The Extra Legs for the Last Leg

If you’re not familiar with the rules of softball, they’re basically the same as the rules of baseball. If you’re not familiar with the rules of baseball, don’t worry, here’s all you need to know: if a batter — the person with the big stick — hits the ball over the fence (in fair territory, but let’s not worry about that), the batter gets to run around the bases, scoring a point (called a “run”) for his or her team. And if there were any of the batter’s teammates on the bases already, those teammates also get to complete their run around the bases, scoring one additional run each for their team. And there’s nothing the defense can do to stop this from happening. It’s called a “home run” because the batter gets to run all the way around the bases (that is, “home”).

That’s the general rule. But there’s a catch — in general, the runner still has to actually run around the bases to score. For example, take one of the greatest moments in baseball history*, from the 1999 Major League playoffs. The batter, Robin Ventura of the New York Mets, hit the ball over the fence while three of his teammates were on the bases. The Mets only needed one run to win the game, but they should have gotten four, per the rules above. But Ventura’s teammates mobbed him before he could make his way around the bases, so only one of the runs counted. For the Mets, it didn’t matter; they won 4-3 instead of 7-3, but a win is a win.

Regardless, the point is that you actually have to run around the bases.

And in 2009, that proved to be a problem for a college softball player — one that resulted in an incredible moment for other reasons.

In general, Division II Women’s Softball isn’t considered a marquee athletic stage. But that year, when Western Oregon visited Central Washington, it was a big game for them — a conference championship was on the line. In the second inning, a senior on the Western Oregon team named Sara Tucholsky came to the plate with two runners on base. And Tucholsky, who had never hit a home run in her college career previously, hit the ball over the fence. Tucholsky’s teammates score, but she didn’t make it past first base.

The rules of softball require that a runner — even one who hits a homer — touch every base in order. Tucholsky accidentally missed first base as she made her way to second, which isn’t a big deal — she just had to turn around, touch first, and then continue back on her way around the circuit. But as OregonLive reported, something went wrong: “Suddenly, she went down. She crawled and reached for first base. When she got there, she hugged it like it was a life preserver. She didn’t know it at the time, but she had torn the anterior cruciate ligament [ACL] in her right knee. She couldn’t move.”

Per the rules at the time, at least according to the umpires, Tucholsky needed to round the bases in order for the hit to count as a home run. If she couldn’t, her team could put in a replacement runner, but that runner would not get to round the bases, and the home run would instead be recorded as a single. To make matters more complicated, if any of Tucholsky’s teammates physically helped her around the bases, Tucholsky would have been recorded out. Her softball career was over — an ACL tear requires months of rehab and recovery — and it looked like her first and only home run was about to disappear from the record books.

That’s when Mallory Holtman stepped in.

Holtman was another player, and one who had a lot of experience with home runs — she held the conference record for most career homers. But she wasn’t Tucholsky’s teammate. Holtman played for Central Washington, and she was defending first base when Tucholsky collapsed. In an extraordinary moment of sportsmanship, as CBS News summarized, Holtman “asked the umpire if she and her teammates could help Tucholsky.” While there was a rule against Tucholsky’s own teammates doing so, the umpire decided that the rule didn’t extend to the other team. So, as seen below, Holtman and her Central Washington teammate, Liz Wallace, carried Tucholsky around the basepaths — ensuring that Tucholsky’s one and only homer officially happened.

You can watch the homer here, starting at about the 0:50 mark. (The video cuts away briefly after Tucholsky collapses, but resumes when her opponents carry her around the bases.) 

The good sportsmanship of Central Washington cost them a run and maybe the game; Western Oregon went on to win. But the true victory of fair play, mutual respect, and understanding is one they, and the rest of us, carry forward.

Bonus fact: The sportsmanship of the Central Washington team wasn’t lost on Chelsea Oglevie, who at the time was a high schooler in Florida. Six years to the day, Oglevie was a senior on the Florida Southern softball team, making her final appearance as a pitcher, when something similar to the above happened. Florid Southern was facing Eckerd College, leading 2-1, when Eckerd sophomore Kara Oberer hit a three-run home run off of Oglevie. As the Tampa Bay Times reported, Oberer, who was nursing a leg injury, couldn’t make it around the bases. Instead of taking advantage of the situation, though, Oglevie stepped up. Per the Times, “As second baseman Leah Pemberton approached, Oglevie wrapped Oberer’s left arm around her shoulders. Following her pitcher’s lead, Pemberton, a Bloomingdale High graduate, did the same with Oberer’s right arm. Except to gently touch second, third and home, Oberer’s feet never touched the ground the rest of the way around.”

From the Archives: Swing and a Miss: The story of a baseball pitcher, and one of my favorite titles ever.

*I’m biased, but it’s my newsletter.