WARNER ROBINS, Ga. — The mother’s hands trembled as she scribbled in the scorebook on her lap. Her daughter’s team had just scored a run on a dust-cloud-raising slide into home plate.
“I’ve got chill bumps,” Elizabeth Deaton said.
It was only the first inning of Alabama’s Friday morning clash with the Georgia girls in the Little League Softball Southeastern Region Tournament.
But fans, like Deaton, they cheer for keeps.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” said Deaton, whose daughter, Haley, plays for the Phenix City squad, the Alabama state champs. “I’m constantly talking to her or the other players, trying not to get stressed out.”
From her front-row perch in the bleachers just to the right of the plate, Deaton chattered away, first to base runner Michaela Doan.
“Nice hit, Mich!”
Then to starting pitcher Katie Webb as she stepped into the batter’s box.
“Come on, Katie! Come on, Kate! Don’t chase no junk! Good eye! … Way to battle! Come on, babe!”
When Bama second baseman Whitley Pope came up, her father, Troy, who was seated in the front row beside Deaton, told her to “back up in the box, baby! There you go!”
And on the next pitch, go she did. Her roller to the pitcher ended up sailing past first on an errant throw and staked Bama to an early 2-1 lead.
The Alabama cheering section roared.
“You’re gonna have some great plays, and sometimes great plays will go in the other team’s favor,” Troy Pope said. “It’s an emotional roller coaster.”
So go the agonizing errors and the safe-at-home slides of the Little League postseason. In what can be a pressure cooker of joy and dejection, mamas and daddies cringe or clap with every pitch. They are part coach, part chorus of encouragement. They holler instructions. They sing praises. They chant war cries.
And, like Alabama pitcher Katie Webb’s mama, Leigh, a lot of the time they gnaw their fingernails. Or chain-chew sunflower seeds.
“It’s much more stressful when Katie’s pitching,” Leigh Webb said. “But, once they get between those white lines, it’s all on the child. There’s nothing a mother can do then.”
Alabama led 4-3 after three innings Friday.
Six rows up the bleachers between the plate and first base, Kellie Pope, Whitley’s mom, mentioned how “I can’t eat or drink until the game is over. I haven’t had breakfast or anything, I’m so sick to my stomach. I get too knotted up. My heart is beating out of my chest.”
Sitting beside her, Whitley’s grandma, Doris Thomas, said, “All I can tell you is it’s a lot of stress on us older folks.”
“And, yeah,” Whitley’s aunt, Linda McQuinn, added, “I have a heart problem.”
Two rows back, mom Sommer Jones, whose daughter, Payton Singletary, plays outfield and third base for the Phenix City crew, was on edge as the game crept into its final innings.
“I have to keep cheering,” she said. “If I quit cheering, I get nervous.”
“Just tell ’em you drink,” joked mom LaVerne Marble in the next row down.
Corey Jones, Payton’s stepdad, noticed some of the Bama backers trying to strike up one of their cheers.
“I’m sorry,” he said as the “Al-Uhh! Bam-Uhh!” chant waned. “I’m nervous.”
When the Alabama pitcher walked in the go-ahead run to give Georgia a 5-4 lead in the fourth inning, Corey Jones hollered, “You’re all right, kid! We’re all right!”
The Alabama side let out collective sighs and “Yeahs!” when its girls escaped the fourth without further damage.
“Whoooooo!” one fan shrieked.
“Can you tell?” Sommer Jones said. “We’re screamers.”
“We’re from Alabama,” her husband chimed in, “we have to be.”
LaVerne Marble, the mom in front of the Joneses in Row 7, clutched and fiddled with an empty water bottle. Another mom calls her “the instigator.” When umpires make questionable calls against their opponents, while opposing fans are venting their displeasure, she’ll shout, “Good call, ump!”
Sometimes, though, the action gets to be too much, and she gets frazzled.
“If I get real tense,” she said, “I get up and take a walk for an inning.”
The good and the bad times
But not this day. Her daughter, Sarah, and her teammates were locked in a back-and-forth duel with the defending world champs. LaVerne Marble groaned when Sarah, who’d reached first base bearing the potential tying run, was caught stealing on a close play at second for a pivotal first out in the bottom of the fourth.
“It’s exciting when it’s going good,” she said, “and it’s quiet and it sucks when it’s going bad. ... It’s hard to sleep at night with a game like this.”
Seated beside her, her husband, Tim, said she hollers enough for both of them.
“They’ve got enough coaches out there,” he said. “I don’t need to coach from up here.”
Later, in the fifth inning, Bama still trailed 5-4.
With two out and the tying run at third, Sommer Jones’ daughter Payton strolled to the plate. She said Payton makes her coaches a nervous wreck.
“Because she’s so nonchalant,” Sommer Jones said.
As Payton, who wears No. 22, dug in at the plate, her mother clenched up.
“I can’t breathe,” she said before shouting, “Come on two-two, we need you!”
Three pitches later, Payton was down to her last strike.
“Deep breaths, you got it!” her mom yelled and then, quieter, added, “I’m about to throw up.”
Just then, strike three whistled past to end the inning. Row 8 fell silent.
It was still 5-4 when the bottom of the sixth and final frame began. No one much noticed, but a Georgia player’s parent had walked over near the Alabama section. She was standing up behind home plate, up near where some reporters were sitting. But she wasn’t snooping. Kristy Lamb was hiding. The pressure was too much. She’d had to leave her seat.
“I was about to throw up,” she said.
Her daughter, Avery, a lefty pitcher, had been called on in relief to try to secure a Robins win. Kristy Lamb held her hands to her mouth in a pose that was a cross between a prayer and a gasp. Her hands would still be jittery 10 minutes after the game.
She peeked at the action and, with each crucial out, found herself high-fiving total strangers.
After Avery fired strike three for the inning’s second out, the next batter slapped a tapper to the mound. Game over.
“Nothing fazes her,” Kristy Lamb said, “except us yelling at her.”
Filing out of the Alabama section, one mom in the Alabama section mentioned how the team might take in an afternoon movie. And there was talk of some of the moms getting together later to play a stress-relieving dance game on the Wii at their hotel.
LaVerne Marble was about to climb the stadium steps, bound for the parking lot.
She mustered a half-hearted grin.
“Now,” she said, “you know our pain.”