Humbling experience

About the only thing Avery Barnes could do was shake his head. He hits for average and isn’t prone to taking a cut at a ball that’s out of the strike zone but what Stacey Nelson threw him Sunday afternoon at Katie Seashole Pressley Softball Stadium was absolutely wicked. When he began his swing at what would go down as strike two, the ball was 15 feet out, belt high and rising. The next sound he heard was the ball smacking the catcher’s mitt — a good foot or so above his head.

Barnes redeemed himself — sort of — on the next pitch. Nelson busted a breaking ball in on his fists and he made enough contact to send a slow dribbler down the third base line but it left him shaking his head because he couldn’t make good contact and his hands because they hurt.

“Give Stacey her due,” said Barnes, who hit .360 for Florida’s baseball team last year. “She’s a great pitcher. Hitting a softball is a whole different ball game than hitting a baseball. I’d much rather take my chances with someone throwing 90 miles an hour in the Southeastern Conference any day. It [softball] gets on top of you so quick because she’s got a great arm and throwing so much closer (43 feet) than a baseball mound (60 feet, six inches). Baseball is coming at you usually at a down angle and the softball is rising more. If I had to face that all the time, I’d probably struggle. I’ll stick to hitting a baseball.”

Barnes was one of the lucky ones. At least he made contact. Most of the assortment of athletes from Florida’s baseball, football, tennis, swimming and gymnastics teams missed and missed badly when they took their cuts against Florida’s first team All-American pitcher, who led the Gators to a runner-up finish at the College World Series. It was all part of the Swinging for Cancer Benefit to raise money for cancer research at Shands UF Cancer Hospital, an event that was also a reminder that Coach Tim Walton’s number one-ranked softball team will open its season Friday evening against Baylor.

Nelson gave up 10 foul balls and four balls hit on the ground to the infield by the UF athletes. Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan managed a foul ball and a bouncer to second base that was actually the best hit ball of the day. Baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan managed a couple of foul balls and Walton dribbled a couple of weak grounders down the third base line.

By the time the event was over, Nelson had earned a healthy dose of respect, particularly from the baseball team.

“They’ve been talking trash a very long time,” said Nelson, who went 47-5 with an 0.75 earned run average in 2008. “This was years in the making! They did good though. John Curtis (Florida football) put the bat on the ball twice. I was impressed with him.”

* * *

Melanie Sinclair, fresh off a perfect 10 Friday night for Florida’s gymnastics team, wanted to find out what it’s like to take a swing at a Stacey Nelson fast ball. It didn’t matter that she had never swung a bat in her life.

“Not even in gym class,” said Sinclair, listed at 4-10 although that might be generous.

Sinclair saw three pitches. She swung at two but didn’t even come close to contact even though Nelson was throwing about half-speed.

“I think I swung when I heard the ball hit the glove,” said Sinclair. “She throws so fast and that really got my adrenaline flowing. I was really excited but I think I need to stick to gymnastics. I can stick landings every day. I’ll never hit anything she throws.”

Nicola Willis, also from Florida’s gymnastics team, was perhaps the most amazed person in the ball park when she stuck the bat out and the ball miraculous made contact sending a dribbler up the middle.

“I’m rather proud of myself,” said Willis, who came to Florida from Great Britain. “I never swung a bat before. We had this thing called rounders where you use a little wooden bat. I did that in PE classes [back in Great Britain] but it’s nothing like softball. It’s a little scary standing in there and the ball comes at you so hard.”

* * *

Ahmad Black decided that he’d rather pick off passes against Oklahoma than try to get a hit off Nelson. Black, whose fourth quarter interception set up the game-sealing scoring drive in Florida’s 24-14 national championship game victory over Oklahoma, took three swings and got a foul ball on his third cut.

“Intercepting passes is a whole lot easier,” said Black, a sophomore from Lakeland who made second team All-Southeastern Conference after picking off seven passes in 2008. “You see the ball, you break on it.”

Black said the problem with making contact with Nelson’s pitches is seeing where the ball is coming from, a thought echoed by a number of athletes and coaches Sunday afternoon. Nelson throws with a compact but quick windmill motion and the ball looks like it’s been shot out of a gun when it leaves her hand — unless it’s a changeup, which is thrown with the same motion only at half-speed.

“You lose the ball somewhere in the windup,” said Black. “When you pick it up again, you’ve already started your swing and then it’s too late.”

Florida baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan missed badly on Nelson’s first delivery although he did foul a couple of pitches off.

“The first one I was kind of looking out there in center field and I couldn’t pick the ball up at all,” O’Sullivan said. “You see the ball up top and then next thing it’s right there on top of you almost before you can zero in. She let up on the next two and I got contact … a little mercy on her part. It’s kind of humbling, to tell you the truth because you really don’t have a lot of time to react.”

* * *

Billy Donovan had a bet with Nelson that he could at least foul a ball off. He did better than that. After missing badly on a fast ball below his knees, he hit a two-bouncer to second base that was struck better than any other ball all day.

“We had this little bet going and I told her I could at least tip the ball,” Donovan said. “I’m happy I got a little piece of it.”

Told that a gymnast had also hit an infield grounder, Donovan laughed and responded, “I’ll have to take that as a compliment.”

* * *

Wondy Pierre-Louis grew up in Haiti where soccer rules. He was introduced to American sports such as football and baseball when he came to the United States. At Naples Lely, Pierre-Louis tried all the sports before settling on football and track.

Wondy was one of the first football players to take his cuts against Nelson and after three swings and three misses, he decided that baseball is a much easier sport.

“I’m telling you man, baseball way more easier,” said Wondy, who will be a senior cornerback on Florida’s football team in the fall. “She probably throwing like 200 miles an hour. I just closed my eyes and swing. I didn’t see nothing. Nothing.”

He didn’t hit anything either.

* * *

Walton could only laugh while watching the baseball players struggle to pick up the ball and get a good rip against Nelson. He remembers all too well what it was like when he made the switch from coaching baseball to coaching softball 12 years ago. One of the first things he had to do was step in the batters box and see what he could do.

“I completely lost it,” said Walton. “I was expecting the ball to come out of her hand and it looked like it came out of her pocket. It’s a completely different visual experience for sure if you’ve been playing baseball.”

Softball is a completely different visual experience for fans, too. The Gators played before a full house their last 10-15 home games last season and Walton is hoping that carries over to this season.

“We’ve got great fans and we’re hoping we’ll make more this year,” he said. “All I can say is give us a chance. Come on out and watch us once. I think if you do, you’ll be hooked and you’ll be back.”

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.