S. Olympian who now plays the position professionally. On this particular February night -- with the familiar white facade so long associated with the House that Ruth Built above her and the unusually quiet residents of the bleachers behind her -- she made playing the position look like art.

Standing closer to the infield dirt than the outfield fence, she observed the catcher's sign that indicated which pitch would come next. As the pitcher's motion began, Lowe's weight was on her left leg, right foot rising a few inches in the air and then planting in the grass as she shifted her weight and dropped into that anticipatory crouch. At the moment the ball left the pitcher's hand, her left leg crossed behind her planted right leg while her gloved left hand swung across her body. Though stationary, the motion was nearly identical to a speed skater accelerating over the ice.

Graham Hays/ESPN.com

The outfield Caitlin Lowe patrolled in February was not the one in the Bronx, but a sfotball complex in Cathedral City, Calif., with fields modeled after Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and the old Yankee Stadium.

As the pitch arrived at the plate, her left leg rocked back into place and she paused, body tensed, coiled with all the potential energy of an arrow pulled taut in a bow.

And then, more often than not, nothing, the energy dissipating as a called ball or strike or a foul ball dribbled in the dirt restarted the cycle and reset her dance.

Over the course of a game, she will follow the same routine a hundred or more times. Over the course of a season, she will do it many thousands of times. The numbers climb so high when it comes to the course of a career as to lose much meaning. Only a few times in any given game will the sound of the bat making a particular connection with the ball launch her in headlong pursuit that nothing, memorably not even a wall, will dissuade her from completing. But every pitch carries with it that possibility, and so every pitch brings the same preparation.

She plays center field for a living. She also lives through playing center field.

"Most people know her as one of the best slappers in the world, if not the best," said Lauren Lappin, Lowe's teammate and someone who has played with or against her since they were around 10 years old. "I think she's the best defensive outfielder who I've ever seen play the game. Everyone knows her as such an offensive threat, but what kind of separates her as a center fielder is so many different things. I think her game sense is second to none out there."

On that February night, she wasn't playing for the Yankees and she was nearly 3,000 miles from the real Yankee Stadium. But she was living out her dream.

When she takes the field on the 40th anniversary of Title IX for Saturday's National Pro Fastpitch doubleheader between the USSSA Pride and the Carolina Diamonds (ESPN3, 1 p.m. ET) in Clermont, Fla., Lowe will do so not in pinstripes but as a professional softball player in her fourth season with the Pride. The quasi-Yankee Stadium outfield she patrolled in February was not the one in the Bronx. The imposing skyline hidden by darkness that night was formed by the mountains adjacent to Cathedral City, Calif., home to a softball complex with fields modeled after Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and the old Yankee Stadium, where she and other members of the Pride played several exhibition games as part of a major college tournament at the venue. The fans in the bleachers were silent because they were figures painted on the wall, like the faux scoreboard that showed the linescore from Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series.

Graham Hays/ESPN.com

Caitlin Lowe's reputation as a slapper and offensive threat often overshadows her defensive prowess.

The setting was an illusion. The dream Lowe lives out in places like Cathedral City, Corpus Christi, Texas, and Clermont is entirely real, if not always luxurious.

With team salary caps set at $150,000 for rosters of 18 to 20 players, it doesn't require complicated calculations to figure out playing in the NPF during the league's short summer season is a tough way to make rent. In addition to some endorsement opportunities, like a deal with Under Armour, Lowe gives slap-hitting lessons in the long offseason, both on her own at home in California and as part of a business she and former fellow NPF stars Monica Abbott and Kelly Kretschman operate putting on weekend clinics around the country. For the major league outfielders she admires, even those seven years her junior like Mike Trout of her hometown Angels, professional baseball affords a certain lifestyle. Lowe instead builds a lifestyle around professional softball.

"For me I just wanted to do something in the game," Lowe said. "Yeah, I have a degree in psychology, but my passion is softball, and if I can be involved in that, and I can make my living that way, whether it's playing, teaching, whatever it may be, that's where my passion lies. I would never want to sit at a desk and do something else because I would love to just stay on the softball field all day doing whatever it may be."

Lowe knew she wanted to go to Arizona and wanted to master the craft of slapping, the moment she saw Wildcats standout Alison Johnsen dismantle rival UCLA in the 1997 Women's College World Series. It didn't hurt that Lowe had the natural speed, quick hands and work ethic to make those goals attainable, emerging as a world-class hitter fast enough to beat out anything that bounced twice and most things that bounced once, but powerful enough to drive balls over the fence or deep into the gaps when she swung away. But as good as she was in college, and as good as she was for the United States in winning a silver medal in the 2008 Olympics and gold in the 2010 world championship, she is only now reaching her peak as an athlete.

"I feel more mentally strong than it being a physical thing," Lowe said of the benefits of time. "I know that I probably learned way more playing on the USA team and in the pro league than I ever did in college. I learned so much from [Arizona and Olympic coach Mike Candrea] and the players who I played with in college, but to take your game to the next level and kind of be on the same page as everyone as far as goals, it's huge. I know that playing on the USA team, I got to play with my idol, Laura Berg. She taught me so much, and that was after my four years in college. … Players aren't necessarily peaking in college; they peak after. So it makes me sad when they don't go on to play those years because it's a lot of wasted talent."

It's why Lowe and so many of her Olympic teammates stepped away from international competition last year in an effort to grow the NPF.

The primary goal of Title IX was not professional leagues for women's sports, nor are those leagues the best measure of its legacy. Its power on this anniversary is as evident in something like the photography business run by Paige Lowe, Caitlin's younger sister and a former softball standout at Oregon State, as it is in the game between two professional teams in a league whose survival remains a tenuous thing in the ninth season of its current incarnation. The legacy of Title IX comes in playing some role, large or small, in giving girls the confidence, opportunities and tools to chase their dreams.

It's just that in Lowe's case, that often means a literal chase across an impossibly wide expanse of grass.

"I think I loved it too much to give it up entirely," Lowe said. "I feel like I can contribute to the game when it did so much for me."

She grew up dreaming of following in the footsteps of legends. But every time her feet begin their familiar dance before a pitch, whether in an outfield in Florida or an imitation Yankee Stadium in the California desert, she continues playing her part in setting a path for others to dream of following.

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