Aug 22, 2013
A trio of former University of Michigan All-Americans is spending its summer playing in the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) league, the only domestic opportunity to play professional softball. Many leagues have come and gone over the past two generations, but the NPF has now survived for a decade and continues to fight for attention and air time in a crowded entertainment marketplace. MGoBlue.com caught up with the three players, Dorian Shaw -- Jordan Taylor and Nikki Nemitz -- to learn about life as a professional softball player. We will feature one player's story a week over the next three weeks leading up to the NPF playoffs.
By Michael Kasiborski
Nikki Nemitz is practicing her Japanese. Right in the middle of the locker room at the The Ballpark at Rosemont, Ill.
It may not seem like a pressing concern in suburban Chicago to learn Japanese, but believers in team chemistry will argue otherwise. In her fourth season with the Chicago Bandits, Nemitz finds herself in the middle of a delightfully fun situation: two new Japanese teammates and the exchange that comes from sharing different cultures under one clubhouse roof.
"We're learning and they're learning -- I love them," says Nemitz of new teammates, catcher Kazuki Watanabe and outfielder Eri Yamada. "Pitcher-catcher conferences can be interesting, but we have a translator. It's fun to try and figure everything out, but softball is softball."
The education of Nikki Nemitz continues every day, and she is relishing the chance to further it pitching with the Bandits in her fourth season in the National Pro Fastpitch league and serving as the volunteer assistant with the University of Michigan softball team during the academic year.
"As an 18-year-old (coming into college), you think you know it all," she says. "Being around these NPF players you learn so much more about hitting, pitching and fielding. Never close your mind to learning how someone else goes about something."
Known for her fiery passion as a U-M pitcher -- where she was a three-time All-American -- and fierce competitor with the Bandits, Nemitz finds herself mastering the art of observation these days. Michigan head coach Carol Hutchins will tell you she just knows when one of her players will develop into a coach, and she saw that quality in Nemitz during her days in Ann Arbor. Hutchins added her to the U-M staff for the 2012 season.
"You're never too old to learn the game and learn different aspects of the game," Nemitz says. "Softball is much more fun and exciting when you understand what's going on in the game from a coach's perspective."
According to research by ESPN, the average age of a player on the Detroit Tigers roster at the beginning of the 2013 season was 28.8 years old. Nemitz recently turned 25 and is straddling the worlds of professional softball and coaching. Imagine asking Rick Porcello, the Tigers' 24-year-old pitcher, to compete at the highest level and then teach exactly what he does out on the mound. It is much more difficult than it sounds because players as young as Porcello and Nemitz are still developing themselves. But Nemitz has that added responsibility of turning around and teaching.
It has been an interesting conundrum for softball, where for many years its best players either joined the USA program or began coaching right away without a strong option for life-after-college competition. Now Nemitz is on the vanguard of a generation that can continue playing and learning the game while honing its coaching abilities.
National Pro Fastpitch is in its 10th season and continues to work to grow beyond a niche sport. With players like Nemitz, who is in her fourth year in the league, the league offers a competitive, if not lucrative, opportunity.
"We don't make a living playing softball, we play because we believe in the sport, and we want to make it viable for the future."
Such is the life of softball in America. College players begin thinking about coaching while still developing into their physical prime. Professional players think about the legacy of the game while still trying to forge one of their own. The education of Nikki Nemitz is not happening solely on a diamond.
"We know girls younger than us have a dream, and we want them to have a league to play in after college," she says. "Take my little sister for instance; I want her to have a place to play after college."
Nemitz and her teammates on the Bandits learn the value of good public relations after each and every game. They stay and sign autographs until each and every one is signed. Once that is done, they spend time with sponsors. At some point late at night or early in the morning, they go home. And then they start it all up again at the next game.
"In the NPF, we try to be good to everyone. It's not really work because we want to help out those that invest time and money into our league."
They are gaining some traction. The Bandits play in a glistening home facility built exclusively for them. The ESPN family of networks recently signed on to carry 16 NPF games this summer, a sure sign of the worldwide leader's interest in the viability of the league.
"I don't think a lot of women come into the league (thinking about its legacy), but when they see the girls coming out to our games, it hits home," says Nemitz. "There are times when you're tired going to an appearance, but we do it because we want the league to be sustained."
Following a Michigan career that saw her establish top-five program marks in wins (92), winning percentage (.814), strikeouts (842) and saves (7), Nemitz was the fourth overall pick in the 2010 NPF Senior Draft. She won that year's Rookie of the Year award. She has been invited back each offseason since then by the Bandits.
"It's a great feeling to be contacted in the offseason when they ask you to come back, it builds a bond with the team and the fans," says Nemitz. "Where there is a loyalty factor, you see how the bond strengthens."
She knows a thing or two about loyalty, having pitched in front of sellout crowds at the Wilpon Complex, home of Alumni Field, throughout her four years at Michigan. Once a Wolverine, always a Wolverine.
"Playing for the Bandits is another great way to represent the Block M, everyone knows I'm from Michigan," she says. "I'll be wearing the Bandits' black and orange and hear a 'Go Blue' from the stands and that's awesome."
Nemitz says playing a game she loves can help alleviate some of the pressure of playing for a contract, noting that scuffling can make you wonder if you are living up to that contract. The faith the Bandits and her teammates show in her helps her navigate the strains of professional softball.
"Failure is part of this game, you're playing the 80 best players in the world so you're going to slump," she says. "You just try to play every day for the Bandits and to make this league succeed. We are kids when we're playing in the NPF; we revert back to being 12-years-old. Softball is a sport we all love and we all love to play."
That is what draws Nemitz to coaching: the love of the game. She recently completed her second season on the U-M staff, learning from three of the best coaches in the country. Nemitz credits Hutchins, associate head coach Bonnie Tholl and assistant coach Jennifer Brundage with teaching her everything she knows about the game and helping her develop into a coach herself. She wears many hats in her coaching duties: helping run practices, throwing batting practice, crunching statistics, reviewing film and hitting infield. In other words, she's earning her stripes and soaking in as much as she can.
Now she finds herself in the final stages of a natural progression that takes a softball player like her from simply acting on the softball diamond (as a left-handed flame thrower, no less) to thinking her way through a game.
"With my experiences coaching, it's helped me be able to communicate with other players, speak the game and think about in-game scenarios," she says.
With about 50 Bandits games this summer and 64 with Michigan during its WCWS run, Nemitz gets a front-row seat to plenty of softball, and that is not even counting all of the practice time. Her education on softball is all about immersion, with some of the finest curriculum imaginable.
And she is part of a trailblazing generation that is fully self-aware. She is living out her future while preparing for it and preparing the future for others. This is the education of Nikki Nemitz.
"Hutch always talks about playing for something bigger than yourself; and that's what this league is all about," she says. "Without my Michigan experience I don't know if I would appreciate the opportunity to play in the NPF as much."
And that calls to mind another new Japanese word she has learned this season.
The Bandits clinched a spot in the NPF Championship Series by winning the regular-season title. The series begins on Friday, Aug. 23, and will be carried on ESPN2.