UH softball team bears watching
By Stephen Tsai
There's something about "Mary."
Maybe it's the laugh, which echoes Hawai'i softball player Jenna Rodriguez's raspy chortle.
Or, maybe, it's how a stuffed mechanical bear — purchased for $20 at the Boise airport — has become both a "mascot" and rallying cry during the Rainbow Wahine's impossible-dream run through the NCAA postseason.
The Rainbows are in Oklahoma City, site of the NCAA Division I Women's College World Series, thanks to Rodriguez's clutch walk-off home run in the Super Regionals and, in part, to the fun-and-focused atmosphere fostered by head coach Bob Coolen. The adoption of Mary is symbolic of the Rainbows' spirit.
While at the Boise airport in early April, Rodriguez started laughing loudly as she watched a toy bear that "danced" and "laughed" while spinning on the ground of a gift shop.
"Jenna was laughing so hard, and we were laughing at Jenna laughing," catcher Katie Grimes said.
Later, Coolen circled back to the store.
"The clerk tried to sell me a pig, a chicken, everything but the bear," Coolen recalled. "I told him I wanted the bear. It brings out Jenna's raspy laugh. Usually, she's very stoic."
During a game a couple of weeks later, the silence of the dugout was broken by the toy's laugh.
The players nicknamed the toy "Mary," Rodriguez was named guardian.
"That's my job," Rodriguez said. "Mary is our team mascot. I have to set her up so she can watch the game."
The toy received national attention when it was placed behind Coolen during an in-game interview Sunday.
"We needed something," Coolen said. "It keeps us loose."
The toy was strategically placed to watch Rodriguez, who walked to the plate with two outs and a 4-3 deficit against top-ranked Alabama in the seventh inning of the Super Regionals.
At that point, Tide pitcher Kelci Dunne had struck out 16, the last on a pitch that appeared to have eluded the strike zone.
But with Kelly Majam on base, Rodriguez rocketed Dunne's first pitch to left. Then Rodriguez — in a scene similar to Boston Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk's memorable home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series — tried to will the ball to stay fair. It did, and the Rainbows were off to the College World Series for the first time in school history.
"I told Jenna about Carlton Fisk," said Coolen, who was raised in Massachusetts, "and, holy smokes, she had no idea what I was talking about."
Rodriguez, who was born in 1989, said she drew inspiration from her father.
"He's always telling me to love situations like that," Rodriguez recalled.
Rodriguez said she celebrated by having dinner with her parents. She ordered filet mignon, shrimp and baked potatoes.
That night, her cell phone had reached its maximum capacity on messages.
There were more than 200 comments left on her Facebook page.
She also received about 35 friendship requests on that social-networking page.
"It was just so amazing how many people were watching that game," Rodriguez said. "There were people from my old school (in Arcadia, Calif.) who watched. I know that people in Hawai'i got up at 7 (Hawai'i time) to watch the game."
While teammates watched the replay of the game, Rodriguez caught only a YouTube clip of her home run. It was ranked as ESPN SportsCenter's sixth-best play of the weekend.
But Rodriguez had more pressing concerns.
"I had some homework to do," said Rodriguez, who is taking an upper-level communications class. UH's Summer Session I started last week.
"Homework and dinner with my mom and dad," Rodriguez said. "That's all I needed."