Travels with KU softball are limited. So many games played far from home. Those games fall in the midst of the critical basketball run to, and through, the NCAA championships. This year, I made a commitment to travel to an early season tournament so that pictures are available for our website until the team returns to Lawrence for the conference season. With the help of Laura covering events on the home court, this year’s trip happened to be to Miami.
For those that know me, it is important for me say, no, I never saw the beach. No swimming in the ocean. Our hotel had no South Beach vibe, just a location that put us directly in the line of jets on final approach to Miami International, with the feel of planes landing in my room on the top floor. However, that seemed to be the only threatening cloud on what was an otherwise great trip.
All the players and staff were so appreciative of my coming along that it was a pleasure to be with them. The Florida International University field was simple but offered good shooting vantage points. It was warm and wonderfully sunny. KU rolled through their first four games with veterans playing well and newcomers showing great promise. As the team warmed up for the championship game against North Carolina State Sunday, the mood was light and all seemed right in the world.
Then it rained.
On a day when local forecasters predicted no chance of precipitation, a dark cloud suddenly appeared. It began to sprinkle, and then pour, right before the first pitch. As quickly as the rain came, it disappeared. Remember, it is Florida. Thirty minutes after the first drops, the teams took to the diamond again. Yet, something just was not the same.
After a strong first inning, KU’s bats went cold. North Carolina State, run-ruled 8-0 in the tournament’s first game by KU, battled back. Their pitcher, throwing her fifth game of the weekend, looked stronger and stronger. Suddenly, the game was over and KU was a 3-2 loser. Disappointing, but not devastating for the first weekend of the long season. It was time to fly home.
Then it really rained.
Spreading out at the gate of our Delta flight to Atlanta, players ate, worked on homework, and checked their e-mail. They were even treated with a trip to Starbucks. Everything was returning to normal as early boarding announcements began. That is when the next big cloud rolled in. This one would not roll through any time soon.
The agent announced a “gate delay.” Everyone sat down for what turned out to be a long wait. Thunderstorms in Atlanta shut down all flights in and out of the busiest airport in the world. Checking my RadarScope app, a boiling blood-red blob centered itself directly over Atlanta, as though the southern city was burning to the ground again in a Gone With The Wind remake. Even though we were not going anywhere, no one else was going anywhere either, to or from Atlanta. As we finally lifted off after a long delay, the hour we had between connections did not seem to matter. Surely, our flight to Kansas City would be just as late.
The wonders of today’s communicative world allowed Laura to track the flight from home in Topeka. No sooner did we land than a text message appeared informing me our flight to Kansas City was presently boarding. As our jet slowly made its way to our gate, Laura continued to inform me that we would have to hustle from terminal A to terminal B. That meant a train trip added to our already tight connection. Keeping everyone informed, Laura’s next text was a death-blow to our chances. As we docked with the walkway, she called to say, “Your plane just took off.”
Air travel is rarely fun, even alone. Add 29 others to your group, along with a plane belly full of equipment bags and personal bags, and reality sets in fast. Our KC flight was surely a terminating flight for the night and should have been held for that many passengers. The harsh reality was that pulling all the KU gear off a plane and hustling it to another plane at another terminal just was never going to happen on this stormy night.
It really did not matter anyway for we soon learned all our luggage would be unavailable. We now had to spend a night in Atlanta with just what we carried on board. For me, that was my cameras and computer. For many of the players, that meant no medications, no contact lens solution and, yes, no makeup. I quickly found an out-of-the-way corner with a row of empty seats. I tested what it felt like to lay across the chairs in case we had to sleep in the airport. A huddle of coaches, the softball director of operations and a Delta Airlines agent busied trying to plot a strategy for such a large group.
Now the fun began, the sort of fun that makes any trip with a team worth the effort. As crazy as this sounds, watching the players braid each other’s hair was fascinating. The long wait to discover we were going to a hotel, if ever so briefly, passed quickly thanks to the entertainment. As we waited for our hotel’s shuttle bus under an awning, a group of players gathered in a circle and began to sing. Even Alex Jones, the spirited right fielder whose voice was already a rasp after one tournament, joined in to add a deep bass line to the harmonies. With a steady misty rain falling and steam pouring from their mouths with every note, only a fire in a metal trash can was missing from making this a classic New York City street scene of a humble singing act soon bound for stardom. With no shuttle in sight and managers now pushing each other through the crowd on luggage carts, the time came for the coaching staff to slip cash to two other hotel shuttles to get us to our destination.
By now it was close to 1:30 in the morning. One group of players and some of the staff, including me, would be leaving again in just hours. We each held in our hands a “survival kit.” Besides the miniature toiletries, it contained what one player the next morning called “the sheerest t-shirt I’ve ever worn in my life.” The faces were long and drawn as we returned to the airport, boarded our flight and then sat on the plane through another 80 minute delay for the replacement of “a box.”
We finally did make it home, but there still was no hope for our luggage. Even the second group, flying out later that afternoon, went bagless. My suitcase finally arrived on Tuesday morning. Opening it, I found many items soaked after what surely was time sitting on the tarmac. What a mess, but I had to laugh.
Remember I told you. It rained.