April 16, 2003
Recently in a magazine interview, Veronica Nelson was asked to share her deepest, darkest secret.
After much consternation, the senior first baseman on Cal's defending national champion softball team bore her soul.
'When I was 10 years old, I was a cheerleader,' she confessed.
'My mom promised me a bike if I would try out for cheerleader of the Oakland Dynamites in the Pop Warner League. We had snazzy purple and gold outfits, and I ended up being voted MVP of the cheerleading team.'
Queried whether she still had photos of those Dynamite cheerleading days?
'Oh yes,' admitted Nelson, rolling her eyes. 'I've been trying to get a hold of them for years ... so I can destroy them!'
Now, some 11 years later, all the imposing slugger is destroying are fastballs from opposing Pac-10 pitchers. And it's her teammates, family and hometown Oakland friends who are doing most of the cheering.
With a school-record 42 career home runs and NCAA all-time walk mark of 288 entering her senior season, Nelson could very well be the most feared hitter in college softball history. Despite shattering her own NCAA single season record with 108 bases on balls last year, the 21-year-old Nelson led her team in batting average (.329), home runs (9) and slugging percentage (.559). The former Oakland Bishop O'Dowd star hit clean-up for coach Diane Ninemire's Cinderella Bears, who rode a final 11-game winning streak to a Cal-record 56 victories and the school's first-ever women's NCAA team championship.
'It was a great feeling to win the College World Series,' Nelson said. 'Nobody expected us to win it. We were a team of destiny. It may sound like a cliche, but we took one inning at a time, one game at a time.'
Some three months after their stirring 6-0 triumph over favored Arizona in the national title game, Nelson and the Golden Bears were honored by President George W. Bush at Spring Sports Champions Day at the White House Sept. 24. It's a day the young Nelson won't soon forget.
'It was really, really fun,' she said. 'Just shaking the President's hand and looking at all the history at the White House was enough for me. My mother blew up the picture with the President and put it on the wall in our living room. She also has a photo of me on the wall when we clinched the World Series. My mom doesn't try to hide the fact that I'm at Cal.'
And Sharon Nelson and her husband, Michael, have every reason to be proud of their accomplished daughter. Not only is she one of college softball's all-time greats, Veronica Nelson is also an intelligent, thoughtful young woman who some day plans to be a criminal lawyer.
'I have always wanted to be a lawyer,' said Veronica. 'When I was about eight years old, my older brother (Shawn) was studying to go to law school at Grambling. He always said, 'You should be the lawyer. You're probably more interested in this stuff than I am.''
Nelson, who plans to attend law school in Washington, D.C., or New York following her graduation at Cal, has been a notorious debater during her four years in Berkeley.
'Even in softball, I'm always looking for someone to argue with,' she chuckled. 'My teammates always say, 'Don't get in an argument with Veronica because she'll always get the last word!''
Nelson's early academic and athletic development must be credited to the sheer devotion of her parents. Her mother has worked as an accountant at a convalescent home in Hayward for many years, while her father is a long-time employee at the Kaiser optical lab in Richmond.
'My dad has always worked from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., so he could be home when school let out,' she said with obvious admiration. 'He used to coach my T-ball games. And even though he must have been tired from work, he would pitch batting practice and hit grounders to me whenever I asked him to after school.'
There can be an even greater appreciation of Nelson's accomplishments, when one considers the obstacles she overcame, growing up in an at-risk area of Oakland.
'My parents always supported me 100 percent, no matter what I wanted to do,' Nelson said. 'I was raised not to think of myself as an athlete, but rather a student and a person. My mom would say, 'Don't think sports are your life.' It was always school before athletics. When I was growing up, my mom always kept me busy softball, basketball, something at school. She always kept us motivated. The crime problems in Oakland definitely effected some of my neighbors and classmates, but it didn't effect me.'
On the softball diamond, the legend of Veronica Nelson began to grow exponentially during her years at Oakland's Bishop O'Dowd High School. Feasting on prep pitchers to the tune of a .710 batting average her senior season, Nelson was voted all-state and a second team All-American. Despite being pitched around in most at-bats, she posted an unworldly career batting average of .674 at Bishop O'Dowd.
Entering Cal in 2000, she was excited about the prospects of college pitchers challenging her more. However, that excitement turned to frustration in the time a Randy Johnson fastball crosses home plate.
'When I got here as a freshman,' she recalled, 'they immediately started to walk me. I was really surprised. I guess my reputation preceded me. A lot of the opposing coaches had recruited me in high school and knew my strengths.'
Even Veronica's friends became frustrated.
'My friends from high school would say, 'I would come to your games at Cal, but they just walk you,'' Nelson said. 'My freshman year, I was really frustrated. I would swing at pitches that weren't strikes. I didn't see it helped the team (to walk). Finally, I came to realize that every time they walk me, it gives us a base runner and an opportunity to score.'
Ironically, the ultimate walk-inducer plays across the bay at Pacific Bell Park the San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds. Nelson admits that she watches how the five-time National League MVP handles the pitchers' similar approach.
'I'm a big A's fan, but I do watch Barry on ESPN SportsCenter and when the Giants play the A's,' she said. 'I can relate to what he goes through. I admire how patient he is. If he gets a pitch to hit, it's gone. He's just a phenomenal hitter. I think I have learned from him that you shouldn't get yourself out. You need to make them get you out.'
Like Bonds, Nelson is also known for her tape-measure home runs. As a sophomore, she launched one ball against Mercer College in Georgia that reportedly touched down some 300 feet from home plate (the baseball equivalent of some 475 to 500 feet). A high, majestic drive, the ball sailed over the 220-foot sign in dead center field, then short hopped a second fence that was listed 310 feet from home plate.
Those kind of monster home runs have become common place during practice sessions at Cal's Levine-Fricke Field in Strawberry Canyon. Some of Nelson's bombs have left behind assorted carnage in the parking lot beyond the outfield fence, as Golden Bear pitcher Jen Deering knows oh too well.
In practice last fall, Deering was pitching when one of Nelson's big flies crunched her black Ford Mustang in the lot. It was the same Mustang that Nelson also had hit at practice during her freshman year.
'At our home games, you can tell who are Cal fans and who's not, because the Cal fans park across the street,' smiled Nelson.