Women at Work
Softball heavy-hitters teach girls how to play the game
By Walter Jowers
APRIL 24, 2000: It's Tuesday night at Club K, and Team USA infielder Jennifer McFalls is teaching a four-girl utility fielding class. This, by itself, is a remarkable thing. Right here in Nashville, girl ballplayers are getting fielding and throwing lessons from a real-enough Olympic Team shortstop. If this were baseball, the equivalent would be having Derek Jeter out there, teaching local boys how to make the off-balance throw from the hole.
But it's softball, and it's Tuesday, and one of the four students couldn't make it to class. That means one of the girls--88 pounds, 11 years old--gets to warm up with McFalls. The first order of business is a speed drill, 20 accurate throws and catches in 30 seconds. The girl is wobbly-legged with nerves, and her first throw sails about 3 feet to McFalls' glove side. McFalls leaps, spins left, makes the catch, and while still airborne in a 360 spin, she makes a perfect return throw into the pocket of the kid's glove. Then she touches down silently, squared up, ready to make another catch. All this effort, all this better than ballet, so that an 11-year-old girl will have a good game of catch.
That's the work ethic at Club K, a 20,000-square-foot softball training facility in Hermitage. Every week, about 700 girls, ages 8-18, come here to get expert instruction in softball by Cheri Kempf, owner and operator of this unusual school--one of just a few in the world, and the biggest and busiest of them all. Kempf is ably assisted by fielding and hitting instructor McFalls and by catching and hitting instructor Doreen Denmon. Together, these three women work with girls whose softball experience ranges from local training league play to top-flight high-school seniors looking for college scholarships.
Ask McFalls or Denmon about Kempf, and they'll tell you: She attacks everything full-out. "Cheri will beat you at pool, darts, cards, or anything else you want to try," says Denmon, who was Kempf's catcher on the Raybestos Brakettes, the legendary women's amateur softball team fielded by Raybestos, the automobile brake-making company. Up until the debut of Olympic softball in the 1996 Atlanta games, the Brakettes played the most talented softball teams in the world, with 23 Amateur Softball Association Women's Majors national championships to their credit. Denmon, who's not one to hand out praise lightly, heaps it on Kempf. "If she had to throw the ball by you, she'd do that. If she had to outsmart you, she'd do that. She'd pitch a complete game on a 95-degree day, and then start the next game at shortstop."
In her playing days, Kempf threw a 72-mph drop ball. Thrown from a 40-foot softball pitching rubber, that pitch gets to the plate in .37 second, and it has late, downward movement. To get the same flight time from Major League Baseball's 60-foot, 6-inch pitching rubber, a pitcher would have to throw 110 mph. Nobody can do that.
It's a rare thing for a woman to throw a grapefruit-sized softball that fast. Even today, with finely tuned female athletes all over the place, you could fit all the women who can throw 70 mph into a minivan. Hell, maybe even a Plymouth Breeze. Consider that Kempf got that kind of speed out of a long, lean body that looks more suited to track and field than power pitching, and you start to understand that she has the preternatural willpower of Stephen King's Carrie--right about the time of the homecoming dance.
She answered by taking a job as a grocery-store clerk. In 1987, "to make mom and dad happy," she says, she accepted the head softball coaching job at Austin Peay State University, in Clarksville. That's how Kempf landed in Middle Tennessee. She has no complaints about her years at Peay, but she just didn't see herself coaching her way through life. Kempf is an independent sort. She went the entrepreneur route and created a school of her own--a softball school.
In the last 10 years, Kempf has created three incarnations of Club K, each double the size of the last. In 1990, just after she left Peay, she was a solo act, with 10 pitching students, working out of a 5,500-square-foot building in Brentwood. A year later, she had 100 students. She saw that the school was going to outgrow her, and she knew she'd be needing some help. Her first choice was her Brakette catcher, Doreen Denmon.
Denmon misbehaved her way into softball. When she was in elementary school in upstate New York, she was supposed to show up every day in a skirt. At recess, she was supposed to go to the girls' playground, play jacks, and jump rope. She wouldn't have it. Every spring day, Denmon left her house with shorts on under her skirt. At recess, she literally went over the hill to the boys' playground, where she got in on the baseball games. Every time the teachers caught her, they made her stay after school. It was fair enough punishment to get in the game, Denmon says. She just kept on going over the hill.
When Denmon tried out for a Little League baseball team, she was drafted in the first round. Later, when the coach got up close and figured out Denmon was a girl, he told her she couldn't play. Somewhere, right now, there's a Little League coach who ought to be kicking himself in the ass. He blew the chance to play a girl who would go on to play 18 years at the highest levels of softball--and who is currently one of the coaches for Team USA's catchers.
From her grade-school days, Denmon lived to play ball. She took a job with Raybestos, in Connecticut, meaning to play with the Brakettes until she just plain wore out. When that day came, she planned to hole up in a cabin in Alaska for a year or two, until the softball addiction left her system.
In 1986, after a softball-unfriendly management team took over Raybestos, Denmon went to talk to her supervisor about taking some vacation time to travel to Japan and play in the International Softball Federation's World Games. Her supervisor said, "Sorry, Denmon. You've got to stay here and make brakes. No World Games for you."
So she quit. She went to Japan, she played in the World Games, and she made the 1986 All-World Team. After that, she lived wherever she needed to live, and worked wherever she needed to work, just so she could play ball. In 1993, Kempf asked Denmon to come to work at Club K. Denmon hemmed and hawed for a year-and-a-half, then agreed to give Club K a 10-week trial; after that, she gave it another 10-week trial. Now, more than 300 weeks later, she's still coaching at Club K.
There's also a 30-by-70-foot RIPS cage. RIPS is an indoor softball game, developed by Kempf, in which a batter faces a pitcher, catcher, and fielder. It's basically softball minus the base running, and a little like a live-action pinball game, in which the batter is the flipper. Teams get points based on where the batters hit the ball, and how long it takes the defense to come up with the ball.
Today, with softball becoming a mainstream women's sport, and colleges fighting to get the best players, the demand for expert softball instruction is high. Some of Club K's young students travel four to five hours just for weekend lessons. Kempf and Denmon each put in 52 hours of instruction time per week. Everything else required to run the business--bookkeeping, advertising, teaching seminars, and matching up students with college coaches--comes after that.
When Kempf starts talking about Club K, the first thing out of her mouth is that it's strictly for girls and young women. Unlike generic ball schools, which are often populated by baseball coaches, Club K specifically teaches the girl's game.
On a busy night, Club K sounds like a little factory. There's nonstop banging, bashing, and clanging: the foomp of balls getting sucked into the pitching machines, the overlapping pings of aluminum bats striking balls, and the staccato cracks of softballs smacking leather. On top of all that, there's the sound of the three women running the factory.
Like the Mercury 7 astronauts, Kempf, Denmon, and McFalls talk alike when they're working. It's coach talk, equal parts encouragement and explanation, with just a little exasperation mixed in. In the batting cage, Denmon can be heard saying, "Miss Jess, are you being nice to the ball again? Break it in half!" McFalls reminds her fielders, "Stay low. Quick throw, come straight over the top. Aawww. A little low." In the pitcher's cage, it's Kempf: "Do you think speed just comes naturally? You've got to work for speed, push for speed. Every time out!"
Kempf works with pitchers as young as 8 years old. Like any teacher, she knows she'll have mostly average kids, a fair number of talented ones, and just a few truly exceptional athletes. On Thursday nights, at 9 o'clock, the exceptional pitchers come to work.
One of them is Leslie Barron, an 18-year-old senior at Goodpasture Christian School. In conversation, she's a shy, mannerly, soft-spoken kid. She looks for all the world like she could be Mayberry's most-trusted baby-sitter, and don't you know, she's the reigning Goodpasture homecoming queen.
She's also one buffed-out, toned-up athlete, a power-pitching lefty who leaps 8 feet off the rubber with every pitch, lets out a half-grunt/half-growl, and brings wicked breaking stuff. Her bread-and-butter pitch is the same as Kempf's--the drop ball.
With her 8-foot leap, Barron lets go of the ball about 32 feet from the batter. That's 3 feet closer than the pitching distance for 12-year-olds. With Barron's speed, the ball reaches the batter close behind the grunt. That kind of stuff gets a girl a college softball scholarship, and Barron is already signed up. Next fall, she'll be a Ragin' Cajun at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
"Cheri spends a lot of time matching girls up with college programs," Denmon says. "She's on the phone with college coaches when she ought to be sleeping." Kempf sees it as part of her mission. "I'm not just here to teach them how to throw a ball,"she says. "I'm here to make sure that they get every opportunity they deserve. If they put in the effort, I put in the effort."
"We can't turn an average athlete into a gifted athlete," Kempf says, "but we can teach the skills--where the eyes go, where the hands go, where the feet go. After that, it's repetition, desire, and talent."
She sees the need for--and the irony of--specialized sports instruction. Youth sports training is a growing business, she explains, with no end to the growth in sight. "When we were all kids," she says, nodding to Denmon and McFalls, "we just went out and played--some game, any game. We went out after breakfast and didn't stop playing until it got dark. Today, playtime is organized and scheduled." She shrugs, like she can't believe what she's about to say. "Now, here I am in the business of teaching kids how to play."
Kempf, Denmon, and McFalls are also in the business of teaching ball ethics, which is a lot like teaching martial-arts ethics. The good teachers can get students to do things that ought to be impossible, like breaking a stack of blocks or making a diving catch--or whipping a roomful of bad guys or coming back from a 10-run deficit. Kempf doesn't just teach her pitchers how to get the ball over the plate. She teaches them to be quit-proof. If they get tired, she says, they might just have to find the strength to throw one more pitch, maybe another whole inning.
Denmon tells her hitters: You can't ask the pitcher to throw the ball a little lower, or a little higher, or a little slower. You've got to find a way to overcome the pitcher, who is doing her best to fool you and overpower you. "Who controls whether or not you hit the ball?" she asks her four-girl group. "Is it the pitcher?" The girls nod. "Nooo, it's you!" Denmon says, rolling her eyes. "You've got the bat, and you've got control."
At the other end of the building, Kempf is telling the pitchers that they have control. Meanwhile, McFalls is telling her fielders that they control the game, because they control the outs.
A couple of weeks ago, McFalls' nervous 11-year-old fielder played in her first game of the season. She started at shortstop, McFalls' position. About halfway through the game, a hitter smacked the ball into the outfield, and the kid ran toward the outfielder, yelling, "Cutoff! Cutoff!," just like McFalls told her to do. The outfielder made a good throw in to the little shortstop, who caught the ball, wheeled, and fired to the plate, all in one motion. The ball went in on a line, cracking into the catcher's mitt. The catcher made the tag, retiring the runner and preserving the lead. McFalls would be mighty proud.
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