After her superb college softball career, Callista Balko turned pro, moved to Washington, D.C., and discovered that her life — "14 years of softball, my whole life," she says, smiling — would never be the same.
Unless you are Jennie Finch, there is no softball after softball. Not really.
You can't play in the major leagues because there are no major leagues. The Olympics? History. You can't coach in the minors, move to the broadcast booth, become a scout or live off your signing bonus.
"When I played for the Washington Glory, I was paid $4,500 over three months," the former Canyon del Oro High School and UA catcher says now. "The owner was going broke and we didn't get paid on time. Sometimes it was hell. After a month, I had to threaten the owner; I told him that if I didn't get paid, I was going home."
So Balko came home, completed her UA degree (history), worked as an intern in the school's athletic department and plunged into the real world.
"Everyone has a hard time adjusting," she says. "After a year or so, your name dies a little bit, your softball identity sort of slips away. You wonder: What will I do?"
A handful of those who have helped Mike Candrea win eight NCAA championships have found softball-related careers. Lety Pineda, Debby Day and Julie Standering are college coaches. Earlier this week, 2006 national championship pitcher Alicia Hollowell accepted a position as pitching coach at UC-Davis.
But mostly, given last week's elimination of softball as an Olympic sport, there is no big rainbow to chase.
Now, a few days before fall semester at the UA, Balko, the ex-player, finds herself back in softball in an entirely new role. She is the lead instructor for The Next Level Softball Academy on Romero Road. It is a union that seems to have been preordained.
While earning spending money during her UA career, Balko periodically worked part time at softball clinics. One day, by chance, she gave a lesson to 9-year-old Brenna Griesser, granddaughter of former USA Olympic outfielder Dick Griesser, a 1958 Arizona All-American.
Griesser's son, Rich, who had worked as a CFO for a credit union corporation, and on the business side of a prominent hotel-resort chain, was struck by Balko's ability to relate to the young softball players.
"Cali has a gift working with kids," Griesser says now. "Her work with Brenna really stuck with me. I thought she needed to share that gift."
So after doing diligent research of the market, Griesser quit his day job, leased a large warehouse on Romero Road, had the place retrofitted for softball, and on Saturday will open for business.
Balko's staff includes former Wildcat teammates Jen Martinez, Danielle Rodriguez and Jessica McNamara. The facility seems overdue in Pima County, which is one of the most vibrant and productive youth softball areas in the world.
"This market, a niche for softball training, is virtually untapped for age-group softball," says Griesser, a former standout baseball player at Flowing Wells High School. "At night, it is almost impossible to find an available softball facility in Tucson. We have five indoor pitching lanes, five indoor hitting lanes. We have a retail area. We're planning to have an infield installed on the property. We have all the bling."
Compare that to Balko's days as an age-group catcher/shortstop. Her parents drove her to speed-and-agility training at the UA. They transported her to Sahuarita to take hitting instruction from former UA All-American shortstop Laura Espinoza. Balko was heavily involved in softball from the time she was 8. Bobby Sox. AAU travel teams. A high school state championship career. A national championship career at Arizona. She "retired" at 22, but that word doesn't apply.
Balko suspects her history degree won't be put to use now; her work schedule is imposing: lessons and instruction from 3 to 9 p.m., five days a week. It is an ambitious business plan for an ambitious softball community.
"What I want to do is help younger girls the way coach Candrea helped me," Balko says. "Once I got to the pro fast-pitch league, I actually felt like I was getting worse. I didn't feel challenged the way I did with coach Candrea. The training level dipped. It was very obvious that he didn't prepare us just to play softball, but to become disciplined and to challenge ourselves. That's why I'm going to be an instructor here: I want to share the lessons I learned at the UA."
Balko doesn't plan to teach softball forever. She is eager to see what life is like in, say, Southern California. She is eager to see life from the other side of a catcher's mask.
But for now, softball continues to provide a way of life for someone who has rarely known another.