A jersey signed by Houston Astros players hangs in the Mata family’s living room. Tess Mata, 10, was a shining light in Uvalde, Texas, with an infectious love of dancing, softball, and most of all, family. Verónica G. Cárdenas for ESPN
TESS MATA STOOD BENEATH the brown awning and threw a yellow softball at the white box that her father had spray-painted on a sugar maple tree. Tess hated practicing out here in the backyard. Every time she missed, she had to chase the ball and walk back to beneath the awning, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her sweaty nose before the next pitch. Do that routine a few times in the heat and humidity of South Texas, and you’d hate it, too.
“It’s too hot,” Tess finally complained. And so she went inside, got on her knees and whipped a tennis ball against the chimney wall, until one of her pitches strayed. “Hey!” her father, Jerry, yelled, “You’re going to break the TV.” It was back outside after that.
Tess might have hated the heat and the tree, but she kept throwing because, just like playing softball, pitching was her idea. When she told her parents she wanted to give it a try, her mother, Veronica, worried the position wasn’t right for her baby girl, still just 10 years old. Tess had been so timid when she first started school, she’d sneak her baby blanket into her backpack. “She was always scared that nobody was going to pick her up,” Veronica says.
But they couldn’t tell Tess no; she was too determined. Her goal was to make the Little League all-star team, and so Tess watched countless hours of YouTube on her iPad to learn the pitching mechanics. She refined them at that tree. She kept going because few things felt better than hitting the target. Sometimes the ball hit so perfectly, it almost bounced back to Tess.
When that happened, even the neighbors in the Mata’s quiet neighborhood in Uvalde heard the soft thumping of a softball hitting a tree. Thump. Thump. Thump. Over and over again. Each time, the ball broke off small pieces of bark. She threw for hours, and after she was done, Jerry rubbed Biofreeze on her shoulder to comfort her.
Talking about Tess while standing at the kitchen table, Jerry says he has video of the first time she pitched in a game for her team, the Bandits. He pulls out his phone from his front pocket and scrolls through videos looking for the right one. He stands there, with salt-and-pepper stubble on his chin and puffiness under his eyes, wearing a gray T-shirt with the Bandits logo on …….