Like a lot of other coaches, Robert Rodriguez might get a little agitated about a botched call or a longer-than-expected drive to a field. But after more than 20 years in fastpitch, Rodriguez knows when something of true significance requires a response.
Coaching the 16u Lil’ Saints East out of Gilbert, Ariz., Rodriguez and his players took part Dec. 5-7 in Triple Crown’s Junior Holiday Toy Drive in the metro Phoenix area. In the days leading to the event, Rodriguez was told about the suicide of 15-year-old JJ Lipsman, who played for the 16u AZ Hotshots-Muniz squad, another team in the Saints’ division for the tourney.
On multiple fields at the event, JJ’s initials and her #8 were chalked in by the backstop, and the Saints began to offer a post-game prayer in her memory, joining hands and hearts with the opposition after each contest.
“Years ago, we had a girl playing for us – a good player, with a lot of difficulties at home. She ran away, came back, and her mom eventually died of a heart problem – so through that, when we pray as a team we talk about how some girls don’t have the opportunity to play, or lost it,” Rodriguez said. “We talk about how lucky we are to do this. So when my player told me about JJ, it really hit us. I know (the Hotshots), I’m friends with the coach, we’ve shared players. It’s just such an unfortunate event.
“We talk all the time that if I can’t help you in a situation, let me put you in touch with someone if you feel by yourself. It just hit us so hard. We just grabbed the team we played and said a prayer as a group, and we reiterated what I’ve always said, that it’s not about winning or losing, but about love and life.”
As the tournament went on, it turned out that the Saints and the Hotshots were to meet in the championship game. In a bit of welcomed normalcy, the two teams tangled just like any other day, even if a backdrop of sadness framed the occasion. The Hotshots prevailed, 6-3, and the teams assembled for the awards ceremony.
“The Hotshots played their hearts out. We didn’t like losing, but if we had to, that’s the team we could lose to,” Rodriguez said.
From the crowd, JJ’s father walked on the field and addressed Rodriguez, telling him he’d heard about the gestures made by the Saints throughout the tourney. The father said the support and consideration in his daughter’s memory was at least buffering some of the pain in an awful situation.
“Here was a selfless individual who had every right in the world to be mad at everyone right now, including God, for taking his prized possession, a child, and he was thanking me and hugging me for thinking of his family,” Rodriguez said. “It was the most emotional and unbelievable presentation I have been a part of — coaches, families, players, not a dry eye in the house. The look on those Hotshot players, the embraces between both teams … I am still speechless.
“I’ve got seven kids, and 11 grandchildren, and I cannot imagine losing a child. Meeting her father probably made me hurt more, but it made me feel a little bit better.”