My Little Niece is Making Big Things Happen, One Pitch at a Time

“Hey Mikayla, who is your favorite player?”

“Manny.”

“That’s what I am talking about. You want to play some catch?”

“Oh yeah! Let me get my glove.”

With that my 7-year-old niece jets off to grab her miniature glove and wood Dodgers bat. Apparently catch means batting practice as well. I wouldn’t expect anything less from this family. Her 3-foot-8-inch frame lines up 10 feet from me on the lush grass of a nearby park, glove at the ready. Upon Mikayla’s earlier request, I had brought my glove. I loaded up for a toss that resembled Ross Pero throwing out a first pitch: slow, rainbow-arced and pitiful. I have never been looked at with more disappointment in my life. She shot a look like the one your mom gives you when she has to pick you up from the principal’s office for putting gum in your seat partner’s hair in sixth grade.

Catching my limp effort at a throw, she whips the ball back at me.

She is not playing around. Her blonde fluttering hair wraps around her face and her body contorts in her best imitation of Orel Hershiser. I have never seen a 7-year-old girl with better mechanics. She wipes the hair from her face and resets her feet for my next throw. I now give her a look of, “So that’s how it’s going to be, huh?” She is not intimidated.

I load up a little bigger, step toward her and fling the ball with some zip.

Snap.

Mikayla closes the glove and follows the ball in with her other hand. She catches it with ease and I, with the light bulb flashing wildly over my head, realize she is awesome. It is an epiphany worthy of the first time you make a chip shot from four feet of the green and realize golf is awesome.

She is a ball player and she is a girl.

I finally decide after a 20-minute session of catch and about 40 minutes of batting practice that it is time to shelve the workout for the day. She has a Little League game the next day but there is something nagging at me. I can’t just leave the park without giving her one last shot with the bat in her hands.

She steps up and lifts the pitch clear over my head for a 150-foot bomb. (Her arms are about as thick as a broomstick, so yeah, 150 feet is a bomb.)

I look back, smiling, arms out in astonishment and say, “Whoa! Where did that come from?”
She looks at me, staring, and replies, “What?” Her reply is not a question. It is a statement. She knew she had it in her and in that moment, it is clear, she has that eye for big moments.

When game time comes, she is ready. It is a t-ball match up between her Yankees and the Royals. There is a pitching machine in the middle of the all-dirt infield and along with 12 kids squirming in their respective positions, dads are standing behind the kids to coach. It is a standard t-ball scene. The attention span for both teams is an average of about 1.5 seconds.

Except for Mikayla.

Like a miniature version of Orlando Hudson, she plants herself at second base with knees bent, nose pointed at the batter and her hands fixed on her knees, in the classic infielder position. As an uncle, I could not be more proud. The kid playing first is doing a shimmy-shake to some imaginary music and the shortstop is giggling at the opposing team. Mikalya stands at the ready.

She gets no action in the field, but is third to bat in this inning. On the bench, she is composed. She already has her helmet on and looks like she is timing the pitching machine in her head. She is determined to make up for her last at-bat, where she struck out. But to her credit she was swinging a bat that is close to her height and thicker than one of her thighs. Like an athlete, when it comes to her turn to hit she adjusts from her previous mishap and grabs a smaller bat.

Boom. Opposite field base hit.

She scurries to first and gets her swagger on. Leaning slightly, batting gloves un-velcroed and helmet so low it almost covers her eyes, she is an absolute baller. I look to my mom sitting with me in the stands and we just laugh at how good she is. My brother, Mikayla’s dad and one of coaches in the field flashes a thumbs-up from behind home plate with a huge grin on his face.

She is the first grandchild, and in that moment we all realize that we have the first athlete of the next generation. As a Ratto, being an athlete is more important than talking. I was taught to swing a bat before I could complete a sentence and Mikayla is no different.

As she made her way around the bases, I realized that being proud is an understatement. Watching my niece play that game made me realize how important sports have been in my life and how important they will be to my kids.

It is something that has bonded my family and will continue to further that bond as my siblings and I start our own families. We are family of athletes, and soon we will be a full-fledged movement of athleticism.

But there is no mistaking that Mikayla will be at the forefront.