Behind The Scenes

Shelley Smith throws first pitch at Congressional Women’s Softball Game

EDITOR’S NOTE: This past fall, SportsCenter reporter Shelley Smith announced via an espnW essay and social media that she was battling breast cancer. Smith also interviewed former SportsCenter anchor and current Good Morning America host Robin Roberts about the fight against cancer and penned this post for Front Row. Smith and her daughter, Dylann, 28, recently shared what the past four months have been like for them. In April, she returned to work – covering Marcus Mariota from Hawaii as part of ESPN’s NFL Draft coverage. Today, she recounts her experiences as part of the annual Congressional Women’s Softball Game.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – I realized this was not an ordinary softball game when I spied the snipers on the rooftop next to the field. This was the Congressional Women’s Softball (CWS) Game Wednesday, some of the best and brightest leaders in this country and security wasn’t playing.

They asked me to throw out the first pitch, and even though I’ve never thrown a pitch in my life, I stretched out, warmed up, and somehow slid it across home plate. Oh, full disclosure, I moved closer.

Really. Security wasn’t playing.

Who was playing were like Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), who’s also chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), Jill Agostino from the New York Times, and Brianna Keilar from CNN. Big time politicians and big-time reporters.

It was the 7th annual Congress versus the women who cover them all game to benefit cancer survivors. They asked me to throw out the first pitch, and even though I’ve never thrown a pitch in my life, I stretched out, warmed up, and somehow slid it across home plate. Oh, full disclosure, I moved closer.

It was such an honor and a thrill to be part of another world — the political world — and meet such powerful and influential women who were giving their time and energy for such a wonderful cause. I got to meet Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader of the House and the highest-ranking female politician in American history, who came out to support us and had such wonderful things to say about our fight against cancer.

I also met a lot of women representing the Young Survivors Coalition (YSC). Some were so young it hurt me to think about how they went through what I did at such a young age. How did they even discover the disease? Most weren’t old enough to go through routine mammograms that us old chicks do — and need to do — every year. It was a lump here, a pain there, a misshaped or inverted nipple….all kinds of stories of sadness, but even more inspiring, all kinds of stories of triumph.

Wasserman-Schultz is a breast cancer survivor as is Kate Yglesias Houghton, president of the CWS game, and Jennifer Merschdorf, who basically invented it and is the CEO of the YSC. Andrea Cernich, the national director of Champions for America’s Future — an amazing group doing amazing things — is the woman who reached out and got me to fly cross country the day after I spent chasing P. Diddy’s story. It took me about 10 seconds to say yes. My college roommate and fellow (but much smarter than me) journalist and former foreign Associated Press correspondent Kathy Chenault, whose sister had breast cancer and whose mother died from pancreatic cancer, came out to cheer me on and acted as chief photographer. We have a lot of pictures of people’s feet.

My former San Francisco Examiner and Sports Illustrated colleague Sally Jenkins, now of the Washington Post and a brilliant reporter and writer, came to the game as well, and she and I gave pep talks to both sides. She told the press that we’d been working for years to step up coverage of women’s sports and it was up to them to not ruin it. Fortunately, they laughed. She told the congresswomen they had no chance because they could only go left or right and thus, had no centerfield defense. Fortunately they laughed, too! I know I did!

Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchens was the third base coach and even though her Wolverines knocked off Nebraska, Kathy’s and my alma mater, to win the Big Ten Championship, we were nice to her. She is a true legend and an amazing coach. After I posted a photo of us together, I got so many tweets from parents hoping their daughters would play for her someday…I told them to send them to Nebraska (not really!)

It was especially fun to see Eddie Perlmutter, congressman from my home neighborhood in Colorado coaching the politicians. I grew up playing tennis with Eddie’s sister Cassie, and we truly lived about a mile away. Cassie is a breast cancer survivor and Eddie coaches this event for her. His parents and mine were great friends, as well. I said to him, “Whoever thought we’d grow up and get good jobs?”

In all it was an especially moving night for me as a new cancer survivor. . .

I was given a press jersey and found myself, naturally, cheering for the press until I was reminded I was sitting closest to the congressional dugout. So in the interests of political peace, I reigned it in…until the end, when, down 1-0, the press got on base and then the last batter flied out to center. So Congress won for the second straight year. My former roommate surmised that the press let the congresswomen win so they’d still return their calls – conspiracy theories even in women’s softball. Who knew?

An estimated 1500 people came to the game, many the staffs of the congresswomen. They had signs and balloons, as did the event sponsors like Nike and McDonald’s. Two other college friends came to cheer me on and Abe Lincoln and George Washington made appearances as mascots.

The after-party was the best, all mingling and swigging beers and talking about everything from Donald Trump to Caitlyn Jenner. The fabulous Sue Donahoe, formerly of the NCAA and now the head of the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, hung with us and listened patiently as a young man insisted on telling us that he took his wife to Cleveland for their anniversary and to the meat market (a famed Cleveland butcher shop). He even had photos. We left soon after.

The congressMEN’s softball game between Democrats and Republicans was held a few weeks earlier and one of the players who came to support us told me that President Obama arrived with a cooler full of White House Honey Ale, announcing simply as he, himself, dragged it into the dugout, “I brought the beer.” We could have used him at our game!

In all it was an especially moving night for me as a new cancer survivor, and a tremendous event that raised $200,000 for charity and puts the total over the past seven years close to $1 million. And who said politicians and the press would never agree on anything! And, by the way, modesty aside, I nailed the pitch!

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