For A.J. Andrews, bloops and flares over the infield are easy outs. When the ball is hit over her head, she races to the wall at breakneck speed to routinely pull in softballs with graceful over-the-shoulder catches.
The former Countryside High standout's prowess has earned her acclaim as she consistently comes up with acrobatic catches in the National Pro Fastpitch softball league, so much so that she appears on ESPN SportsCenter's top plays almost as often as major-league baseball counterparts.
That fearless fielding earned her an honor that previously had been bestowed only on baseball players.
Andrews, an outfielder for the Akron (Ohio) Racers, became the first female to win a Rawlings Gold Glove in the award's 59 years. Gold Gloves are given annually to the top major-league baseball player at each position in the American and National leagues.
Today, the Racers host a reception in Andrews' honor at the Summit County Softball Hall of Fame. On Tuesday, she will be honored at the Cleveland Indians' home game against Kansas City.
"I think it's very monumental to be the first female to win the award," Andrews, 23, said. "Softball doesn't always get the same recognition as baseball, so it's great to be able to put the sport in the spotlight any way I can. I'm excited and honored by the whole experience."
Mike Thompson, executive vice president of marketing for Rawlings, said the company was toying with the idea of awarding a softball player with a Gold Glove for years.
"We wanted to make sure the (pro softball) league was sustainable," Thompson said. "It's been running for a few years now. Next year is the 60th year of the award and would have been an easy peg, but why wait. There are great athletes in the league.
"It was just time."
There were four finalists for the inaugural Gold Glove in softball. The winner was decided by a vote of the coaches and commissioner of National Pro Fastpitch, a league that began as Women's Pro Fastpitch in 1997 (Tampa Bay had a team from 1997-2000) and had six teams competing this year. The season ended last month.
Thompson said the award will be given annually to one player in the league, with the possibility of more as the league grows.
Andrews was an easy choice as the first winner. This season she crashed into a wall to make a catch, taking part of the fence with her as she fell. She also dived full extension to make a catch in rightfield before landing at the warning track.
"I know she's made several outstanding plays in the outfield this year," Thompson said. "She's fast and graceful. She's very good and very worthy of the award."
Andrews started making sensational plays common as an infielder in Little League. She began playing outfield more often at Countryside, where she was the Tampa Bay Times' Pinellas County player of the year in 2010 when she hit .537, stole 57 bases and scored 55 runs. She was just as stellar as a centerfielder, tracking down nearly every ball hit her way.
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Andrews went on to play at LSU. One diving catch in the College World Series during her senior season two years ago made it onto SportsCenter.
The past two seasons, she has played in the pro league. This season was her first with Akron.
Andrews does not have a favorite catch in her career.
"I guess the ones that would mean the most are the ones that help save games," she said.
To make an extraordinary play takes practice and risks, Andrews said.
"You have to have confidence," she said. "You can't be afraid to miss the ball. There has to be a freedom of failure to go out and make those kinds of plays. It also takes countless hours of practice and reps. You know you're not to make every play, but you have to feel like you can get any ball hit your way.
"That was instilled in me early on, that determination that I'm going to make those plays."
Andrews is working on her master's degree at LSU. She also conducts camps in the offseason.
"I'm excited to be a pioneer for others girls who are starting out in the sport," Andrews said. "That's why I wanted to win that award (the Gold Glove) so bad."