THE FIRST THING you notice is The Voice. Gruff and raw like somebody's gargling rocks. And yet, the undertones are always there -- a little bit of mischief, a dash of emotion-on-the-sleeve, and toxic levels of New Yawk. After 20 years in the Sonoran Desert, the Long Island is as strong as ever, sprinkling the dialogue -- who am I kidding?! -- the monologue with liberal amounts of "youse," "Giddouddaheeere," and the old standby, "Nawww!" This is definitely a person for whom The Sopranos plays out like a documentary series.
DEE DINOTA MOVES along the third-base line, pacing impatiently and occasionally even winding up in the coach's box where she belongs. Like a caged tiger she paces, seemingly at random, until she pounces. It could be an umpire out of position on a call or a batter who's missed a sign, but whatever the case, you definitely do not want to be the pounce-ee.
This particular time, it's a base runner who has apparently displayed only 99 percent concentration. Dinota uncorks The Voice and lets fly.
"Why are we here?! Why are you here?! Come on, let's focus!"
The kid standing at second nods and says a silent prayer in hopes that, whatever happens next, she won't have to stop at third.
THE BEST HIGH school softball coach in Southern Arizona was born Deanna Dinota in Islip, New York, out on Long Island. Tomboy, jock, decent student, fun kid. She's like the anti-Will Rogers -- she never met a person who didn't like her.
Dinota took a somewhat circuitous route on her way to earning that coaching distinction, one which would take her through Bulgaria, almost to Moscow, and on to a pressure-packed scholarship tryout in front of an ex-Homecoming Queen.
Just a few years after the inception of Title IX, sports for girls and women were wildly uneven throughout the United States. Girls basketball had flourished in pockets in Oklahoma and Iowa, but was virtually nonexistent in other parts of the country. Girls played softball in Southern California, but not at all in the Deep South and Midwest. (The spottiness hasn't disappeared completely; to this day they don't play softball at the University of Southern California, which is world famous for athletic-looking blonde women.)
On Long Island, they had just a little bit of everything. Field hockey and basketball were big, volleyball was coming on, and softball had a season that lasted only a few weeks, starting with the thaw and ending with the invasion of the big, black bugs.
Dee did them all and then some. "I couldn't sit still. I loved playing. It didn't even matter what sport. I guess basketball was my favorite, but I played 'em all."
She played them well, earning several All-Conference and All-State honors. Her senior year she was named the top female athlete in New York state. She even went to the senior prom with the top male athlete in New York, her East Islip High classmate, Boomer Esiason, the future Pro Football Hall of Famer and recently fired Monday Night Football announcer.
"Boomer was hilarious," recalls Dinota. "You know how he's got this polished look right now, hair immaculate, nice tan? In high school, he was the King of Geeks. Pale skin, white hair, tall and skinny. I guess he turned out okay, though."
But while Esiason was thinking about his impending move on to the University of Maryland, with the NFL still in the long-distant future, Dinota was already on the next level. As a high-school senior, she had made the United States Olympic team in team handball.
Team handball is a game so arcane and indecipherable that it's only played in countries where the gross domestic product is measured in livestock. And also in the U.S. by people who really, really want to make the Olympic team, but can't afford to do so in yachting.
There will be team handball in Sydney, but it was spared from being the dumbest sport there by the introduction of ballroom dancing. At present, Jesse Owens is rotating in his grave at an even 500 rpm.
"I had made the Olympic team and we were traveling through Europe on a warm-up tour when we got the news," Dinota laments.
The news was that President Jimmy Carter had announced that the U.S. wouldn't be traveling to Moscow that summer for the 1980 Olympics in protest of the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan.
"I heard all the arguments about why we should boycott, but they didn't make sense to me. We had had the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid that year and we beat the Russians in hockey. That still is one of the great sports events of all time," argues Dinota. "And it also had great (political significance). I just thought we should have gone to Moscow and beat 'em in everything. Go over there with our Levis and portable radios and do more damage to their morale than any boycott could ever do."
These points were argued with President Carter by athletes and politicians, but the boycott stuck. (The USSR returned the favor by refusing to participate in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, citing "security concerns." And this was before Rodney King.)
"So we're there in Bulgaria, getting ready to play a match when we hear the word that the U.S. was pulling out of the Olympics. We had the big Levis sponsorship, we had the cool outfits, the bags, the whole deal. The Bulgarians were thrilled with the news; that meant there was one fewer team they had to worry about in the Olympics," recalls Dinota. "I was even kinda scared that we'd get left in Bulgaria. With no Olympics, who cared about the U.S. team handball squad? Plus, the Russians were pretty pissed and they had influence over Bulgaria..."
(But not, according to Gerald Ford, over Poland.)
They got home all right, but the 17-year-old high school senior had missed out on the Olympic dream. She shrugs, "I might try that yachting stuff someday, but no way to the ballroom dancing!"
She turned her thoughts to college and decided she wanted to play some sport, somewhere. And, after all those cold winters on Long Island, preferably somewhere warm. Collegiate women's sports at the time were mainly run by an organization called the Association for Interscholastic Athletics for Women (AIAW). The boom in women's sports was on the horizon, as was the takeover of all things athletic by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
The AIAW was a loose-knit organization, one with far fewer members and rules than the NCAA would have just a few years later. This partly explains why, when women's college basketball champions are discussed, names like Cheyney State and Old Dominion come up.
One of the more interesting practices of the time was to allow college coaches to put potential recruits through tryout sessions to see if the kid was worth the offer of a precious scholarship. (This practice is strictly forbidden by the NCAA.)
As much as Dinota liked basketball (she was offered a hoops scholarship to UConn), the prospect of playing a long-term season of softball in the warm sun had an undeniable appeal. She made the trip to Tucson and went through a tryout for Kathy "Rocky" LaRose, who is currently an assistant athletic director for the University of Arizona.
"I think Rocky was an interim coach that season," Dinota recalls. "She had just graduated college." (Indeed she had. LaRose had been UA Homecoming Queen just a couple years earlier.)
Dinota excelled during the tryout and was given a scholarship. She played four years at third base for the Cats (her contemporary counterpart at UCLA was the legendary Dot Richardson, who is an M.D. and still made the 1996 Olympic softball team). When she graduated with a degree in physical education, it was on to teaching. She got a job first at Amphi Middle School and then at Nash Elementary on the far south end of the Amphitheater District. Nash is the kind of school where, if you mention it by name at a school board meeting, parents from up around Canyon Del Oro start talking about seceding from the district.
"It's in kind of an economically depressed area, compared to the rest of the district," Dinota explains. "But the kids are great. They're gr-r-r-r-reat," she says, somehow managing to sneak a few extra syllables in.
EVER THE TEACHER, Dinota uses the time between innings to make a minor technical point to her players. Not one eye strays from her to the stands or the field. She makes the point, hoping that the players will get a chance to see it in action some time soon, making it infinitely more likely to have a lasting effect than her mere words will.
She gazes out to the scoreboard. Her CDO team has taken a 1-0 lead over arch-rival Salpointe, but it's only the third inning and she realizes it will probably be another hour or so before she'll be able to breathe normally, one way or the other.
By the way things are going, she knows that her team will either win the game by the 1-0 margin or heartbreakingly lose, 2-1. She's not sure how she knows; she just does.
WORKING AT NASH took a roller coaster emotional toll on her. "It's unbelievable. There was this one woman who had left her abusive husband/boyfriend/whatever and she was living in her car with her kids. And those kids would come to school every day. And somehow they'd be clean and neat and ready to go.
"But then you'd have kids living across the street from the school with a mom and a dad and they wouldn't show up. You'd walk across the street and knock on the door, and the kid is sitting in his pajamas in front of the TV, eating cereal, talking about, 'Mom said I didn't have to go to school today.' "
It was at Nash that Dinota had what she considers her finest hour. She taught P.E., and at the end of each session, she'd yell for the kids to run to the fence and back. One kid said he just couldn't do it. Dee took him aside, and the kid took off his shoes and showed her his feet.
"Oh my God, this poor kid's feet were blistered and his toes all gnarled. The shoes had to be at least two sizes too small for him, plus they were worn out on the bottom."
She then did what just about any teacher would do -- she bought the kid a pair of shoes. But then she realized that there might be many more kids in similar situations, so she started the Nash Shoe Drive. Each year it gets bigger and more successful. Last year, even though she's been teaching at CDO for the past two years, she had the best drive yet, collecting donations of 1,000 pairs of new shoes for kids at Nash, Keeling and Prince Elementary Schools, and $5,000 in cash to help others.
"It's so great when people are generous. It just makes you want to cry. People would walk up to me at CDO and say, 'My mom said to give you this $100.' It's amazing. It's sad that people need them that badly, but it's great that so many others are willing to help out."
DINOTA BREAKS THE tension by talking first to the Salpointe third baseman and then hollers something to someone outside the fence. She'll talk to anybody, any time. Inside the Salpointe dugout, the Lancer coach glowers out at her. Despite the precarious lead -- or perhaps because of it -- she's having a great old time. She's in her element and there are only three gut-wrenching innings to go.
PEOPLE HAVE NO idea how much I love this game," Dinota says. "I hear people criticize it because it's too low-scoring and the pitchers have taken over the sport. That's true to a certain extent, but every game there's something new. You'll see a bunch of routine plays, things you've seen a thousand times, and then all of a sudden, BOOM! It never fails."
Her love of the sport and her very choice of a career were shaken recently when she was the target of a lawsuit, a bitter, ugly action brought by one of her former players. Dinota, whose program has sent 93 percent of its players on to college with some form of softball scholarship, was accused of not playing a certain kid on first string because the kid is Hispanic.
Softball is not like basketball, where kids sub in and out. A non-pitcher on second string on a softball team might as well be sitting in the bleachers. When this particular kid didn't make first team, she pouted, then quit, then sued.
"I'll tell ya," Dinota says, "you always have that thought in the back of your head. You hear stories of weird, unsubstantiated lawsuits, but it's always somebody else. My program is usually about 30 percent Hispanic; it varies. But what do I care? I want to win. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a racially motivated coach anywhere these days. Forget about all that other stuff; do you really think a coach is not going to play somebody because of their skin color? It's ridiculous."
Ridiculous or not, she ended up having to shell out a couple thousand bucks in legal fees and sweating out whether the district would back her (school districts often take a wait-and-see position on such things, making sure their asses are covered under the guise of balancing loyalty to their staff with responsibility to their students).
The prelude to the court action dragged on, with CDO's principal being subpoenaed and Dinota being forced to produce documentation of all sorts of things. When it finally went before a judge, it was thrown out in a matter of minutes. The kid transferred to a southside school and is currently not playing softball.
"It was scary. That's all I can say. One day your team is playing in the 5A state championship game, and the next day you're facing losing your entire livelihood.
"It took a lot out of me, that's all I can say. It shook my faith in hard work and dedication. If I can put my heart and soul into something for all these years and then have it shaken to the core by one disgruntled kid, I just don't know if it's worth it..."
SALPOINTE IS POUNDING away at CDO freshman pitcher Kady Garrick, but the Dorado defense is holding fast. Earlier in the week, CDO had lost an 11-inning heartbreaker to first-place Flowing Wells. That loss had dropped CDO to an uncharacteristic 3-3 in conference play and a loss to Salpointe would put the Dorados in uncharted sub-.500 territory.
Dinota blasts out of the dugout to applaud a spectacular play by shortstop Darcy Wilson. In softball, outs are precious and now Salpointe, with the best players money can nurture, is down to its last three.
WHEN ASKED WHICH Tucson coach she would want her kids to play for (if they couldn't play for herself), former Tucson High coach Arlene Locklin said, without hesitation, "Dee." Nine coaches out of nine had the same answer, most without having to give it any thought whatsoever.
Amphi's Cindy Dale, when asked where she'd want her kids to go, said, "Amphi."
No, other than Amphi.
"Amphi," she persisted.
If they absolutely couldn't go to Amphi for some reason.
What if the school board made a mistake and had Amphi demolished and then decided they weren't going to rebuild it?
Pause. Then, "Oh, in that case, Dee."
CDO HAS GONE quietly the past few innings as though the 1-0 lead they hold is insurmountable and they don't want to waste their energy on needless offense. Now it's Salpointe's final inning. If the Dorados win, it will mean a season sweep over Salpointe and a virtual tie for the all-important second spot in the regional tourney, a spot which will ensure a trip to the state playoffs. Last year, Dinota's team was upset in the first round of the regionals and missed out on going to state.
IF DINOTA'S FAITH was shaken by the lawsuit, a more fundamental change in the sports landscape might provide the impetus to make her quit coaching once and for all. A recent series of articles in The Los Angeles Times focused on a family that spent $160,000 trying to get their two daughters softball scholarships to college. One got a scholarship; the other is a walk-on at a junior college. In the article, the mother laments that they could've sent their kids to Princeton for all that money, but, she says, "After a while, it just became an obsession."
Dinota knows all too well the trends in youth sports which are forcing kids to start earlier and earlier, to focus on one sport at an early age, and then play that sport year-round until burnout sets in.
"I'm only one generation removed from these kids, and it's like another world. When I was in high school, you felt sorry for kids who only did one sport. How boring is that? Now, (multi-sport) kids are looked down on by one-sport kids as not having the fire and desire to get a scholarship.
"I read an article about a kid at another high school who did several sports and even the coaches tried to get her to cut back. That's just not right. We used to treasure well-rounded kids. Now it's like we treasure kids with tunnel vision and narrow goals."
But isn't her ultra-successful program part of the problem?
"I guess, in a way, it is. But I encourage kids to play other sports or to take time off to get away from softball. I try to tell them how much fun I had doing that. There's nothing sadder than a kid who's burned out on one sport. I try hard to get kids to do other sports, but so many of them have parents looking at them like they're investments that can only be considered successful if they pay off with a college athletic scholarship. It's horrible."
Dinota has kids trying to transfer into over-crowded CDO all the time, just to play softball for her. "It's a tough problem. I certainly don't encourage anybody to transfer, but you can't turn them away if they do it legally. It causes problems inside the program and out. And I don't need any more problems."
She says she misses the good old days when she used to coach things like coed sixth-grade volleyball at Amphi Middle School. People who saw her coach those teams swear she was into the game like it was Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Exhorting, cheering, patting kids on the back, and being involved in more hugs than Miss America.
Chris Lugo, whose daughters played at rival La Cima Middle School, remembers those days. "They could have charged admission just to see Dee. She was hilarious. Animated and passionate. It was great for the kids, and I think a lot of parents learned how to act from watching her, how to be involved without being jerks."
SALPOINTE IS DOWN to its final out. The Lancer crowd is screaming for something to happen, but the freshman Garrick is ice. The final Salpointe batter lifts a twisting fly ball down the right-field line, but Kristi Lozelle flags it down for the final out. The CDO kids celebrate, but not too much, then shake hands with the Lancer players.
When asked for an analysis of the final play, Dinota smiles and says, "Kristi's unshakable. She's got a scholarship to Eastern Kentucky."
She immediately begins looking ahead to that Friday's game at Tucson High, which is only a half-game behind CDO. By using the freshman Garrick against Salpointe, Dinota can save senior ace Anita Knight for Tucson.
KNIGHT TRANSFERRED OVER from Marana High as a sophomore. She has a full scholarship to New Mexico State next year.