Over the years, she’s learned a lot about people from their reaction to her story.
College guys, when they meet her, will laugh and say it never should have happened the way it did. She should never have received help. Forget sportsmanship, a game should be about winning.
Young girls, when they meet her, say her story has inspired them. If you just keep doing the right thing in your life, and you surround yourself with the right people, you will be rewarded at the moment you need it most.
But there’s another group of people Sara Tucholsky meets all the time: Dads.
There may be no crying in baseball, but there is a lot of crying among dads.
“Dads get super emotional,” said Sara, now 28, the former softball player at Western Oregon University who, with two players from Central Washingon, won “Best Moment” at the 2008 ESPY Awards.
In Sara, dads see their own daughters, and they hope they’ve raised them so the beautiful thing that happened to Sara Tucholsky would happen to them.
“My story is about humans being kind to each other,” Sara said.
I met Sara at a coffee house in Portland recently, and, like other dads, she reminded me of my own daughter. It’s been a couple of years now since Ali was a competitive softball player. She and I were on the softball circuit, driving out Saturday mornings at 5 for a tournament in some distant town. Sunscreen, eye-black, do you have your batting gloves? Dad, can you get me some Gatorade? Some of the greatest moments of my life as a dad were spent walking away from a field, her uniform dusted in red clay, with my arm around my daughter.
I sent Ali a text the other day — she’s in college now studying psychology — and asked her if she remembers the video I showed her when she was 12 in 2008 of the girl who needed help getting around the bases. She said she did, and said it was so cool I got a chance to meet her.
And like other dads, I got choked up when Sara told me the the story.
Sara Tucholsky didn’t go to Western Oregon with a softball scholarship, but after working hard as a walk-on she was rewarded with one. I asked her to tell me what kind of softball player she was. She said she had trouble with confidence.
“Hitting was my downfall,” she said. “I put too much pressure on myself. I’ve always thought of the negative things I do rather than the positive things.”
In the last college game she ever played, Sara was in a slump. She had three hits in her last 34 at-bats. She was frustrated. With two runners on base, Sara came to bat in the second inning of a 0-0 game that would decide which team would go to the NCAA Division II playoffs. The loser would go home.
She took the first pitch for a strike.
It was senior day in Ellensburg at Central Washington University, so a couple dozen parents were there with video cameras. If it hadn’t been senior day, Sara doesn’t know if anyone would have captured what unfolded. Sara’s parents, Mike and Ann, who rarely missed a game, weren’t there to see what happened.
The next pitch would have caught the outside corner. It would have been strike two.
But Sara crushed it.
The ball sailed over the fence in left-center field. Sara had never had that sweet feeling before. She had never hit a home run — not in practice, not in a game, never.
“You don’t feel anything,” she said about the impact of ball hitting bat. “It was so smooth.”
Had the story ended there, it would have been amazing. The former walk-on, in the biggest game of her life, hits a home run (spoiler alert) that would help her team win the game that put them in the regional playoffs.
That story wouldn’t have won an ESPY.
In her excitement, never having hit a ball far enough to which they allow you to jog around the bases, Sara missed first base. That’s fine. It happens all the time. She was only a couple of feet past the bag when she realized her mistake. All she need to do was calmly turn, take a couple of steps back, touch first and continue on her way to glory.
But Sara, being Sara, panicked. She planted hard to make a mad dash back to first.
“I saw my knee move in a way it shouldn’t move,” Sara said.
Suddenly, she went down. She crawled and reached for first base. When she got there, she hugged it like it was a life preserver. She didn’t know it at the time, but she had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee. She couldn’t move. One of the Central Washington parents with a video camera had filmed the home run, but when the poor girl fell at first base, she turned it off.
The first words Sara heard were “Don’t touch her.” The fear was that if her first base coach or a teammate had gone onto the field to help her, she would have been called out. Coaches and umpires met quickly, with Sara still lying in the dirt. If Sara was replaced by a pinch runner, that runner would remain at first base. Here three-run home run would have been recorded as a two-run single.
While this discussion was happening, Central Washington first baseman Mallory Holtman asked a simple question.
“Can I help her?”
Mallory asked if she could help Sara. She called for shortstop Liz Wallace. “Is it all right if we pick you up?” Mallory asked Sara. “She’s tall, but she’s got the sweetest little voice,” Sara said of Mallory.
When Sara agreed, they hoisted Sara and began to carry her toward second base. The parent with the camera started filming again, and an ESPN moment was born.
Just as Sara was being lowered so she could touch second base, the cheering started. People must have realized they were seeing the rarest of moments, competitors helping a fallen opponent even when helping her would hurt their chances to win the game.
By the time they made their way around third, some people in the crowd were crying. I’ll bet many of them were dads.
When they lowered her to touch home, Sara said, “Thank you.”
Sara, Mallory and Liz became Internet sensations.
ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi flew to Western Oregon to interview her. She broke down crying when she talked about that home run and the kindness of her opponents.
Sara was on crutches when the trio appeared on the “Ellen” show. She was invited on stage by Garth Brooks at a concert in Las Vegas (Brooks, a father, was crying when he introduced her. “One of my favorite moments,” Sara said.) Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig made Sara, Mallory and Liz his guest at Yankee Stadium for the 2008 all-star game. She got invited to see Bon Jovi perform in Central Park.
Not only did they win the ESPY — Sara remembers looking out in the crowd and focusing on Brett Favre — but they also performed in the dance number on stage with Justin Timberlake.
But the best moment was a private meeting Sara had with legendary UCLA softball coach Sue Enquist.
“This moment will forever change softball,” the coach said.
Sara said the coach meant that it would send a signal to all future players that there is something bigger — sportsmanship — than the game itself.
In the years after the home run, Sara has flown around the country as a motivational speaker, but she doesn’t do that as frequently these days. She still works with values.com, a campaign to show how kindness and doing the right thing can change communities.
After more than a year working with the Beaverton police department as an administrative assistant, she now works as an administrator with a healthcare staffing company in Portland. She loves to compete, so she plays on a slow-pitch softball team … and she hasn’t hit any more home runs.
On April 25, she became a fiancé when college classmate Eric Bradley, who works in the science department at Nike, asked her to marry him.
So did the home run and the media onslaught change her like, as Sue Enquist said, it changed the game of softball?
She wanted to think about that answer. I left the coffee house without getting the answer to the most important question.
When I got back to work an email was waiting for me.
An email full of wisdom.
“This home run did not change me as a person, but it has had a huge impact on how I see a moment,” Sara wrote. “What I learned from Mallory that day is that we always have the opportunity, in every moment, to see the bigger picture. And if we can pause in moments like those and make choices based integrity and kindness, I think we’d see a lot more good in this world.”
I think I’ll send a copy of that answer to my daughter.
by Keith Sharon