CATHEDRAL CITY, Calif. – Nineteen times in three days the mobilization began. Each time it started with a supervisor calling on a handheld radio to a group of volunteer security guards. “She’s on deck,” he said, and with that, five or six men and women walked over to and positioned themselves beyond the outfield fence.
Their mission was to retrieve a softball, if it approached them. The ball, if hit, would come off the stick of Oklahoma senior Jocelyn Alo, and it would be the 96th home run of his career, breaking the NCAA record.
Dennis Baker, a Long Beach softball dad who took the task more seriously than others, held up a yellow game ball and said it would be traded to the fan who finished with the home run ball and later signed by Alo, providing the ball – the chasers did not arrive first.
“Beyond that, we bribe them with a T-shirt and a hat,” he laughed. “I think people will do the right thing.”
Before Alo’s first game against Cal State Fullerton in the 27-team Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic on Friday afternoon, Baker gathered a few of his chasers for a brief tutorial. He told them to read the location of the pitch to get a better idea of the ball’s trajectory, should it be touched. “If they throw it out, move to right field,” he said. “If they enter, shadow left.” When I asked him if he expected scouting to be part of his weekend duties, he replied, “It’s just basic stuff.”
Mark Abercrombie, a local softball dad who runs a mobile home park in Palm Springs, walked away from his scouting session and said, “I’m not that strategic. I’m just going to run hard.”
At the time, before the start of No. 1-ranked, undefeated Oklahoma’s five-game weekend, the idea that Alo would leave Sunday without the record seemed laughable. The 200-foot fences of the resort’s fake Wrigley Field (complete with a wall painted with the fake fans, fake brick and fake clock) seemed like an affront to her. Even given the expected reluctance of opposing pitchers to attach themselves to Alo’s record-breaking home run, it seemed inevitable that a pitch would flow far enough across the plate and big enough for it to go over the fence.
But, as many have learned over five games and many, many hours, never underestimate the power of Alo. From Cal Fullerton State and Long Beach State on Friday to Arizona and Tennessee on Saturday to Utah on Sunday, pitchers and their coaches have been script-resistant. Every time Alo came to home plate, chasers slacked off, camera phones were lifted from all corners of the park, and pitches navigated just badly enough — or well enough, depending on the perspective — for the prevent from No. 96.
Oklahoma won all five games and Alo’s weekend was a fever dream of advanced metrics: 3 for 8 with 10 walks, one touchdown per throw and about 1,200 fouls. The .737 on-base percentage over five games would be remarkable for just about anyone but her. The only way it could be seen as a failure is by someone who was there just to see her break the record. (Guilty.)
In each of those 19 plate appearances, Alo showed no tension. She reached second, third and – in the final game – first game, and none of it proved tempting enough to invoke a challenge. She rarely got out of the box and walked around because it was the right play, even though no one from the thousands in attendance was there to see her throw her forearm and run for first base. His team hit 15 home runs in five games, so the strategy of not getting beat by Alo meant they were being beaten by someone else.
“I don’t know what they tell her,” Alo’s mother Andrea said of the Oklahoma coaches, “but she’s incredibly calm up there, even with everything that’s going on. “
There were so many people around Fake Wrigley on Saturday – a sea of popup shade blankets, carts, blankets, buggies and burnt skin – that it seemed impossible for ball chasers to even see a home run , let alone discern the location of the land. . Among them were a dozen members of Alo’s family and several other friends. As Alo walked for the third time against Tennessee, her father, Levi, tried to change his daughter’s fate by moving from camp chair to camp chair while someone in the Oklahoma crowd shouted, “There’s a lot of pressure on her.” Levi raised an arm on the camp chair and tried to reassure his people. “Sometimes she goes on like this for a while and then bang! bang! bang!”
One of the few pitches she found to her liking, a high off-the-plate fastball on the outside, came Friday against Long Beach State and came within two feet of landing near the outside. his family’s location beyond right field. “It was a lot closer than I thought,” Levi said. “One more pump and she would have had it.”
Former Oklahoma star Lauren Chamberlain sat in the stands Saturday and Sunday hoping, like all of us, to see Alo break her record 95 college home runs. “I care about Joceyln as a person so much that I can’t help but support her,” Chamberlain said. “It’s not like this record is broken every year. I had it for seven years and enjoyed every minute of it. I got a lot out of it, and now she deserves it.”
Alo will get the record, if not on March 7 at home against Minnesota, then almost certainly the following weekend during a four-game visit to her home in Hawaii, a trip that Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso has promised. three years ago.
Levi has been on the road to follow his daughter since Feb. 6, traveling from Southern California to Oklahoma to Houston and back to Southern California. On Friday, he said to me, “I’m going to continue if she doesn’t break it, but I feel it today. I feel it.” He felt it again on Saturday but less so on Sunday, when the whole family seemed resigned to holding their phones and recording at-bats that would be tossed in the trash.
As the Ballhunters mobilized and demobilized 19 times, Levi spent the weekend switching seats and standing in different spots to alter the mojo that was in the air. A particularly zealous fan from Oklahoma came up to him on Friday night and asked, “When will she get number 96, big boy?” to which Levi responded with a half-hearted shrug. Waiting for a record is clearly hard on the arteries; he has a habit of relieving stress by shaking his arms to relax, as if he might be called upon to play. When I asked him if he was nervous, he replied, “No. I have nothing to do.”
They all had flights to Honolulu late Sunday, and Andrea expressed relief that in less than two weeks Alo would be coming to the island instead of the other way around. She only has one match left, at Norman next weekend, and when I asked Levi if he was going to forfeit that match and miss the chance to see his daughter make history, he smiled and nodded at Andrea.
“You never know,” he said as his wife shook her head and rolled her eyes.