For a little while there, I wondered why I was even covering the game.
After all, North Davidson's softball team is a perennial 4-A state powerhouse while R.J. Reynolds can barely scrape together enough talent to take the game beyond the sandlot level.
Even before the game started, it was evident that North was going to win, and no doubt by the 10-run mercy rule which can end a game after five innings. That's why it's called the mercy rule — mercy for all of us from one-sided debacles. Some games are just like that because of the mismatches in talent, and this was going to be one of them.
So by the third inning, with North already up 5-0 and threatening to score more, North right fielder Mackenzie Hauser reached second on a two-base error. And it was here that coach Mike Lambros replaced Hauser — usually North's front-line pitcher — with courtesy runner Felicia Hamby.
I need to tread lightly here. Hamby, an irrepressible senior who stands in at all of four-foot-nothing, is a special needs student at North, where she is enrolled in the occupational course of study curriculum. She served as a team equipment manager several years ago, but she wanted more than that — she wanted to play.
So last year, she asked Lambros if she could be on the team as a player. He told her yes, but under the condition that she wear a batting helmet with a face guard anytime she stepped on the field. Several parents quickly came up with a uniform for her and she proudly wears the "00" numbers on her back. She was on the team, which in itself is a wonderful gesture by Lambros, who has more than 750 career victories (making him the winningest softball coach in North Carolina High School Athletic Association history), a 4-A state title and enshrinement in at least two halls of fame (including induction in the Davidson County Sports Hall of Fame last October).
Against Reynolds on Wednesday, Hamby got as far as third base, but was forced out at home moments later on an infield grounder. I think more than a few people wanted to see her score a run. She still made sure that she touched home plate, though, before heading back to the dugout. It was, I thought, a nice touch. A really nice touch.
But Hamby wasn't done. She'd already made one appearance this year as a defensive replacement in left field against Mt. Tabor. Now, in the top of the fourth inning, she was in right field, wearing her helmet, replacing Hauser.
She didn't get any chances in the field, though, because pitchers Whitney McBride and Blakely Thrower were combining on a one-hitter. Nobody was getting many chances.
In the bottom of the fourth Hamby finally came up for her first ever plate appearance. Through a quirk of substitution, she found herself as North's clean-up hitter batting in the No. 4 slot. She worked a full count against Reynolds' pitcher Elizabeth Meinberg before taking a called third strike. That was that, I thought. Hamby received a nice ovation for her effort from the small North crowd that showed up on this cold, blustery day. I wish there was a mercy rule for cold weather.
But Hamby still wasn't done.
Because North was in the midst of a seven-run uprising that ultimately sent 13 batters to the plate, she had yet another opportunity against Meinberg later in the inning. This time the bases were loaded. Once again she worked a full count, standing perfectly still as each pitch was delivered, never taking the bat off her shoulder, never altering her stance.
Then came Meinberg's deciding sixth pitch against Hamby's smallish strike zone — you sensed that fans were actually holding their breath. And then — ball four. Take your base.
The implications were enormous. Suddenly, Hamby had reached base on her own, and not as a courtesy runner. Plus, she had forced in a run in North's eventual 13-0 victory. She earned an RBI. And not just any RBI. A varsity RBI.
She was a true player. I hope she earns a varsity letter for this.
After the game, after my on-the-record postgame interview with Lambros, I went off the record.
"Mike," I said, "In 35 years of covering sports in Davidson County, I've never seen a special needs kid play in a varsity game. That was amazing. This is why you're a hall of fame coach."
I think I probably embarrassed him.
It's not the first time Lambros has done something like this. Two seasons ago, one of his assistant coaches, Jeff Pace, was suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease. Lambros let him continue to coach until Pace — who died in December at the age of 45 —just couldn't do it anymore.
If you want to find where Lambros keeps his compassion, it's right there on his sleeve. Next to his heart.
As the players filtered back to the gym, Hamby received the well wishes of several North fans heading back to their cars. "Good job, Felicia. Good job," they told her, and she smiled back at them broadly.
I thought about all of this as I walked back to my own car. This was only a game, after all, and a lopsided one at that. And yet, I couldn't shake the feeling that I had just seen something resembling dignity, decency and self-worth.
All of this at a softball game. Imagine that.