A week in softball that began with protest and the apparent demise of a star-studded team will end with the birth of a new team and hope for a summer of change.
Days after all 18 members of the Scrap Yard Dawgs professional softball team walked off the job following the opening game of their summer schedule, protesting a since-deleted tweet by the team's general manager, multiple players confirmed to ESPN that they will return to the field Saturday night in Florida as a new team called This Is Us.
Making good on their vows to never again play for Texas-based Scrap Yard, all 18 players this week formed This Is Us. The new team is still a work in progress but hopes to use a donation-based financial model to be able to play the bulk of what were originally scheduled to be more than 25 games against the USSSA Pride.
The new team's mission statement says it is "here to spark a necessary change in the softball community, gaining and sharing knowledge about racial injustice in our world."
Same players. The same opponent on the same field. But a new purpose.
In the since-deleted tweet that ignited the controversy, Scrap Yard GM Connie May tweeted a photo of the team's players standing during the national anthem and tagged President Trump, a frequent critic of those who protest police brutality and systemic oppression during the anthem. Kelsey Stewart, one of the few Black athletes on both Scrap Yard and Team USA, said she felt as though May took her voice away. Kiki Stokes, the only other Black player on Scrap Yard, was the first to walk out of a postgame meeting with May in frustration. All of her teammates followed.
In the moment, many felt they were done with softball for the summer. But beginning with a lengthy meeting among players the same night and continuing through numerous meetings in the days that followed, the idea of continuing to play for themselves gained traction.
"Playing would be really powerful, taking that control back that was taken away from us," infielder Sam Fischer said of the decision to relaunch. "Everybody was pretty much on board immediately about wanting to play, so it was about what does that look like and how does it happen?"
This Is Us and USSSA will play what amounts to the second game of the series Saturday. It will be mostly business as usual from the softball side, with uniforms assembled from donations from equipment companies that reached out this week. Video messages from players will play on the scoreboard and the online stream to explain their situation. And in a further nod to the events of the past week for them, as well as events nationwide in more than a month since George Floyd's death, Fischer will emcee a panel discussion with teammates after the game about the events of the past week and what the new venture hopes to accomplish.
Beyond that is still a work in progress. Sunday will tentatively remain an off day as originally scheduled, and the two teams might then continue with games Monday and Tuesday. Fans will be allowed to attend Saturday's game, despite the coronavirus pandemic.
While the original summer schedule featured games split between the Pride's home base in Florida and Scrap Yard's base in the Houston area, USSSA general manager Donny DeDonatis told ESPN that the most likely option now was to play all of the games at his organization's sports complex -- unless an interested third party approached about playing some portion of the games elsewhere. The Pride will assist This Is Us players with housing and incidentals such as rental cars and per diem, benefits they already provide for their own players. Several former Scrap Yard staff members, including coach Michael Steuerwald, remain with This Is Us.
DeDonatis said he had some limited contact with Scrap Yard management this week, mostly text messages. He characterized them as supportive when it came to working out logistical details but indicated there was no conversation about Monday's precipitating incident.
Multiple players said Friday they had not heard from May. While some players came directly to Florida for the opening series, others will need to return to Texas at some point to collect cars or other belongings. No one ESPN spoke to expected additional paychecks from Scrap Yard (professional softball players are also generally responsible for their own health insurance, unless young enough to remain on their parents' insurance).
And while professional softball didn't offer riches, Scrap Yard was about the most lucrative of the limited options short of going overseas to play in Japan.
"Enough to pay the bills," Haylie McCleney said earlier this week. "But at the end of the day, I'll figure something else out. This is way bigger than our income, it's way bigger than money. It's way bigger than anything really. This is the most important thing on all of our minds right now."
Fischer described the past week as exhausting, both in terms of emotions rubbed raw and the logistical checklist necessary to swap team identities. But she said she also saw a unanimity of purpose among the players. A former minor league baseball player himself, DeDonatis saw that when he visited the former Scrap Yard players as their deliberations stretched deep into Monday night after the disastrous opening game. They were already working on what came after the protest.
"It's always easy to stay silent in uncomfortable situations," DeDonatis said. "When you're not sure, you don't want to misspeak and come across in a negative manner. I just think from my experiences, I think that's a lot of what goes on in team athletics. We just assume things about our teammates of whatever ethnicity, just because when we're all together, we're working toward one goal. In my experience, it seems like those tough conversations get avoided.
"The good thing that I've seen this week is these constructive, difficult, uncomfortable conversations starting to happen -- amongst these female athletes and really just generally."
The product of those conversations will be back on the field Saturday.