Softball opens the whole world for Alissa Haber

Courtesy of Alissa Haber

Alissa Haber has made the most of her time in Japan, touring the country's sites and taking in the local culture.

For a stretch in the summer of 2010, Alissa Haber may have been the best softball hitter on the planet. And she was all of 22 years old.

Two years later, as she sips tea on a quiet Sunday night in her apartment in the small city of Toon in Japan's Ehime prefecture and takes a break from putting together a lesson plan for the English language classes she will teach that week, she is literally a world away from those exploits. Still just 24, she is an expatriate and an ex-softball player, content to leave unknown what heights she might have reached on the field in the years to come because of all she wants to know about the people and places beyond the batter's box.

Haber never sought a world with borders defined by softball. The game nevertheless gave her a globe to explore.

An All-American outfielder for Stanford during a college career that closed in the spring of 2010, Haber truly came into her own the summer after graduation as a member of the United States team that won gold in the ISF World Championship in Venezuela. A newcomer sharing the lineup card with many of the sport's biggest names, veteran hitters like Caitlin Lowe, Jessica Mendoza and Natasha Watley, she was the best player on the field. In what has to rank as one of the best individual performances of all time in a major international tournament, Haber hit .615 (16-for-26) with 20 RBIs, a world championship record, seven doubles and a triple in nine starts.

"For her, it was just a matter of getting comfortable, and she did and she ran with it," said Cat Osterman, a teammate in that tournament. "I think the exciting part was we knew how locked in she was, so any time she was up, we were waiting to see what was the next big thing she was going to do."

The performance earned her athlete-of-the-month honors from the United States Olympic Committee. Second place in the voting? Serena Williams, who happened to be in the midst of a fourth Wimbledon championship.

Haber's numbers in that tournament weren't some outlier. The summer before Venezuela, she hit .643 for Team USA in the world cup and was one of the team's most consistent run producers across a number of events. Playing professionally for National Pro Fastpitch's USSSA Pride in 2011 after earning her master's degree in English from Stanford, Haber hit .333 when the league batting average for the season was just .240. As much as numbers, the sound made by bat and ball when she lined a hit into the gap, like a bass drum amidst a bunch of bongos, provided almost all the résumé she needed.

AP Photo/Nati Harnik

Haber won a world championship with Team USA in 2010 and hit .615 with 20 RBIs.

But even during the best run of her life, the person most unsure that she was really the right character for the role was Haber herself.

"That summer of 2010, where I kind of just was hitting outside of myself for a couple of months, it was great, but I told this to some of my teammates on the Pride, it was always just so surreal," Haber explained. "It was always just kind of like I was dreaming. And I had this complex for the longest time, I was like, 'What am I doing here?'

"I was so paranoid that one day I'm going to show up to practice and they're going to be like 'Oh, we found out that you actually aren't that good at softball, so please go home.' So I always had a contingency plan, just in case they finally decide that I'm not good enough."

There is modesty there, some self-deprecating humor, as well. There is also sincerity. Indeed, the experience that reveals most about her came with Team USA, but it had to do with intellectual curiosity, not athletic excellence.

Haber played on junior national teams that traveled to Europe and the Caribbean, but she made her first senior international appearance for the United States in 2009 on a team that went to the Japan Cup, a small four-team tournament in Sendai City in northern Japan, and returned again the following year to the same event. She grew up no more than 30 minutes from the Stanford campus, give or take Bay Area traffic, and outside of the two summers she spent playing professionally for the Florida-based Pride never lived farther from home than that short commute.

Before the first trip to Japan, she was apprehensive about straying so far from her California bubble, even for what amounted to a business trip. By the end of the second trip, as she put it, the whole world seemed livable.

"The people and the culture, it's just one of those things where it's definitely a culture shock, but it was the best kind of shock possible, I think, for me," Haber said of Japan. "It was just so different and yet the same. I felt really drawn to this place. Ever since then, I kind of always had in the back of my head that I wanted to be here."

It was still on something of a whim that she applied for the job when she learned of the opportunity to teach English to medical students at Ehime University, the equivalent of a sister school to Stanford. For one thing, she didn't speak a word of Japanese. For another, did we mention she didn't speak a word of Japanese? But when offered a one-year appointment that began in September of the past year, she couldn't help but accept.

One year after dominating the world championships, she retired from softball and started thinking about what a person needed to pack in order to pick up and move across the Pacific Ocean. Just how big a bottle of shampoo, she wondered, could she buy to last her for 12 months?

As opposed to the international trips that come with being part of a national team, when just about every movement and moment is planned and every arrangement taken care of by someone else, Haber didn't know until the day before she left for Japan by herself if someone would even be there to pick her up at the airport. After she arrived in country, her new boss dropped her off at what was to be her apartment, pointed her in the direction of the grocery store, gave her a train schedule and told Haber she would be back in a few days after a vacation.

Her boss reminded the new arrival to make sure she ate at some point. For good measure, a typhoon socked the area with torrential rains, Mother Nature's welcome less than subtle in its subtext.

"It was like survival," Haber said, laughing as she recalled those early days. "It was like can I go the whole day without embarrassing myself incredibly at every turn? … It was a lot of sitting in my apartment that didn't have Internet or cable yet and just wondering, 'What am I doing here? What am I going to do with my life? What am I going to do with my time?' It was so much me time."

There were all the bumps to be expected with the trial and error of settling in -- grocery stores in which none of the labeling makes any sense can lead to some surprising dinners. But after almost a year, she seems to have moved on from survival to soaking it in, to the point that she readily agreed to stay on for a second year. An English major at Stanford, Haber has chronicled many of her experiences on her blog, from the amusing (an encounter with chicken sashimi and her culinary nemesis, natto) to the profound (a survivor of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki asking to take her photograph when she visited that city's Peace Park). She is serious about her job, both the formal university classes with 30 students only a few years younger than her and the private lessons with everyone from small children to the septuagenarian parents of faculty, and guiltily laments how much she took for granted the effort her teachers put into lessons that inspired her. But the point of the entire endeavor was as much about her opportunity to learn as the chance to teach, to be student and sensei.

"She has such the explorer personality," Osterman said. "She wants to go read up on why everything works or why everything is the way it is, and she wants to share that."

Explore she has. She has been to the temples and has pictures to prove it, wedged herself into a Tokyo subway, biked 50 miles to Honshu, the largest of the country's four main islands, and learned the potency of sake (the hard way, if there is any other). She has sampled the surface of the culture because the surface is the only place to start. But her motivation isn't just to see; it's to understand. That takes more than travel. For all the wonders seen and warmth shown her, she is always aware she is an outsider, a gaijin.

"The way I think about it is I'm outside the room, and I can stand in the doorway or I can look in and I can talk to the people in the room, but I'm never actually allowed to come into the room," Haber said by way of analogy. "That's the hardest part, I think, is really trying to find the heart of Japanese people, what they really believe and what they really think."

One day a student in a private lesson told her about a softball team in the area, the student recounting how she excitedly told one of the players about this American star she knew. Haber went to check it out, expecting to find the equivalent of the slow-pitch, beer-league teams prevalent back home. Instead she found a fairly competitive weekend fast-pitch team, some of the players former professionals from the league that draws top American players to Japan. Members of the team ranged from young, single women about Haber's age to older women with families, a reasonable cross section of adult Japanese women. The same Sunday she spoke, she had been at the field from about 8 a.m. until 6 p.m., playing plenty of softball but also just sitting around with teammates, relaxing in the rhythms of day-to-day life in a way impossible to even the most intrepid tourist on a sightseeing trip.

"The deepest connection I have, the most intimate picture I've gotten of Japanese people, Japanese culture, the Japanese heart is from my softball teammates that don't speak English," Haber said. "We speak in gestures, we speak in [a Japanese-English hybrid] this broken language. And they're incredible. We just have such an amazing connection, and softball is such a big common denominator.

"I come here thinking I'm going to escape softball, and somehow it sniffs me out, like a drug dog."

About three months ago, during the rainy season and before she signed on for another year, Haber battled a particularly acute bout of homesickness. Unannounced, one of her new teammates showed up at her door with a large plate of sushi. By Haber's estimation, this person had driven about an hour to get there, but told the American to call her if she was lonely and they could go shopping.

One more time softball opened a door. Not the last one, not the one that reveals the answer to everything, but that's kind of the point.

Part of her misses playing at a level beyond weekend recreation. She stays in regular touch with her former teammates and calls herself the Pride's No. 1 fan in the Eastern Hemisphere. But for someone who used to regularly remind herself that softball was what she did, not who she was, every morning now brings new opportunity to seek out something she couldn't find with a bat in her hands, no matter how good she was with that instrument.

"It's just kind of nice to know that life doesn't begin and end with softball," Haber said. "It's nice to think that for so many years and then finally have the courage to see if that's true and find out, yes, I continued to breathe when I'm not on the softball field."

What comes after her second year in Japan is anyone's guess. All she knows is she's not yet ready to return home. France intrigues her. After all, she joked, at least she knows the language after eight years of study.

There is a lot of world out there for someone with the curiosity to explore it. And if a softball game breaks out somewhere along the way, well, she can probably still hit a little.

"I don't think Japan is going to be my only adventure," Haber said.

Osterman, her friend, said it best. When Haber is locked in, you just wait to see the next big thing she does.

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