You have to spit before you go up to bat.
Just don’t spit on your shoes. It means you’re a wimp.
That is just one of the lessons that Penn urban studies professor Andy Lamas has taught to his group of young softball players, who call themselves Wild Things.
Created to give Lamas’ own daughter and her friends a comfortable environment in which to play softball, over the last two-plus decades, Wild Things has become an engrained part of the fabric of Mt. Airy, a neighborhood in northwest Philadelphia from which Lamas hails.
“I love Wild Things because everyone is so relaxed and friendly,” current Wild Thing Anna Nordlof said. “It’s productive without being high-pressure. Wild Things was the first time I really enjoyed playing sports, and it gave me the confidence to join a crew team this year.”
Over the last 24 years, thanks to the impact it has had on the girls, the organization has grown to over 170 girls, ranging from ages 5 to 18. Former Wild Things, many of whom are also Penn students, come back to help out.
On this particular Saturday, a day before Father’s Day, Lamas has been at Allens’ Lane Art Center since 9 o’clock, as each of the four age groups have taken the field for about two hours at a time. It’s the last game of the year, which over the years has become the father-daughter game. For both mother’s and father’s day, parents come out and take the field to face off against their own Wild Things. With the fathers in the lead in the last inning, one of them catches what they all think is the last out. But Lamas shakes his head. The bases clear, but the girls get three more outs to take down their dads.
“I like the fact that it is all girls,” rising Penn sophomore and Wild Things alumna Katie Breiner said. “Since all are welcome, some girls come in that have never played any sort of sport before. At Wild Things, they get the chance to run around and be athletic, learn about softball and baseball and meet other girls from the neighborhood. Also, they aren’t pushed to the side, or rather, right field, by some boys who clearly think that a girl wouldn’t be able to play shortstop.
“It encourages girls to go out and play other sports, because they achieved some level of athletic confidence and learned that sports can be a lot of fun.”
Against their dads, the girls are on the comeback trail. The lead dwindles to three, then two. The girls feel it coming.
But for Lamas, it’s not just about softball. Amidst the drills and the fun, he imparts important life lessons.
Once, to his Wild Things in the eight to 10 age group, he brought up Justin Bieber and how just because everyone else is jumping on a bandwagon doesn’t mean that they had to as well.
For a while, he and the girls joked around, but then, to drive his point home, Lamas asked what would happen if everyone started agreeing that homosexuality was wrong just because it was the majority opinion. In that moment, the girls understood the weight of what he was saying.
“That’s one of the reasons why Andy is so irreplaceable,” Breiner said. “Behind those silly jokes and casual coaching, he is a Penn professor who is trying to really make a difference in these girls’ lives. He knows how to important it can be to introduce these kinds of topics.”
When Lamas dies, he tells his Wild Things he has two plans — to have Penn use his body for research and then to be buried underneath the pitcher’s mound at Allens’ Lane.
Dry humor aside, the spirit of Wild Things will always be intricately tied to Lamas.
“Andy is Wild Things,” Nordloff said, a sentiment that Breiner agreed with word for word.
“Andy means everything to Wild Things,” Wild Thing Jackie Middleswarth said. “He gives it spirit and makes the girls at ease like they’re home.”
With a crack of the bat, the winning run comes home. The girls take down their dads, 17-16.
The score isn’t what the girls will remember, though. They will recall the jokes, the heavy subjects and the confidence they gained as Wild Things.
“There is no pressure to hit a massive home run,” Breiner said. “But if you happen to pull one off, both teams end up cheering for you.”
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