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Monday, July 29, 2013
Megan Wiggins is NPF's brash Bandit

By Graham Hays
espnW.com

Megan Wiggins
A terrific center fielder, Megan Wiggins also leads the NPF in batting average and home runs and has helped carry the Bandits to first place.

Critics complain Megan Wiggins does things on a softball field that no other player does. Funny thing is, supporters say much the same thing.

One of the most compelling players in the sport at the moment seems content to live up to both descriptions.

"Running against the wind," her dad calls her particular approach to life. For the outfielder in her third season with the Chicago Bandits, the path of most resistance helped her become one of the best all-around players in softball. And it's why she is a polarizing personality within the game. People don't just watch Wiggins; they react to her, one way or another.

"I just think as an athlete or just me in general, I don't like to do what everybody else does," Wiggins said. "I don't like to try what everybody else has already tried. You have to do the unexpected. I think that makes people better athletes and better ballplayers when they do things other people haven't, or at least they set their goals to."

One of the best rivalries in women's sports, if also one of its most unsung, renews this week with a four-game series between National Pro Fastpitch's Chicago Bandits and USSSA Pride. (ESPN3 will show Tuesday's doubleheader, with the first game scheduled for 5:30 p.m. ET.) The two teams that played for the past three championships, splitting the first two before the most recent was rained out, are again atop the standings.

Megan Wiggins
Megan Wiggins also plays in the Japanese professional league, part of her goal of attempting to become the world's best player.

The Pride are the league's glamour franchise, the roster of the Florida-based team full of former Olympians like Cat Osterman and recent college stars like Keilani Ricketts. Yet it's the Bandits who are closing in on the No. 1 seed in the upcoming playoffs and the automatic berth into the championship series that brings under a new playoff format. One big reason for that success is, as it has been for years, pitching ace Monica Abbott. If she hasn't already inched ahead of Osterman and Japanese star Yukiko Ueno as the best pitcher in the world, she is at worst on level footing with them. Abbott makes the Bandits at least the equal of any team when she's in the circle. But it's more than that. As much as the Pride have the edge in overall star power, the Bandits may have the NPF's most influential hitter in addition to its best pitcher.

Entering Sunday's series opener against the Pride, Wiggins led the NPF in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and home runs and ranked second in RBIs, runs scored and stolen bases. All of that as a leadoff hitter who also excels in center field. In the most recent season in the Japanese professional league, she led that circuit in batting average, tied for first in home runs and made its all-league team.

"She's the whole package," said the Pride's Kristyn Sandberg. "She brings everything to the table all the time."

It's her table manners that create debate. Her demeanor on the field doesn't just straddle the line between confidence and cockiness but leaps over it and dares anyone to cite her for trespassing. There is nothing left in reserve, either in effort or exuberance. She smirks, she talks and she celebrates plays with all the restraint of a soccer player after scoring a goal. As a result, she rubs plenty of people the wrong way.

Now a professional rival, Sandberg was Wiggins' teammate at the University of Georgia. Between the Pride and her role this past season as an assistant coach at old SEC rival LSU, Sandberg is no stranger to the questions that come from those around her who so often played against Wiggins. Namely, just what is her deal?

"She rubs them the wrong way because she's cocky out there," Sandberg said. "But I feel like there's a part of you as a ballplayer that has to play with a little bit of cockiness to you, have confidence in your ability. At the same time, there are people who have asked how she is. I just try to explain to them that she's one of the nicest people I've ever met.

"She's going to do anything to win a ballgame, and she's going to do anything she can for you as a friend, personally."

One of the best illustrations of the wrench Wiggins throws into the normal narrative of softball star decorum came in a game between the Bandits and Pride a summer ago. Wiggins and Pride pitcher Danielle Lawrie had a history written in hit-by-pitches that went back as far as their college days at Georgia and Washington, respectively. When Wiggins was again hit by a pitch a few innings after she hit a home run off Lawrie, the batter's second home run of the game, tempers boiled over. There was no brawl, but Wiggins took several steps toward the pitching circle, voiced her displeasure and kept talking as other players interceded.

It was the kind of scene that plays out almost weekly in Major League Baseball and one in which suspensions were neither delivered nor deserved. But it was out of the ordinary for professional softball. And in a league that relies on kids and families for its ticket-buying base, it wasn't a scene likely to encourage repeat business. Not that Wiggins backed down after the game any more than she had on the field.

"These are our bodies that we're dealing with," Wiggins said at the time. "This is what we do. This is what we love. This is my life, if that's fair to say. So I'm going to do what I have to do whenever I feel it's necessary. ... Emotion runs high, passion flows over. Sometimes those situations might not be ideal for kids to see, but when they grow up, they're going to be in the same situations, and those are just the decisions you make or don't make. But like I said, that's just what I felt necessary. Right or wrong, I'll stand by it tomorrow."

Former University of Alabama standout Whitney Larsen was one of those opponents who got a full dose of Wiggins in the SEC. Now retired, she was also Wiggins' teammate on the Bandits last summer.

"She had a different presence about her, a different demeanor that you've never really seen on any other softball player," Larsen said of her earliest impressions. "I think it's something that softball needs. I think you need to see more females with that swagger and that confidence. As females, we're taught to be proper to be 'Yes, ma'am; no, sir' and be polite. But at the same time, when you step between the lines, there is a different pseudo-character that needs to come out sometimes."

If Wiggins is brash, that should not be confused with her having a lack of respect for her craft. She talks about hitting the way a mechanic talks about an engine. When the Bandits asked Larsen to play the outfield, it was Wiggins who worked with her on the details of the position. Knowing Japanese teams are constrained in the number of foreign players they can sign, which often means they limit their American imports to pitchers and the catchers who can communicate with them, she figured she would catch. Whatever it took to get the gig. (Now in her second season with the Denso team, she fortunately remains an outfielder there, too.)

She is serious about softball, and she plays it about as well as anyone. As much as the Bandits are Abbott's team, they also follow the lead of someone whose fame has not yet caught up to her game.

"She's an offensive catalyst, and at the same time, she's well respected by everyone on the team, regardless of how old she is," Larsen said. "That was probably the most fascinating thing to me was that even in her sophomore season for the Bandits, everyone just respected the heck out of her because of the way she was a competitor and the way she did things the right way on the field and the way she put in the extra effort and extra work."

The almost year-round cycle of Japan and NPF is one Wiggins would like to continue. Japan is a good paycheck, as she noted, but it's also the only way she's going to get the competition and full-time training necessary to be considered the best player in the world. It is a goal she embraces -- confidently.

The downside to Japan is it means time away from her two dogs, on whom she dotes. Two pit bulls, of course.

"I think it's they have a bad rap for their name and the type of dog they are," Wiggins said when asked what attracted her to that breed. "So I think it's almost like the type of person I am or the type of athlete I want to be. You want to prove to people that it's not what it seems. Even if there's a bad pit bull out there that not all pit bulls are bad. I wanted mine to be good. ...

"I think that's what it was because I don't really want a little fluffy, froufrou dog that everybody loves."

Not everybody loves Wiggins. That so many who get to know her seem so fond of her may tilt the scales in her favor in some minds. If not, she's going to keep going all the same. Right into the wind.