Roots and Branches: Softball and the surreal

AUNIKA YASUI in action in Kent, a respite from bad motels and unpleasant events off the field.

Photo by Maija Yasui
AUNIKA YASUI in action in Kent, a respite from bad motels and unpleasant events off the field.



Our granddaughter Aunika’s softball season ended with a “bang” after a memorable week at the National Softball Championship in the Seattle suburbs. More about this towards the end of the column as you learn what led up to the climax of this adventure into a parallel universe.

Aunika has been playing softball since she was little, cutting her teeth on Odell Little League and All-Star Teams. Her love for softball blossomed in middle and high school, when she began playing for her school and traveling teams, making softball almost a year-round sport. I was never a fan of traveling teams, believing they put too much pressure on the students, taking away from their academic achievement and putting too much focus on the coaches and adults need to win. I have seen the other side of the coin through my granddaughters’ experience with some great coaches, team mates and parents, helping me develop a more supportive perspective of year- round sports, robotics, speech and debate, theater or dance. I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks.

This last year, Aunika was invited to play with a 16 U team out of Hillsboro. Although the three day-a-week trek to Hillsboro has been the pits, in particular the tedious Portland traffic and frequent gas pump visits, it has all been worth it. Aunika has thrived with this team’s laid-back attitude, good sportsmanship and camaraderie. She has come out of her quiet shell and occasionally been seen laughing, joking and OMG, even cheering her team mates on. Neither her academics, love of science and math, robotics or belief in service has diminished. In fact, it seems to have blossomed along with love of softball.

Aunika played outfield for several tournaments and then was moved to first base for the rest of the season. Her left-handed catches earned her the nickname of “golden glove” by her coaches, teammates and bleacher fans. This attention was a source of embarrassment for Auni, who in general has a quiet, somewhat introverted nature, seldom wanting to be the center of attention. Now that I think about it, she will probably wish I had never written this column about her. So please don’t mention it.

It was fun to watch the team come together and grow. The coaches’ direction was incredibly supportive, never harsh or critical. I seldom heard a discouraging word spoken by players, their parents or umpires. Everyone was expected to exhibit the same supportive behavior, focusing on good sportsmanship, team building and making the experience fun for all. The girls were remarkably uncompetitive in nature, very laid-back, yet they had a great fall and winter season. We traveled to Las Vegas in January and competed in a national tournament, doing well until the last day. The team’s success was based on great fielding, pitching and base running. Occasionally, their bats got hot and it was a joy to watch the girls’ enthusiasm when their singles turned to doubles, then triples and one after another finally cleared the fence with a true homerun.

The team began to win in the regional tournaments rather than place or show. Yet their values grounded in fair play and good sportsmanship never faltered. They qualified for the national softball championships to be played in the Seattle area the last week of June. The girls expected the competition from 57 teams from across the United States and Puerto Rico to be tough, but it was the Kent/Bellevue/Federal Way area that was tougher yet, testing their courage rather than their athletic ability.

At the opening ceremony the Mayor of Kent announced that one of her deputies had been shot and killed the night before and another officer was in critical condition. There was a moment of silence, setting a somber tone for the opening ceremony. The team returned to their Econo Lodge in Bellevue and were encouraged to get a good night’s rest before the games the following day. Auni and I checked into the team’s motel room about 8 that evening. It is never a good sign when your non-smoking room is musty and dark, light bulbs missing from lamps, paper thin walls, ancient metal bed springs and a bathroom so small that it rivals the facilities on a tiny aircraft. We could hear our neighbors’ whispered conversations and count the times they got in and out of their creaking beds to use the bathroom. Adding to the cacophony was the air conditioner’s throaty roar, the deep thumping of helicopters overhead, and the wailing police, ambulance and fire sirens on the adjacent freeway. I knew Auni’s mother would never agree to spend the rest of the week in this dirty dive. Little did I know how the exodus from the “Bates” motel would play out the following evening.

Off to the games the next morning. Commuting to the fields was tedious, with only a seven-mile commute taking 75 minutes on the adjacent freeway, delayed by firetrucks, police cars and ambulances responding to who knows what type of disasters. Two games played in incredible heat led to my husband and my return to Hood River that evening since the team wasn’t slated to play for another two days. As we entered our driveway, I received a cryptic text from Auni: “Motel surrounded by yellow tape. CSI team swarming the grounds. Coroner removing body in bag on gurney.” Hours later another text:“Police allow us into rooms to retrieve our uniforms. Deadly stabbing in room between pitcher and third baseman’s rooms. Circling Seattle in search of a hotel with vacancies.”

The following morning I received another text from Auni: “Fire alarms going off, evacuating rooms. In jammies in Red Lion parking lot. Three fire engines responding.”

Flip and I return for the second day of games. Auni is in tow because her mother is attending an education conference. We are passed by 25-plus police, fire and ambulances all converging on the parking structure near our hotel. Later, we learn that a gunman had taken an AK47 and randomly shot at cars from an overpass, then fled the scene. Police chase him into the parking garage and kill him. Two passengers flee and they cordon off the area, taking them into custody hours later.

The following morning was uneventful until we met our aunt (98 years young) at a restaurant in the area. Unfortunately, it was located within a few blocks of the ShoWare Center, where they are holding the funeral service for the fallen police officer. An honor guard of law enforcement lined the roads for miles. We are more than ready to return to the quiet of our Hood River home.

We venture on to the freeway for what should be a four-hour trip. The first 25 miles took two and a half hours, bumper to bumper traffic and a massive emergency response to a roadside fire taking its toll on a typically tedious commute. South of Olympia, Aunika and I change driving positions, sure that this surreal trip into a parallel universe is finally over. Smooth sailing for the next 50 miles. As we approach the Glen Jackson Bridge and we can see the Oregon side of the Columbia beckoning us with its sanctuary state status, I noticed smoke billowing out of the semi in front of our car. Billowing puffs turn into angry clouds of acrid black and grey smoke erupt around, under and over the trailer and cab. In an uncharacteristic manner, I shout at Auni, “Go like a bat out of _ (my father’s favorite expression). We are not going to get caught behind an exploding semi!” She calmly complied, a seasoned veteran of crisis after a week in Seattle. All things in their proper perspective.



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