ARGUABLY the most thrilling moment in recent sports memory occurred not on a baseball diamond, nor on the hardwood, ice, gridiron or oval of any of professional or college sports' legendary venues. It did not involve athletes of breathtaking skill who either already do or soon will earn millions of dollars to play games, hawk sneakers, and sign autographs.
Instead, this rare athletic feat took place on a small-college softball diamond in Ellensburg, Wash., where Central Washington's Wildcats were hosting the Western Oregon Wolves for a Senior Day doubleheader.
Western Oregon came into the day on a nine-game winning streak, leading their hosts by one game in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference standings. At stake was the league championship and an invitation to the NCAA Division II playoffs. The Wolves took the first game 8-1, meaning the Wildcats desperately needed a win in the second half of the doubleheader.
That was the situation when Wolves outfielder Sara Tucholsky stepped to the plate with two runners on base in the second inning of a scoreless game. Ms. Tucholsky, not much more than 5 feet, 2 inches in her cleats, was a career .153 hitter but after taking strike one she did something she'd never done before; not in a game, not in batting practice, not ever. She launched the next pitch out of the ballpark.
Ms. Tucholsky, a senior, watched the biggest hit of her college career soar over the center field fence as she rounded first, only to realize that she'd missed the bag. But as she pivoted to touch the base, her right leg buckled and she collapsed in pain between first and second. And there she lay - in tears with a torn knee ligament - as umpires and coaches discussed what to do. If her coach or a teammate touched her she'd be called out, wiping her accomplishment from the scorebook. The umpires could allow a pinch runner, but that would mean her hit would be recorded as a single.
That's when another voice broke in: "Excuse me, would it be OK if we carried her around and she touched each bag?"
The voice belonged to Central Washington first baseman Mallory Holtman, the greatest softball player in that school's history, according to the Oregonian newspaper.
The umpires conferred some more, then allowed that the rules did not prohibit players from the other team from helping her. So, Ms. Holtman and shortstop Liz Wallace picked up their injured opponent and began walking toward second.
At each bag they gently lowered Ms. Tucholsky so she could tag it with her uninjured left foot, and soon all three of them were giggling over the way they must look to the people in the stands. But by the time they got to home plate, all the fans were on their feet clapping, and many were crying, as was the entire Western Oregon team, which eventually won the game 4-2.
Afterward, Ms. Holtman told the New York Times that she made the offer because Ms. Tucholsky "deserved it."
"Anybody would have done it. I just beat them to it," she said.
A nice sentiment, but one we know is not true. Can any of us really imagine a similar scenario playing out at, for example, an Ohio State-Michigan football game? We're pretty sure the answer is no.
Sadly, few participants in any sport at any level would have done what Ms. Holtman did. But she did; that's what's important.
And with her extraordinary display of sportsmanship, she humbles us, reminding us of what sports are supposed to be about.
At its best, sports are not about winning at all costs but competing without reservation; it's not about whether you win or lose but how you win or lose.