VERO BEACH, Fla. -- As the second event of the Softball Breakthrough Series got underway Friday at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex (JRTC), coach Monica Harrison could relate to what the 44 participating players from around the country were going through.
The Pennsylvania native has been there, done that.
In her first appearance coaching in the instructional softball session geared toward players from underserved communities, Harrison was doing what she does best -- teaching young players the finer points of the game.
The head coach of the softball program at Carnegie Mellon University in her native Pittsburgh, Harrison spent the morning teaching hitting techniques in the 42 building before taking to the four softball fields on the complex’s back side in the afternoon.
Harrison, 37, was a late bloomer in the game, playing slow-pitch in middle school and then baseball. She got into fast-pitch in high school and quickly fell in love with it.
MLB's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program was beneficial in her development, giving her the chance to learn more about the sport and start moving toward the next level.
“I just didn’t have access to softball [at a young age],” Harrison said. “It’s one thing to be exposed to it -- sink or swim -- but we had some phenomenal coaches [in RBI] who poured confidence, time and the development into me.
“I didn’t play travel ball. I didn’t have the money for that. To be able to travel and go to regional games tied me into the bigger picture. It was cool for me. I felt like I was the extension of a Pirate.”
By Pirate, Harrison refers to the Pittsburgh RBI club she played for. Naturally, she said, she wore the No. 21 made famous by the organization’s greatest player, Roberto Clemente.
“I was representing the Pirates -- and I wore that number and knew the weight of it,” Harrison said. "It wasn’t a burden. It was an honor. That really was the first foray [for] me understanding like what it meant to go to the right place and have the right values."
Clemente’s spectacular career spanned 18 seasons -- from 1955 to 1972, all in the Steel City -- with the right fielder compiling 3,000 hits, 240 home runs, 1,305 RBIs and a career .317 batting average.
A 15-time All-Star and 12-time Gold Glove winner, Clemente won two World Series (1960, ’71) at the Pittsburgh junction where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers converge to form the Ohio River.
Clemente died in a plane crash -- overloaded and on a humanitarian aid mission to Nicaragua -- on Dec. 31, 1972, off the coast of his native Puerto Rico.
Harrison said Clemente’s legacy -- both in baseball and charity -- left a lasting impression on her in western Pennsylvania.
“You 100 percent feel that,” she said of the famous No. 21’s presence. “If you know baseball and you’re born and raised in Pittsburgh, you know Clemente -- you know what he did and what he meant for the organization. The Pirates fielded the first all-minority lineup in the same year they won the pennant [in 1971]. We know those things.
“It’s a tight community. Being a young black woman in Pittsburgh, I felt like Clemente reached out to all minorities and brought them in.”
But the RBI program she participated in also played a strong role in her development.
“It also made me understand what the right fit for me was in college. RBI helped me understand the game of softball,” Harrison said plainly.
She decided to go to the Patriot League’s Bucknell University in central Pennsylvania as a walk-on and earned playing time.
In her sixth year leading Division III CMU, Harrison is excited to impart her softball knowledge to prep players who were in the same situation she was in 20 years ago.
In the afternoon of a glorious fall Friday on Florida’s Treasure Coast, she went over baserunning drills on the Courage Field -- excitedly urging runners to sit into their slides at second and third instead of going in on their knees.
Looking out on the players, Harrison said she saw herself.
“I was there,” she said. “There are a lot of ways to get [success]. I played in the Patriot League in Division I, but I coach in Division III. You can be an All-American in Division III. There are different avenues to get where you want to go.
“I got the confidence from all of the things I did at RBI. All of those things helped me go get that tryout at Bucknell. I played all four years, was captain my senior year and played every game as a senior.”
And the most important message to instill over the weekend at JRTC?
“They have to be honest and find where they’re going to thrive,” Harrison said. “I’m going to do the recruiting talk with them [on Saturday] and go over the three points: Know yourself, be true to yourself and honor yourself.
“I was a first-generation college student. Softball was my foot in the door.”