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My summer experience hanging out in the dugout

Gary Caruso | Friday, August 27, 2010

As the semester begins, and before everyone settles into their routines, a window of opportunity exists whereby students offer themselves to new friendships. Their openness shows with the sparkling twinkles in their eyes. Soon that willingness to make new friendships withers as classes and homework consumes each day. But during the school year’s brief social introductory period of time, the most over-asked question surely is, “What did you do this summer?”

For me, the highlight of my summer came when I met avid baseball fan and Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor — less than a year after her confirmation — in a softball dugout for five innings during a cancer survivor’s charity game played by a bipartisan, bicameral team of female members of congress. Justice Sotomayor’s low-key arrival quickly turned into a pied-piper style walk to the dugout as well wishers greeted her and cell phone cameras frantically clicked. The energy around Sotomayor rippled like the wave along the bleachers as she made her way to the dugout.

Upon her entrance into the dugout where I served as one of the congresswomen’s coaches, senators and representatives alike swarmed for pictures and autographs. Republican house members who, if sitting in the senate at the time of Sotomayor’s confirmation, would have been bound by ideology to vote against her, respectfully requested photo ops and autographs with genuine graciousness. It was one of the rare moments in Washington when political affiliations were removed from an event, reminiscent of the pre-Gingrich political era.

Anyone who spent more than a minute with the justice would attest that Sotomayor’s infectious smile and down-to-earth demeanor were also genuine. Her gracious offering of as much time necessary to everyone who asked cemented my impression of her. National Public Radio personality Nina Totenberg spent nearly a dozen minutes with her, both peering out the dugout fence at the game while chatting about encounters with mutual friends.

I dutifully queued among the members and eventually had my iPhone photo snapped with Sotomayor as well as an autograph. Ironically, since Sotomayor ordered an end to the Major League Baseball strike years ago, she refuses to sign any type of ball, including the pink softball I offered to her. She signed wristbands, shirts and programs but no balls. The “Reliable Source” section of the Washington Post published that fact and estimated what her signature on a ball would command in the memorabilia market.

As the game progressed and players focused more on the game, Justice Sotomayor climbed on the bench, sitting on the back support with her feet on the seat so that she could better see the game above the players in the dugout. While she sat alone during the fifth inning, I approached her solitary figure for my few minutes of quality discussion. I mentioned that if my parents were alive, they would be thrilled at my ability to speak with her because all four of my grandparents were Italian immigrants in the early 1900s.

Sotomayor replied that our nation certainly is a wonderful place of opportunity, comparing the path she and her immigrant family took to my path. She joyfully and emphatically spoke from her heart when she tied our families’ paths with the possibility of intersecting and being together in the dugout. It reminded me of the excitement Catholics felt in 1960 when John Kennedy broke the political religious prejudices with his election as president.

As I prepared to return to my coaching duties and end our conversation, I could not resist the bust-chopper aspect of my personality. I concluded by asking her to do me a favor the next time she saw Justice Antonin Scalia. I said, “Tell Justice Scalia for me that a practicing Catholic says to quit giving his opinions in speeches before issues come before the court — he is supposed to decide on the merits in court, not prior.”

Justice Sotomayor smiled her famously broad grin, and I could see a bright twinkle in her eye that knew what I meant. She merely nodded her head as I shook hands with her one final time and resumed my coaching duties. She sat alone atop the dugout bench for another two innings without much more conversation from others in the dugout.

As I think back on my first week at Notre Dame when everyone seemed to have a bright twinkle in their eyes and were open to making new friends, I gleaned a life lesson. Students, beware that life’s many twists always seem to present at least one new person with a genuine soul regardless of whether or not destined for fame. Recognizing a future Sotomayor begins with your first week at Notre Dame.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ‘73, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at GaryJCaruso@alumni.nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.