The call of the northern shrike sounds exactly like the reverberation of an aluminum bat hitting a game ball. Not a practice ball with a soft squishy core, no, a hard softball, that ding, ding, ding immediately distinguishable when it rises from a ballfield in the spring. Softballs aren’t soft, I used to say defensively, often pulling up my sleeve or pantleg to show off my bruise of the week. I rebelled against the concept of femininity as soft, gentle, weak; I wanted to be seen as a tough, as strong, as an athlete in spite of my budding womanhood.

The best bruises left laces behind. They raised and purpled against a yellow field, garish beneath my pale skin. They came from line drives whizzing back to the pitcher’s circle, or from contact in the batters’ box, intentional or not, once I learned to lean in to the pitch, the impact, the pain.

Sometimes the bruises came from ricochet. Batting practice balls whipped back at me from the metal barn door I used as a backstop, the sharp shrillness of my practice bat still ringing in my ears as I flinched too slowly. Across the lake, the shrillness repeated in an erratic echo. I didn’t know it was the northern shrike at the time. In my mind, it was another girl taking batting practice. Another girl I had to outwork.

I started playing softball in the form of Neighborhood Club tee ball in my suburban Detroit hometown when I was five years old. Two years later, I switched to Little League—baseball, with the boys, as my town had yet to offer a girl’s league—and I played with them for three years until softball found its way to town. I had grown tired of spitting seeds and talking about cups by age ten, anyway. Besides, I had already heard of older girls still playing Little League baseball who weren’t permitted past a certain level, who would be forced to switch to softball once they got to high school. I was a shy child and wanted to be with my own kind. I wanted to play softball.

My switch was somewhat foreshadowed by a batting practice accident: as my dad threw soft toss for me, I somehow took my own aluminum bat to the teeth. I don’t remember crying. My gums bruised and swelled, but my newly-grown adult teeth stayed intact. Dad told me not to tell Mom and screwed a metal cage onto my helmet to protect my face. 

I kept that cage through Little League softball, All-Star tournaments, CYO teams where we knelt in church pews in uniform before team pictures or games, and the beginnings of travel ball. I learned during my childhood that on the field, I preferred to literally have the ball in my hands: to play first base, to catch, and then to pitch, where I excelled. 

I savored the control that came with commanding each play. When I pitched, I was never bored, unlike my baseball days in the outfield when I looked at birds flying overhead or sang the national anthem into my mitt, knowing I’d never use it to catch a ball out there—not at that level. On the mound, I controlled the speed of the game, the speed of each windmill motion, and as I learned to pitch, my swing went by the wayside. 

I swung a thirty-two-inch aluminum bat until my freshman year of high school, when I made the varsity squad as a starting pitcher. It wasn’t until I showed up for the first day of practice with my trusty bat and rubber cleats that I learned my equipment was inadequate next to my older teammates with their composite bats and metal cleats. I hadn’t known that my “ding bat,” as my teammates called it, didn’t fit with my six-foot-one frame. I had outgrown it. At the end of that season, my dad bought me a composite bat, a thirty-four-inch Louisville Slugger, its orange color a callback to my first plastic bats in the backyard.

That summer, I learned its nuances: turn the bat one-quarter turn after each swing, don’t hit with it in the cage or if it’s below fifty degrees, set it outside the dugout before each game so the umps can check it against the non-approved bat list. I hit soft toss with Dad against the barn door using a broomstick and golf ball-sized whiffle balls, hit BP off the machine with the speed maxed out at seventy and the distance shortened to thirty-six feet, equivalent to a baseball pitch over a hundred miles per hour. I lifted and ran ladders and wind sprints. I watched my body change as I chugged protein and packed on forty pounds of muscle, almost thirty percent of my bodyweight.

At home, watching the 2009 Home Run Derby, I felt my abs engage instinctively with each televised pitch, my hips twisting into the couch cushions as the pros knocked homer after homer out of the park. Just the sight of a ball alone made me spring into action.

My teammates became my closest friends, yet they only saw me outside of practice if they came to the cages with me—to practice more. I blamed the extra hours on being a pitcher, the need to devote more time to the game because I had more work to do than just hit and field, an only-child perfectionism with which I was well-acquainted by my teens. Secretly, though, softball made me feel special. The extra workouts made me feel like I was fulfilling my purpose. I learned to throw new breaking pitches and drew up situations to drill myself on strategy.

All along, my dad sat on an overturned bucket, ready to catch each pitch even though some left bruises—with laces—on his shins. All along, my dad fed the machine, despite the heat or my sour attitude or sore muscles. All along, my dad researched ways to help me succeed.

I became a better hitter than pitcher. I broke records in both at my high school and for the conference. On the field, I kept calm, watching birds when I stepped out of the batter’s box, knowing my third base coach would tell me to swing away.

To become the best, the sport became my identity. At school, I wore sweatpants and tournament t-shirts, my hair pulled back and face bare of makeup to further cement myself as an athlete—unless it was game day, when I painted my nails neon and wore mascara and sparkling headbands and bows in my hair, in case my photo was included in that week’s sports section. I watched the headlines for my own name and for those of my rivals, to see who else was working, who else was winning. Who else I had to outshine.

All along, I heard the shrike.

The bird’s name itself sounds like a baseball term, some sort of strike, as if the batter’s failure of the backwards K had its own name. In the sport with names and stats for everything, it wouldn’t be surprising if there was a term more condensed than called third strike or struck out looking, the act I learned young was unforgivable. Something like shirked strike. Shrike. 

The shrike’s call silences in the winter, when it is too cold to hit with composite bats and then finally too cold to hit outside without any contact feeling like a jolt of electricity. The birds themselves winter in warmer places like baseball players preparing for spring training. Their territory covers most of the United States, the country where the sport was invented and eventually evolved to be viewed as a sort of women’s baseball, despite the differences in field dimensions and strategy and play.

Whenever I heard the shrike and mistook it for another batter, I never thought of her as a possible friend, another girl working to improve her game. To me, that dinging bird always symbolized someone to beat.
Looking back now, I realize I ascribed to the patriarchy of athletics. I didn’t consider myself a feminist when I played. Perhaps I was the opposite. I was on the field to do my job and be the best. I believed my worth was based on skill or performance. Now, I understand that I had internalized society’s messaging that pits women against each other, and the competitive spirit bred and lauded by sports. 

In softball, there is no real professional stage. There is no Home Run Derby, no All-Star break, no flying south for spring training. A few professional leagues changed names and ownership, have tried and failed due to lack of funding or interest since the seventies. Even today, National Pro Fastpitch—founded in 2004—boasts only five teams, composed primarily of Team USA players or NCAA Division I national champions.

For now, the highest level is collegiate. Only five percent of high school softball players make it to the NCAA and once college ends, so do most softball careers. There are ways to keep playing—recreational fastpitch or beer league slowpitch—but most women hang up their cleats after they step off the college field.

When I signed my National Letter of Intent to play in the NCAA for Wayne State University, I somehow knew that I wouldn’t play all the way until my graduation. Even as I doodled “Warrior Softball 2012-2016” in my high school classes as a senior, I knew that I’d be done before 2016, whether by choice, injury, or by transferring to another program, where I’d cross out Wayne State’s mascot and doodle in a new one, still faceless.

On the field, I flinched at shadows of birds.

It took years to eliminate my competitive mindset, seasons of intramural sports like soccer and volleyball that I never played competitively, to get to the point where I could laugh off mistakes instead of internalizing them. I started coaching private lessons and gave the girls grace with water breaks and soft corrections, elements of the game I never grasped as a player. I learned to embrace the duality of femininity and athleticism, toughness and gentleness. The bruises faded and healed. On the way home from the gym, I caught myself watching passing birds through the windshield.

Five years after I stopped playing softball, I realized the dinging sound I heard all those years was a shrike. Down the wooded road, I heard it, ding ding ding through the trees. It haunted me like the ghost stories told around campfires, a casket chasing characters all the way home. It couldn’t be a bat. There was no way. There was no chance that it was that consistent, so frequent through the years, continuing after even I quit. How was she still out here, working, swinging, all these years after I stopped? How was she outworking me? Now, I was intrigued. Now, I wanted to be her friend.

I followed the sound up to the bare treetops. A small dark bird flitted above. This competition had been with myself, reborn every spring. Ding, it took wing, sailing, its flight pattern self-propelled and organic, nothing like that of a ball leaving a stadium. It didn’t arc. It soared.

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Amy Zaranek holds an MFA from Ashland University, where she is the managing editor of the Black Fork Review. Her writing has appeared in Yemassee Journal, matchbook, Line of Advanceand elsewhere. A former NCAA softball player, she now enjoys coaching high school softball and private hitting and pitching lessons. Visit her online at, or on Twitter at @amyzaranekwrite.