DALE CITY — Had she been born 60 years earlier, Sarah Malene probably would have grown up to become a Hall of Fame baseball player.
It’s the Gar-Field softball team’s good fortune that the heyday of the All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League was in the 1940s. If it still existed today, Malene surely could be one of its stars.
Much like Dottie Kamenshek, the Rockford Peaches’ Hall of Famer and seven-time all-star, the diamond is Malene’s playground. Give her a ball and glove and let her play.
Whether she’s sprinting into shallow right field to make an over-the-shoulder catch or lacing a line drive up the middle, Malene brings excitement to the game. It’s been that way for more than a decade.
“The best thing about Sarah is she loves the game,” Gar-Field softball coach Mike McDonald said. “She tries to learn something every day and she’s blessed with amazing skills.”
As a freshman, Malene was named to the Group AAA all-state team last spring, but most of her skills were cultivated on the baseball field. In a quest to emulate her older brother, John, she took her first swing in a tee-ball game when she was 4 years old.
It wasn’t long before Malene was hitting and fielding as well as any of the boys on the Godwin Middle School baseball team.
“My brother’s older than me and he always played baseball. When he practiced, I wanted to practice and when he played, I wanted to play,” said Malene.
“Some people were surprised that I played baseball. I heard a lot of comments,” she added. “But every team I’ve been on, the players were very respectful of me. They knew I could play and that I was good enough to be out there with them.”
Malene put a lot of effort into learning to play baseball, often staying out in her backyard until 9 p.m. to take extra swings in the batting cage her father built when she was in the seventh grade.
She puts the same energy into softball. For Malene, it’s a year-round devotion.
“It’s definitely non-stop,” she said. “I’ve put a lot of time into bunting and hitting. The fewer weaknesses you have the harder it is for a pitcher to get you out.”
Opposing pitchers have been hard-pressed to find many weaknesses. It took Malene a couple of games last spring to get used to the rise ball and drop pitch, but once she did, the Indians’ second baseman went on to hit .444 out of the No. 2 spot in the batting order.
“I go up there knowing I can hit,” Malene said. “I realize in hitting there are going to be a lot of ups and downs. It can be hard at times, but I always feel like I can go up there and get a hit.
“Last year I was able to learn my weaknesses and I’ve been out there late at night working a lot on my swing.”
Malene proved to be one of the area’s toughest outs as a freshman. She finished her rookie season with 32 hits, 26 runs scored and 18 runs batted in for the Cardinal District champions.
Those numbers are the result of a diligent game-day regimen that is as much mental as physical.
“I’m definitely focused during a game. Once I start playing it just happens,” Malene said. “I’m always thinking about what I want to do next. If you’re not focused that’s when you make a mistake.
“I watch the pitcher to see what type of motion she has, how she releases the ball, little things like that so when I get up to bat I’m not shocked by what she does.”
Malene learned the art of preparation from former teammate Kelly Brown, who is starting in the outfield as a freshman this season at Virginia Tech. So, it seems only fitting that Malene has now moved into Brown’s former spot as Gar-Field’s leadoff hitter.
“She’s the kind of player who can handle that type of pressure,” McDonald said.
Malene knows it’s her job to get on base and she takes that responsibility seriously. That comes with the territory of batting at the top of a star-studded lineup that also features third baseman Becky Horesky, catcher Sam Posey, shortstop Katy Foster and freshman center fielder Lauren Firich.
She places just as much emphasis, possibly more, on defense, which explains Malene’s knack for making difficult plays look easy. With Foster at short, the Indians’ up-the-middle defense is among the best in the state.
“She’s a great ball player and we have a good chemistry,” Malene said of Foster. “We definitely work on the double play all the time. That’s exciting for us.”
Malene creates just as much excitement on her own. She ranked among the area’s top defensive players last year with a .973 fielding percentage, 71 assists and 39 putouts.
“We have a blast at practice because she always wants to take extra ground balls and wants to take extra swings,” McDonald said. “Even though she’s one of the younger players on the team, she’s already established herself as a leader. She works hard and expects a lot of herself.”