B y T o m D a n e h y
HOW TO DESCRIBE the most impressive athlete of all time at the University of Arizona? This is the task before us.
In the history of UA Wildcat sports, some athletes have achieved national fame, some have led their teams to conference or national titles, and a select few have even broken a record or two along the way.
But with all due respect to the others, there has never been a Wildcat athlete as successful and dominant in her sport as Laura Espinoza, the senior shortstop for the two-time defending national champion UA women's softball team.
Just look at the stats. They scream at you. Over 200 at-bats, over 200 total bases, 27 walks, 70 runs, only 16 strikeouts, 128 RBIs, and a slugging percentage of 1.045. That last one (which is derived from dividing the total number of bases achieved by the number of at-bats) is a jaw-dropper. Her last-year's slugging percentage of .887 was the all-time record. Having a slugging percentage over 1.000 is almost unthinkable.
Put it this way: Football running back Ontiwaun Carter broke the school's 40-year-old career rushing record last fall with over 3,400 yards. If he had broken the record the way Espinoza breaks records, he would have had to rush for 10,000 yards, plus, for good measure, the record he would have broken would have been his own.
Damon Stoudamire was All-American this year in basketball. This will be Espinoza's third year as an All-American, and she's a virtual lock for National Player of the Year.
Terry Francona was one of a handful of players to be named All-American while leading his team to the national championship back when the UA had a baseball program. Espinoza has already accomplished that feat in back-to-back seasons and is working on her third.
So, how do we even begin to find the words to describe this one-woman offensive wrecking crew? To quote Ronald Reagan, "Uh...I don't know."
And that gives us an idea. To speak of greatness, we must look to those who have experienced greatness. We will seek our words in those spoken by the presidents of the United States, who, by definition, are the 41 greatest men in the history of this nation. Aren't they?
Speak softly and carry a big stick.
OFTEN MISQUOTED AS "Walk softly and carry a big stick" (which is the way I was going to use it, until by some fluke I actually looked it up), this is often the way that Laura Espinoza is seen by people: a quiet and shy woman who carries a huge stick with which she cranks out prodigious home runs at a pace which would make Babe Ruth his ownself sit up and take notice. And sitting up was hard enough for The Babe to do even when he was alive. Imagine what it would take to get him to do it after 50 years in that box.
In reality, Espinoza's not all that quiet and the stick isn't all that big. As with all great athletes, it's not the tools, it's the workman. Her bat is pretty much generic, but the results are anything but.
--Espinoza is the NCAA career leader in home runs (85) and runs batted in (315).
--She has more home runs this season (37) than the previous record holder had in her entire career.
--Espinoza has an NCAA record 128 runs batted in this year. The previous record was 95, by Espinoza last year.
--Her 37 homers this year eclipse last year's (also hers) NCAA record of 30. Before she came along, the NCAA record for home runs in a season was 12.
--In 1993, she produced as many runs (runs scored plus RBI) as Arizona's opponents did combined.
--She is also among the team, Pac-10 and NCAA leaders in career and season batting average, doubles, hits, walks and runs scored.
As for the speaking softly part, she's somewhat soft-spoken, but hardly shy. She's at ease with people, friendly and open with her many fans who recognize her on and (more often) off campus, and her speech is punctuated with an infectious laugh.
She's especially amusing when she looks inward. How would this all-time great Cat athlete describe herself?
"I'm probably one of the laziest people you've ever met," she says with a confident smile.
I choose not to run.
NOT ONLY DOES Laura Espinoza choose not to run, she pretty much chooses to do as little as possible of anything that could be construed as being part of a physical regimen.
"I'm lazy," she reiterates. "I really don't like to exercise. I like to play ball, but I'm not a big fan of conditioning.
"My idea of a perfect day would be lying on the couch with fresh batteries in the TV remote control, fan blowing on me, and maybe a bowl of chips. I'd just watch TV all day."
"Well, I might take a break or two to take a nap."
Obviously, she exaggerates a bit--but according to those who know her well, only a bit. Still, one does not become a world-class athlete by sitting on the couch.
Espinoza grew up in an athletic family in an athletic neighborhood in Wilmington, California. Her father Marco and older brother Jesse were always involved in one sport or another.
"I played everything as a kid. My favorite was street football. We'd play forever and nobody ever said a word about (my) being a girl. I also played a lot of baseball. I still prefer hitting a baseball to hitting a softball. The baseball goes a lot farther."
She lettered in softball and volleyball at Banning High School, and she's currently thinking about taking up golf. Note the absence of basketball on this list, basketball being a sport which requires...motion.
Wilmington is a working-class neighborhood in Los Angeles. Espinoza says her life was pretty normal. There was some trouble in the neighborhood, but nothing that ever really touched her.
"I was a mischievous little girl around the house, but my Dad spoiled me, so I never really got in trouble. Outside the house, I was just an average student and I played sports all the time.
"I mean, there was trouble sometimes, but it never concerned me. We lived across the street from a park, and I was always at the park playing something. It wasn't like, if I wasn't playing sports, I'd be getting in trouble. If I wasn't playing sports, I'd have been at home on the couch...."
Yeah, we know, with fresh batteries in the remote control, a fan...
Every(one) must deal with the gap between what he wants and what is possible.
--John F. Kennedy
SUCH GAPS IN Laura Espinoza's life are few and far between. She wanted to get a college education; she'll graduate this summer with a degree in Family Studies, with a minor in Psychology.
She wanted to play on a national championship team; she's played on two and has a great chance of being on the first team ever to win three straight.
She always wanted to excel and she openly admits she enjoys breaking records and hopes that some will stand for a while, although she's not holding her breath. Teammate Jenny Dalton, a junior, is breathing down her neck in some categories. In the NCAA season RBI stat, Espinoza ranks first and second, while Dalton is third and fourth. In the entire history of NCAA softball, Espinoza, Dalton and Wildcat catcher Leah Braatz rank 1-2-3 in career home runs.
But she is blissfully unaware of another gap that she and her teammates not only helped close, but actually flip-flopped. What Espinoza and the others have done is nothing short of revolutionary and bodes well for the future of athletics and gender equity.
Less than a decade ago, the UA men's baseball team was the thing during the spring months on campus. In 1986, Coach Jerry Kindall's team would win Arizona's third national baseball championship and life was good. Huge crowds, often numbering in the thousands, would pack Sancet Field for Cat baseball games, many of which were televised locally.
That same year, the UA hired a new softball coach. Mike Candrea had coached baseball and softball at Central Arizona College near Casa Grande (amazingly, Candrea still lives in Casa Grande and makes that two-hour, round-trip commute every day).
The UA softball team toiled in obscurity, playing their home games on a little field carved out behind the Ina Gittings Building on campus.
Upon Candrea's arrival, things took off almost immediately. They went 27-13 his first year. The winning percentage of .675 is the only time in 10 years that it's been under .700. His second year, they reached the NCAAs. His third year, the made it to the College World Series and have gone back every year since. He won his first NCAA championship in 1991 and, somewhat oddly, his first Pac-10 championship the following year.
Along the way, the team built a solid fan base. Extra bleachers had to be added. (Actually, to hear some tell it, first bleachers had to be installed and then some more were added.) Finally, a new state-of-the-art stadium was built. Hillenbrand Stadium is the finest facility in the country and showcases the finest program in the country. Crowds averaging nearly 1,500 pack into Hillenbrand, helping the UA lead the nation in attendance.
Meanwhile, the UA baseball program has fallen on hard times. Students go to UA baseball games to study because it's quieter there than at the library.
Seriously, ask a sports fan in Tucson to name one member of the Wildcat baseball team. Just one. I'll bet they can't. Then ask them to name softball players and the names will roll out. Espinoza, Dalton, Braatz, Evans, Dolan, Chellevold. Well, Chellevold doesn't exactly roll out; it more like stumbles out, but you get the idea.
The Wildcat softball program is third in name recognition and fan loyalty only to the men's basketball and football teams, and deservedly so.
Espinoza doesn't understand the enormity of that fact.
"When I came here," she explains, "the softball program was already getting big. I followed a girl (Julie Standering) who was All-American at shortstop and who had played on a national championship team. I just thought that was what was expected.
"I've heard about the old days with the baseball team. I hope they make a comeback. You know, I don't think we took fans away. I think people can support both. We win a lot so people like us. But I think they mostly like us because we play hard."
With the popularity comes the other things. Some professors on campus resent the time away from class that comes with being an athlete. Others resent athletics, period. Espinoza says that while she hasn't run into any stereotypical thought about her being a "dumb jock," there may some people out there who question her femininity just because she knocks the crap out of softballs.
"There may be people (like that) but I don't let it bother me. If my father and brother think I'm feminine and my boyfriend (UA football lineman David Watson) thinks I'm feminine, I don't care about what other people think. I think I'm feminine."
Remaining feminine (and the challenge of teammate Dalton notwithstanding), Espinoza continues to have an all-time record season. Four times this year, she's been named Pac-10 Player of the Week, and three times she was National Player of the Week. She banged out six homers and 13 RBI in one tournament and five homers and 14 RBI in another. She had 16 RBI in one weekend and another time had nine in one game.
The only gap that remains (and it's more of a chasm than a gap) is that when she's done at the UA, she's pretty much done. She may get a shot at the Olympics, but the chances of playing professionally are pretty dismal. There are some leagues in Europe and the Orient, but they're not all that good. Ironically, even a guy on the lousy UA men's team has a shot at becoming a millionaire by playing pro ball. No such shot exists for women.
"I can't worry about all that," she says. "I'm having a great time right now. I want to focus on that."
Owwwww! (Or something to that effect)
WHAT MAKES ESPINOZA'S achievements that much more impressive (if that's possible) is that she has done her damage over the past two years while suffering from a painful back injury. Her sore back kept her out of the 1993 College World Series and has nagged at her, off and on, ever since.
When I met with her she was riding an exercise bike (which, by coincidence, looks like it was made during the Garfield Administration) while her teammates ran laps to loosen up before practice. She explained that running aggravates the injury.
Remember, Sports Fans, you can run slowly after you hit home runs, but you have to run fast on other, mere-mortal hits.
She says she's learned to live with the recurring pain, and it really doesn't hurt that much when she's playing. It hurts even less when she's lying down on the couch. And if there's a fan....
It is for us...to be dedicated to the unfinished work
RIGHT NOW, SHE'S focused on the prize. Her third straight national championship looms, an unprecedented achievement. The Wildcats swept through the regionals last weekend at Hillenbrand, outscoring the opposition by 31 runs in three games. Espinoza blasted a homer in the opener against Ohio, then closed out her home career in storybook fashion by blasting three home runs in the title game against Florida State. The first homer was a grand slam, the second cleared the bleachers in left field and the third one was to dead center.
Now it's on to the College World Series, where there may await a rematch with Arizona's arch-rivals, the UCLA Bruins. The Cats and Bruins are clearly the two best teams in the country and could meet for the national title May 29 in Oklahoma City, the permanent site of the World Series.
Espinoza isn't satisfied with two titles; she wants three and will be disappointed if she doesn't get it.
"This is my senior year. This is the one I'll remember. I don't want to go out a loser. I want us to win three straight."
I'm not a crook.
STILL, THERE IS one category in which she doesn't lead her team. Look at stolen bases. For the season, zero attempts, zero times caught stealing.
"I'm not much of a base stealer," she admits.
Well, of course not. That would require...well, you
Slugger Laura Espinoza has shattered nearly every record in college softball history.
Photo by Sean Justice
Laura Espinoza: "My idea of a perfect day would be lying on the couch with fresh batteries in the TV remote control, fan blowing on me, and maybe a bowl of chips. I'd just watch TV all day."
Photo by Sean Justice
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