Amanda Kamekona a 'silent assassin'
If it's Tuesday, it must be Akron.
A recent Tuesday found Amanda Kamekona in precisely that Ohio city awaiting a softball game between her New York-New Jersey Comets and the Akron Racers. A few days earlier had seen the same routine in Chicago. A week later it would play out in Kissimmee, Fla. Somewhere in the middle would come a few days and a few games at what passes for home during the National Pro Fastpitch season.
It isn't always glamorous. It isn't always easy to remember where you are when the alarm goes off. It is an opportunity to pursue a passion and determine what could be for future generations of professional softball players.
In Kamekona's case, pro softball just happens to place her in tantalizingly close proximity to an even earlier passion.
During the past two summers in NPF, first with the Carolina Diamonds and now the relocated and rebranded Comets who emerged from the collapse of the former franchise, Kamekona has lived the itinerant life of a player on a perpetual road trip. Like the Diamonds before them, the Comets play home games in a variety of minor league baseball stadiums, modified for softball and spread across a home region. On summer evenings from North Carolina to New Jersey, her name is echoed over public-address systems in stadiums more often home to baseball teams like the Kannapolis Intimidators, Lehigh Valley IronPigs and New Jersey Jackals.
For the 27-year-old second baseman who is one of the NPF's most productive hitters -- an unimposing 5-foot-2 frame concealing power that ranks in the top 10 in home runs and slugging percentage and made her an All-American at UCLA -- the surroundings are more than a little ironic. Until midway through her high school days in Chino Hills, Calif., Kamekona played baseball, not softball. And she played it well. She competed with or against players like Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mark Trumbo, Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria and Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Delmon Young, prospects who played in stadiums like the ones Kamekona now inhabits on their way to the big leagues. Shared fields but not shared experiences.
"It's bittersweet," Kamekona said. "I see where [players like Trumbo, Longoria and Young] are in their careers and how big MLB is, and NPF is just a baby and just getting started. It's bittersweet because it's nice that we've gotten the league to this point to be able to play in venues and facilities like that, just to get a taste of what it means to actually make it at the top level of your game. ...
"It's really exciting that you're seeing the sport grow, but it's also kind of a kick in the stomach because it's not as big as MLB yet."
There wasn't really a conscious choice that led her to baseball, certainly no desire to test social boundaries. There was just a flier in elementary school that advertised baseball tryouts. She didn't know she would be the only girl who showed up, and it turned out that she was pretty good. A pitcher as well as a middle-of-the-order hitter, she recalled that her fastball topped out around 75 miles per hour by the time she was 13 years old. She went from recreational youth leagues to competitive travel baseball and her high school team.
A girl playing baseball against boys is not unique, even at a high level. Nor are baseball roots unheard of in softball. University of Alabama associate softball coach Alyson Habetz played baseball until college and then again after college with the Colorado Silver Bullets, a now-defunct women's professional baseball team. Former University of Missouri standout Jenna Marston, selected in the most recent NPF draft, played baseball in high school. There is even a United States women's baseball national team that featured a number of current and former college softball players when it won a silver medal in the World Cup last summer in Canada.
Kamekona didn't have to go to court to guarantee a place on the field, as Habetz did a generation earlier, but she faced plenty of skin-thickening skepticism. Once while playing in the infield during a junior varsity game in high school, a teammate's poor throw left her in a position where she could either risk a collision in order to make a play or sacrifice the out to avoid contact. She chose the former, and the collision left her sprawled on the ground. A voice from the stands called out to helpfully suggest the whole thing was a reminder why girls shouldn't play baseball. For the record, Kamekona held on for the out.
Takeout slides, purpose pitches and harsh words aside, even people who weren't hostile were often perplexed. As the years went by, why didn't she just switch to softball?
"The more people asked me to switch or why I didn't switch, I think the more I still wanted to play baseball just so I could still be competitive in it," Kamekona said. "Kind of like when your parents tell you not to do something, it makes you want to do it even more. I guess they just didn't understand why if I was good at [one bat-and-ball sport], why didn't I make the switch over. It was just because I wanted to be the one to decide when I was going to switch, not when everyone else thought it would be an appropriate time for me to do it."
After her sophomore year of high school -- about the time boys started coming back from summer vacation a foot taller and 50 pounds heavier, as she put it -- she did make switch. A few years before, she went with her mom to watch a local softball team practice. She left in tears because what she saw was a poor imitation of the competition she knew. Only when she subsequently watched the U.S. national team play an exhibition game did she begin to come around. If fastpitch satisfied someone like Lisa Fernandez, Kamekona figured there had to be something to it.
So with two years remaining in high school, she picked up a new sport.
Early in her first practice, on something as basic as defending a bunt, she looked on in puzzlement when the pitcher failed to cover first base. Everyone else stared at her and waited for her to do what every second baseman knows to do in softball. It was the same story at the plate, where baseball players don't suffer the temptation of the rise ball. Something as minor as dropping her hands during a swing, escapable in baseball, now proved punishing.
"In softball that will totally eat you alive," Kamekona said. "If you have a 70-plus mile an hour rise ball come at you, if your hands drop you're either going to sky something high or just totally whiff. … You're not used to dealing with that extra plane of something actually breaking up."
She made up ground quickly. She played two seasons of college softball for Cal State Fullerton and then transferred to traditional power UCLA for her final two seasons. These days, in addition to playing for the Comets in the summer, she is the head softball coach at Brevard College in North Carolina. No matter that she may have seniors who started playing softball before she did.
Jami Lobpries, now retired after a lengthy NPF career, played with Kamekona last season on the Diamonds. Like Kamekona, Lobpries grew up playing baseball and switched to softball only at the beginning of high school. She heard the same grumbling and grousing from parents who were upset a girl had beaten out their son for a place in the starting lineup or on the roster of an all-star team.
"I think of AK as almost like a silent assassin," Lobpries said. "She just goes about her business. Inch for inch, she's probably one of the most powerful hitters in our game. She walks out on the field with her gigantic homemade 'AK 47' [hair] bows that she makes, and then she just goes about her business. She plays the game hard. She's not going to be somebody who is super loud. She's not an in-your-face type of player.
"She just has this inner fight about her; it probably makes sense with her coming from baseball to softball. There's a fire inside of her."
Between playing and coaching, Kamekona is all softball these days. Most nights, too, although many of them nonetheless end with the television tuned to the MLB Network. She gave up her first love because softball promised a brighter future. Who knew it would be a future with so many baseball stadiums in it.
"My first love will always be baseball, but softball is right there," Kamekona said. "They're equal now. They both have big places in my heart, and I don't really miss anything in particular about baseball.
"I still have a whole bunch of challenges in front of me for softball to keep me occupied."