- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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It could have been the piano. It could have been acting. It could have been photography. Any of a hundred things could have intersected the careening imagination and scattered attention span of a young girl's mind. Any of them could have burrowed deep down to that place inside a person where passing infatuations stand no chance but lifelong passions take root.
And Rachele Fico's dad would have encouraged her as best he could. It just so happened she picked one that required a catcher.
Softball entranced his daughter, specifically the unmistakable windmill pitching motion that caught Rachele's eye when, not yet 10 years old, she tagged along as usual with her dad and brother to nearby batting cages and saw an older girl pitching underhand. Back in her own yard, she tried to mimic the movement, with moderate success and only minimal collateral damage, until Ralph came outside and asked her if she wanted to sign up for a lesson.
One night a week, back then, the two of them took the lesson together. She would pitch, and he would study, learning the mechanics along with her so that he could help teach her the rest of the week. And when the weather turned, as it invariably does come fall in Connecticut, they would go back to those batting cages. The business changed ownership once, then changed hands again, but Ralph somehow always ended up with a spare key and an understanding that he and Rachele could go in and throw whenever they wanted. Or more to the point, whenever she wanted. He always said yes.
"What we'd find ourselves doing is throwing a ball on Christmas and New Year's and holidays," Ralph said. "During fog and rainstorms and snowstorms, we'd be there because she'd want to go. She would say, 'Are we going to the cage tonight?' As a young kid, she spent a lot of time in those cages."
You can see a lot of Ralph in the way Rachele pitches now, in what makes LSU's senior ace one of the best college pitchers in the country as the SEC tournament begins and the NCAA tournament nears. You can see why the Akron Racers made her the No. 1 overall pick in the National Pro Fastpitch draft. She is stubborn, like him. She is competitive, like him. She is a student of the game, as he encouraged her to be. It is obvious he always made time for her.
"If you watch our practice, you'll obviously know which one Rachele Fico is because of how she works," LSU coach Beth Torina said. "She's just so detailed, so specific with everything she does. She's very deliberate. She doesn't accept anything from herself other than her absolute best. If a pitch is questionable at all, she's going to repeat it. I think you see that on the mound [in games]. She doesn't give in."
The time her dad gave her helped hone all of those traits and helped make her a pitcher. It also shaped who she is. Not because he equipped her with the command or the velocity to throw 26 perfect games and 47 no-hitters when she was in high school, although she did. Not because he prepared her to take those skills to the SEC and win 78 games and counting, earn All-American honors and reach the Women's College World Series, although she did.
It is because a decade ago, not long after his daughter fell head over heels for pitching, Ralph was diagnosed with neuroendocrine carcinoma, a form of cancer that doctors tell him is only manageable in his case, not curable. It will be terminal.
It means something more to make all the time in the world for someone while knowing that there won't always be time to make. It means something more to Rachele.
"I'm still grateful for every day I get with him," Rachele said. "Tomorrow is never promised. Not just in his case, in everyone's case. You don't know what tomorrow might bring. He's definitely taught me you need to live today the best that you can and leave a positive mark everywhere you go.
"He's my hero. He's my motivation. He's my inspiration. Every time I play, I play for him."
Believers were not in short supply by the time Rachele had to pick a college. Elite softball programs from coast to coast courted her, convinced that her right arm could propel them to the World Series. But the chorus was considerably smaller in the beginning. Back then, whether people said it aloud or not, she found that her dream of pitching on the sport's biggest stage in Oklahoma City elicited a consistent response: That's nice, but you're just a girl from Connecticut. Given softball's warm-weather strongholds, a surfer from South Dakota had better odds of success.
Ralph never doubted his daughter, never tried to gently temper her ambition with more realistic goals. He never coddled her, either, never made the mistake of a lot of softball dads who begin to think their daughters are entitled to success. When she wanted instant results, like a lot of kids do, they butted heads. When she threw perfect games in high school, he would ask, with that dry New England sense of humor, about the pitch someone rocketed foul in the middle innings. But mostly he went out and caught pitch after pitch, hour after hour, day after day.
"He taught me to appreciate everyone around me," Rachele said. "He taught me to believe I can do anything I want to do, but to be wise enough to know that I need the people around me to make it possible."
It wasn't long until the girl from Connecticut was on the wish lists of even the most blue-blooded programs. All of which are located far from the Connecticut coast where she lived.
"When you've been close to someone for so long, when some distance is put between you, you realize really how much you really love someone," Ralph said. "I call her as often as I can. We text quite a bit. But I definitely miss her."
As often as possible, and more often than not, he has made the trip down to Baton Rouge or elsewhere on the road to watch her play. But should Rachele take the ball for fourth-seeded LSU against fifth-seeded Georgia in the SEC quarterfinals, an assignment not guaranteed but likely in an important game, he won't be on hand in Lexington, Ky., to watch. He will, as it happens, be back in Louisiana, undergoing surgery at a clinic to which he was introduced during the family's visits to see Rachele pitch. It's an effort, he said, that doctors hope will turn back the clock at least a little bit and buy him time.
Still a big man with big shoulders, a strong handshake and Yankee reserve, he feels the toll of the disease but doesn't wear many visible signs of it. It weighs on him. He knows it weighs on Rachele at times.
Still, it's softball, not cancer, that remains their bond.
"After the games, we go out to dinner, hang out and just be ourselves," Ralph said.
Five years was one estimate for what remained of a healthy life when Ralph was diagnosed. With the help of his oncologist in Connecticut, Dr. Jeffrey Orell, he's already doubled that. Last year, Ralph watched Rachele pitch a two-hitter for LSU to beat Missouri in the decisive third game of an NCAA tournament super regional. Then he headed to Oklahoma City to watch her pitch in the World Series.
"I always believed that I would be able to make it there, I always dreamed of making it there, but I was never sure if he would be able to be there watching me," Rachele said. "He has just been so strong. He fights every day, and he's just been such an inspiration to me. He's made it this far, and we've made it together."
They spent all those hours together on softball fields and in batting cages and backyards so that she might have a future in the sport. The results speak for themselves. Day after day, she also got to spend time with her dad, her friend and her catcher.
Those are the hours that matter most in the end.