Christina Taylor Green had courage to swing

On Jan. 8, 2011, an unmasked shooter shot 19 people, six of them fatally, outside a Safeway supermarket north of Tucson, Ariz. Kathryn Bertine, a Tucson-based elite cyclist and journalist, reports on the life and legacy of one of the victims, 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green.

As a female athlete and a resident of Tucson, Ariz., the tragedy of the massacre that took place on Jan. 8, 2011, hit close to home in many aspects. Tucson likes to pretend it's a big city, but those of us who live here know the truth. We're a guppy of a metropolis, and we like it that way. We're a small yet sprawling town of involved citizens, often interconnected to other residents by just one degree of separation. Or fewer. Six days before that fateful Saturday, I was called to jury duty under the Hon. John Roll, the federal judge killed in the shooting. His demeanor removed any sense of unease or tension from the courtroom, and he seemed a kind and caring man. I teach journalism classes at Pima Community College, where the gunman attended school. Unlike that troubled soul, my students are thoughtful, diligent and eager to learn. I am on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' e-mail Listserv, through which she has regularly asked her constituents how she can make our city better. Her concern and love for Tucson is evident; it transcends partisan lines.

Kathryn Bertine/Special to espnW

A sign from Christina Taylor Green's Little League team, the Pirates, is a part of a a small makeshift shrine at Mesa Verde Elementary School.

And then there is Christina Taylor Green, the youngest victim in the shooting, a 9-year-old child with whom I've never crossed paths, yet with whom I feel a deep connection. This little girl was an athlete, and the bond between female athletes is a quiet, connective thread of respect that ties all its participants together. When I learned Christina was both a dancer and a baseball player, I saw in her a shadow of myself as a young athlete (and, frankly, as an older one). I'm currently an elite cyclist, shooting for one last chance at Olympic possibility. But I never would have gotten to this level if my love of sports hadn't taken root in childhood, at around Christina's age. Her smile in her Little League team photo portrays the soul of an athlete: Here was a little girl who simply loved to play.

According to her coaches at the Canyon del Oro Little League organization, Christina was not just a participant. She was a baseball enthusiast, a leader on the field and off, and a competitor who held her own against the physicality that comes with playing on a boys' team. She was also born into the game, the daughter of Los Angeles Dodgers scout John Green and the granddaughter of Dallas Green, who managed the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies to the World Series title.

"What Christina exemplified in the baseball arena were the core characteristics we all hope our players will gain from Little League Baseball; character, courage and loyalty," read a statement by the Canyon Del Oro Little League.

Christina's father coached her Little League team, and that of her 11-year-old brother, Dallas. But it was another coach of Christina's team, the Pirates, who, through the Canyon del Oro Little League website, shared a memory of Christina's tenacity as an athlete.

Kathryn Bertine/Special to espnW

The Pirates hung a baseball cap commemorating their fallen teammate.

"Christina was not short on courage," he wrote. "She played in a baseball league with boys who were strong and fast, but she never once was fazed about being the only girl on the team in 2010. Nor did a hard-hit ball or a whizzing fastball intimidate her. She had the courage to play every position on the field.

"In one particular game, Christina was having a quality at-bat, seeing the ball well and fouling several balls off. After six or seven pitches, the pitcher accidentally let a fastball go that plunked her pretty good. After picking herself up and dusting herself off, Christina was given the choice to take first base or to finish her at-bat, based on loose instructional league rules. With a slight grimace on her face, but without hesitation, she replied, 'I want to hit.' And hit she did. Her tenacious spirit was pumped up, and she drove a hard-hit ball on the next pitch. Courage was just part of who she was."

As is the case with most exceptional athletes, a life in balance was the key to Christina's happiness. "She was so engaged in everything," her coach wrote. "She was always giving her best and excelling, but she still was capable of being a little girl … wanting to play for the sake of play, climbing the mesquite tree at the park with the rest of the team after practice while parents and coaches talked, laughing at silly jokes … she was a rock star in so many ways, but also a beautiful little girl."

On Saturday morning, at the time the tragedy was unfolding on the northwest side of Tucson, I was with a small herd of elite cyclists on a training ride we call "The Shootout." The name is a reference to the tough old ways of the Wild West, as well as an accurate portrayal of how hard the training ride feels, physically. Once the group rolls out to the outskirts of Tucson, it is every man for himself, as the pace revs up to a most incredibly challenging speed. We lose cyclists along the way; as the pace increases, many drop back. I hold on for as long as I can through the 60-mile test across the rural landscape of southwest Tucson. This ride is essential to my training for a shot at the 2012 Olympics.

On Saturday, I was one of two or three women out of 120 total cyclists who show up on The Shootout. The male cyclists accept my presence, and I'm grateful for how far we've come in society. Thirty or forty years ago, this might not have been the case. I'm grateful to the Billie Jean Kings, the Kathrine Switzers, the "Tubby" Johnstons (the first woman to play Little League) and the Title IX-ers who helped pave the way for the acceptance of female athletes in sports once dominated by men. I often wondered what it was like for kids in the current generation coming up through the sports world, and whether they felt the prejudices of the past.

Kathryn Bertine/Special to espnW

Christina was a dancer as well as a baseball player. She was enrolled in a class at the Creative Dance Arts academy in Tucson. Many of the dancers signed a decorated toe shoe that is hanging at her elementary school.

As it turns out, girls like Christina Taylor Green are a new generation of ambassadors in sport. They not only participate in sports with withering boundaries of gender bias (like baseball), but they're setting newer, bigger goals. In 2010, the registered number of Little League participants in America was 2.7 million children under the age of 18. Of that total, 1,617,000 were 5- to 9-year-olds. And 163,000 were little girls like Christina Taylor Green, who played mostly on teams comprised of boys. Shortly before her death, Christina told her father she wanted to be the first woman to play in Major League Baseball. While Christina was robbed of this dream for herself, there is comfort to be found in the immortality of the athletic spirit. She has helped lay the groundwork for other little girls to carry on her dream. Such is the beauty of being a female athlete. Generation by generation, we shape our sports, our games and our competition to rise to a new level of excellence. In her brief nine years, Christina Taylor Green both upheld and continued an athletic legacy, whether she knew it or not. The members of her Little League baseball team are boys who will grow up to believe girls playing baseball is as normal as guys playing baseball. Those boys will become men who teach their children the same values. Someday there will be a woman in the majors -- it's a question of when, not if -- and Christina's dream will come full circle for a different female Little League player.

On the way home from my Saturday slugfest of a cycling workout, a friend pulled out his phone. There was a text message advising everyone to avoid Oracle Road. A congresswoman has been shot; several people were dead; chaos reigned. By the time we arrived back at our homes, news of the day's events was all over the television. As Christina's story was unfolding, I couldn't help wondering if our paths had ever crossed. I have cycled past her northwest Tucson ball field hundreds of times. Surely she had seen cyclists pass by the windows of her parents' car en route to Little League practice.

Despite a nearly 30-year age gap and the fact we've never met, Christina's death hit me hard. We were two athletes going about our lives, with very different sports goals stemming from exactly the same foundation. We were playing for the sake of play, and to see if maybe, just maybe, we could make the big leagues of our sport. Though she can no longer chase her dream, she's given me a newfound strength and inspiration to chase mine. And as all female athletes know, inspiration is how we leave our mark on the world.

While the loss of Christina Taylor Green is an unfathomable tragedy for our country and our small city of Tucson, her legacy as an athlete does not have to end with the end of her short life. We can honor her life by encouraging girls to play sports, to get involved in class politics, to volunteer their time, to dream of major league debuts and local dance recitals. And when faced with society's equivalent of wild pitches, we can give these girls the courage to swing for the fences. Just like Christina did.

Kathryn Bertine is the author of two sports memoirs, "As Good As Gold" (ESPN) and "All The Sundays Yet to Come" (Little, Brown). She can be reached via her website, www.kathrynbertine.com.

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