Brittany McKinney, a.k.a. B-Mac, grew up in North Carolina, dreaming of becoming a major league bullpen catcher. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and now coaches at U.N.C.-Greensboro during the collegiate season. Before joining the Comets, she played for the Carolina Diamonds. Until eight weeks ago, she had never ridden a train. But the Comets are all living together in a residence hall at Montclair State University, across the street from a New Jersey Transit station, and, as McKinney put it recently, in a slight drawl, «It’s fort» minutes and then you arrive at Penn Station.» She added, «Now I can’t get enough. I’ve been known to chase trains down.»
Back home, McKinney used to coach a talented college prospect named Caitlin Dent. When she noticed that this year’s Old-Timers’ Day at Yankee Stadium happened to coincide with a gap in the Comets’ schedule, she decided to call in a favor from Caitlin’s father, Bucky, the ex-Yankee shortstop, and McKinney and several teammates were escorted into a luxury suite. «Daryl Strawberry challenged Taryne to pitch to him,» she said, referring to Mo watt, the onetime ESPY winner. «Hopefully, before our next home game, he’s going to come out with Yogi Berra he lives in Montclair! and take some cuts.»
«She’ll sit him down,» Bianca Mejia said.
«He was, like, You better not hit me, though,» McKinney said.
«Can’t promise that,» Mejia said, shaking her head.
«Wear a helmet!» McKinney said. McKinney and Mejia were sitting in the dorm lobby, taking a break from packing for an upcoming road trip. Angeline Quiocho, or Q, who holds the home-run record at Brigham Young University, stood off to the side, displaying a scar on her arm, the result of a collision with a steel fence during practice. «That hurt a little bit,» she said, shrugging. A few more teammates, the second baseman Amanda Kamekona and the third baseman Kelsi Weseman, entered the lobby, carrying takeout sushi. «Hi, guys!» Kamekona said.
«That’s A. K.,» Mejia said, for my benefit. «And Weezy.»
The latecomers were dressed in Comets gear. Even when out at meals, or get ting gas, the team aims to represent. «We’ve had a bunch of people say, «Oh, the Comets,» Mejia said, and then paused for effect. « What are the Comets?»
«I don’t think people really have a conception of us quite yet,» McKinney said. «Usually, they’re, like, Oh, you’re a pro fast pitch Wait, you’re a pro softball team?» It’s kind of news to them.»
They were a pro softball team sitting comfortably in last place in the standings, though they remained optimistic. «We knew this first month was going to be a learning experience», Mejia said. «Now weʼve played everybody in the league, and it’s time to make our adjustments and turn it around.» Meanwhile, there were perks to the professional life, like dugout snacks provided by the coaching staff. I mentioned that I’d noticed bags of chili lime and dill pickle flavored sunflower seeds amid the players’ scattered gear.
«I personally like the sizzlin bacon ones,» Quiocho said.
«Any flavor of beef jerk is fine with me», McKinney said.
«But the pepper beef jerky is my favorite», Mejia said.
«Teriyaki», McKinney said.
«We got’em all,» Mejia said. «There’s lots of flavors.»
«You won’t see us upset,» Quiocho said. «We won’t be upset.»
The showdown with Daryl Strawberry has not yet come to pass. When the Comets returned home for a series against the Pride, in Little Falls, in the third week of July, their record stood at four wins and twenty-one losses, and there were other pressing concerns. ESPN was coming (well, ESPN2), as part of the network’s deal to show sixteen N.P.F. games this season, an unprecedented amount of exposure for the league. So, too, was Commissioner Kempf, who flew up from her home, in Tennessee, for a firsthand inspection. The Comets cancelled practice for several days in advance of the Pride’s arrival, so that the women could concentrate on community outreach visiting schools and youth clinics and serving, in effect, as ticket agents. Unfortunately, this was also the week of the oppressive heat wave, and when I arrived at the ballpark, an hour and a half before the start of a Saturday afternoon doubleheader, Neuwirth told me that advance ticket sales had been stuck ever since the temperature climbed above ninety degrees.
«Q, what song is it going to be today?» Kempf asked Quiocho, standing by the batting cages. Back in 2010, during Quiochoʼs rookie season, Kempf had noticed her goofing around and demonstrating her moves to Beyonceʼs «Single Ladies», on the sideline, and asked if she’d be willing to perform between innings, with the support of the crowd. That fall, Kempf organized a barnstorming tour, with N.P.F. players travelling all over the country to play exhibitions against college teams. After Cat Osterman, Quiocho was the biggest attraction. «Everyone wanted to meet ‘the dancer», Kempf told me.
Quiocho said that she was getting sick of Веуоnce (she’d also added «Move Your Body» to her repertoire), and asked for recommendations. Mejia suggested Miley Cyrus. McKinney raised her batting glove in the air and began waving it slowly back and forth, as if showing oft an engagement ring. Several others followed suit. «My teammates have spoken», Quiocho said. «Single Ladies» it was.
Olivia Galati was scheduled to pitch. After a rough initiation into the league the second batter she faced crushed a walk-off home run Gelato had developed a back-door curve that McKinney described as «deadly», and had become the Comets’ only dependable pitcher, with three of the team’s four wins and an E.R.A. of 2.43. After the playing of the national anthem, Gelato trotted back to the dugout and heard a familiar cry from the crowd. «Oh, my God, that’s my grandma», she said, and then asked Coach Nelson if she could exchange one of her cleats, which was bothering her, for a shoe by a different maker. Nelson couldn’t see why not; both brands are N.P.F. sponsors. «They’re just not a matching pair», he said.
«Once again, fans, today’s game is being televised on ESPN2, so we invite you to move down to the front rows», Barry Eisenberg, the radio announcer, said, doubling as the stadium m.c., and doing his part to massage the optics. The attendance looked to be in the low hundreds. He had been asked not to stream his broadcast online, to help insure better TV ratings.
The Comets were fortunate not to be facing Cat Osterman, who had blanked them the night before, in the untelevised series opener, recording yet another no-hitter. The presence of a camera crew in the dugout now seemed to lift their spirits, and to awaken their bats. «Cameras come on, she’s flying», Mejia said, as В-Mac slid into third safely, after a double by Q. «She never moved like that before».
Taryne Mowatt, who had not yet found success in her return to the pros, embraced a new role, as a leader of dug-out cheers. «Ready? One, two, three: Ah-choo!» Mowatt said, as Kelsi Weseman stepped into the batter’s box in the fourth.
«Why are you doing that?» another player asked.
«’Cause she’s Weezy», Mowatt said. «Like, she needs asthma medication. Ready?» This time, more teammates joined in. «One, two, three: Ah-choo!»
The Comets built a 5-4 lead in the fourth, and then extended it in the fifth, when Dorian Shaw, the queen of batting practice, finally connected for her first home run, a line drive that nearly nicked the foul pole in left field. «I feel whatever you feel we are one!» Shaw said to Mejia, after returning to the dugout, while another teammate scrambled out to retrieve the ball as a keepsake.