“Come on Dad, I don’t need to worry about travel insurance. There’s no way they’ll lose.”
The Cal softball team was supposed to win the national championship, and I was supposed to cover them all the way to the finish.
After a canceled flight and more than a thousand dollars in cancellation fees, I find myself sitting at a desk in Berkeley as the Women’s College World Series final ends, not a press box in Oklahoma City.
The Bears spent the majority of the season ranked No. 1 and finished the regular season with a 50-4 record. They rolled through Regionals with a slight hiccup but otherwise dominated. The Bears even swept a top-25 team in Washington in Super Regionals, booking their trip to the final eight double-elimination showdown in the sweltering Southern heat.
After Super Regionals, I booked plane and hotel tickets for Oklahoma City on the dates of the national championship final. Despite the fact Cal still needed to win three games before reaching that final point, I thought my purchase to be of little risk, even going as far as telling my father I wouldn’t need travel insurance for plane tickets.
Going into Friday’s matchup with No. 4 Oklahoma, I figured the Cal offense would find a way to generate runs, and Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year Jolene Henderson would be unhittable as always.
As David Foster Wallace once said, “A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong.”
Oklahoma pitcher Keilani Ricketts — the 2012 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year — took her game to another level against the Bears last Friday night, striking out 16 and allowing just two measly hits. With Cal’s bats muted by Ricketts’ masterful performance, the Sooners snagged a 3-0 victory and moved into a comfortable position, having to win only one more game to advance to the national championship.
The Bears, on the other hand, stood at the bottom of a towering mountain, wondering how they planned on climbing 15,000 feet — or winning three games in two days against two of the top 10 teams in the country. In order for Cal to reach the finals, the Bears needed to finish off Oregon on Saturday and steal two from No. 2 Alabama on Sunday.
Passing on the travel insurance was starting to look a little foolish.
Still, I wasn’t that worried. “Cal’s the best team ever! Valerie Arioto eats softballs for breakfast! One game’s a fluke. Cal hasn’t lost two games in a row all season.”
So said my brain, in a classic case of cognitive dissonance.
Cal’s subsequent win over an overmatched Oregon squad set up a matchup between the two best teams in the country on Sunday. One win, and the Crimson Tide would secure a space in the final. But if Cal won twice, they would sneak in. The risk I was running with Travelocity — which offered refunds only for plane tickets canceled 24 hours before the flight — could be mitigated.
Well, Cal lost again.
The Bears’ offense was stifled by the speedy offerings of Jackie Traina, who held Cal to two hits and two runs in a complete game win. Save a Danielle Henderson two-run bomb that tied the game at two in the top of the fourth, Alabama wouldn’t relinquish the lead, and Cal couldn’t create any more runs. Alabama’s offense smacked a couple more homers to put the game out of reach and end Cal’s season.
The Bears weren’t as invincible as I thought. Jolene Henderson had never proven herself against the likes of SEC giant Alabama. The Cal offense, normally consistent, faltered in the season’s biggest tournament. In taking the bat out of All-American Valerie Arioto’s hands by walking her three times, Traina and the Crimson Tide put pressure on Cal’s supporting cast. The strategy prevailed. The Bears lost.
But I blame myself for the miscalculation, not the Cal softball team.
After a semester of writing game recaps proclaiming Cal’s victory before the games even started, I grew accustomed to believing the Bears were truly invincible. I expected all the components that made this team great — Jolene Henderson’s focus on the mound, Arioto’s all-around dominance, a flawless defense — to continue on their trajectory and carry Cal to a national championship.
I never anticipated that Cal would run up against a team of its own caliber.
As sports observers, we are hard-wired to blindly root for the teams we support or, in my case, cover. In the face of rationality, we exude passion and confidence in our team’s abilities. But taking a step back and objectively assessing a team’s qualifications can alleviate the shortcomings of subjective homerism.
Especially when our reliance on “automatic” certainties leads us into scenarios where the team you’re covering sees its season end before the plane you’re taking to see them has even taken off.
Despite losing the entirety of my food supply for the next month, I’m glad to have learned a valuable life lesson:
No matter how much confidence you have in your team, it’s always a good idea to buy travel insurance.