On a typical Saturday morning, before the start of one of SilentRain Espinoza’s softball tournaments in a corner of Southern California or another, Bob Cole would arrive on the Viejas Reservation to pick up his granddaughter, often as early as 4:30 a.m.
Bobpa, as his granddaughter called him, doted on SilentRain, who goes by Si.
As he made the early-morning drive, she slept in the backseat of his silver Dodge Ram pickup. Under the canopy in the bed of the truck, Bobpa had rigged a rack on which he hung her softball jerseys and sweatshirts, lest they get wrinkled.
He would meticulously pack a cooler for each trip. There were hard-boiled eggs — always hard-boiled eggs — to be served with Tabasco sauce, plus his granddaughter’s favorite turkey sandwiches made on thin-sliced bread.
“My grandpa was the most supportive person in my softball career. He drove me everywhere,” Espinoza said. “I wouldn’t have to pack anything. I would just go to sleep and then I’d wake up at the field. He would say: ‘OK, go play. Do good.’”
Espinoza did plenty good during those busy travel-ball weekends, and she’s doing even better now as the sophomore third baseman for the No. 2 Washington softball team. Entering the final weekend of nonconference play, Espinoza is among the team leaders in batting average (.367), on-base percentage (.436) and slugging percentage (.551) for a Huskies team off to a 19-2 start to the season.
Her extended family back home has noticed.
Espinoza grew up on the Viejas Reservation. Her mother, Mackenzie, is from the Penobscot tribe in Maine; her father, Greybuck, is Kumeyaay and also grew up in Viejas, and his side of the family has a deep history in fastpitch softball. They all played, and the field on which SilentRain learned to play is named after her great-grandfather Daniel Espinoza.
“She has all the reservations following her around here. She has a huge following,” Mackenzie said, noting the tribe adorned a banner with her daughter’s image on the entrance to the reservation when the Huskies advanced to the College World Series last year. “It’s so awesome to see all the Native people comment on her accomplishments.”
During SilentRain’s busy travel-ball days, the tribe rallied around her family and provided financial support.
“Anytime we needed to go somewhere, the tribe has stepped up,” Mackenzie said. “It’s a very close community — we’re a big family. And softball is really big out here in the Native reservations, and it’s a dream for many of them to have someone from here succeed.”
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Becoming a role model
SilentRain is among the few Native Americans competing in college athletics. Native Americans are the most under-represented demographic in the NCAA, accounting for just 0.4% of athletic scholarships, according to a 2018 report by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.
Over the past two decades, access to athletic scholarships has not improved for Native Americans, who also accounted for 0.4% of scholarship in 2001, according to a New York Times report then. Native populations, meanwhile, have grown roughly 60% since 2000, making up about 1.7% of the U.S. population, according to the 2017 Census.
“It can be really hard for Native girls especially to achieve this dream, to get to a point where they can be offered scholarships,” Mackenzie said. “A lot of tribes struggle with that, and a lot of girls don’t have those opportunities. It’s great they have someone like Si who they can look up to.”
SilentRain is a bit sheepish about the idea of being a role model, but she says she is happy that others can look to her as a positive example.
“I don’t think about myself like that … I just think I’m like a normal person,” she said. “But I think it’s also really cool that I have these Native kids that are looking up to me and seeing that it’s like definitely possible. Because I see people from my reservation that feel like they don’t have this opportunity, but they definitely do. And I just want them to see that it’s for sure possible.”
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‘Si was his light’
No one could talk to Bobpa during SilentRain’s games.
He would sit in the outfield — always the outfield — and keep his own scorecard for every player on the team. He could be particularly tough on his granddaughter with his stat-keeping — even if the official scorer gave her a hit, he might not be so generous — but he was never critical of her on those long drives home. Which is why SilentRain always drove with Bobpa.
“They had the closest bond,” Mackenzie said of her dad and her daughter. “He was hard on her in his own way, but he wouldn’t let anyone else be hard on her. Si was his light.”
Bobpa died suddenly in September, at age 73, of an aortic aneurysm. It was a shocking blow to the family, and to his oldest grandchild in particular.
“The worst phone call I’ve ever had to make,” Mackenzie said. “Si was devastated.”
SilentRain flew home to grieve with her family for a week after Bobpa’s passing. She said now she takes solace that Bobpa got to see her play on national television in the Women’s College World Series last year, and she knows he was proud of her.
When SilentRain and her family first visited the UW campus on a recruiting visit, Bobpa came to Seattle, too. While they toured the UW softball field, he was quick to notice the bald eagles flying just beyond the outfield fences above the shores of Lake Washington.
“Being Native American, he was very in touch spiritually with those things,” Mackenzie said.
Those eagles have taken on greater meaning for SilentRain in the months since Bobpa’s passing. She took a video of the eagles flying above a recent team practice and sent it to her mom.
“He was right there with her for every game during travel ball,” Mackenzie said, “and I know he’s still with her every time she plays now.”