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"When there's Wite-Out on the screen!"
She laughs, Eddie Murphy about to slip past the maître d'.
Tom and Jo Lopiano opened their restaurant, Casa Maria, in Stamford when Donna was seven. The chef quit one Saturday night, forcing Jo into the kitchen, and she didn't leave for 18 years.
Neither of Donna's parents had finished high school, and as Donna grew up, the eldest of three children, she sensed the compensatory dynamic so often at play in such situations. "I knew intuitively that my parents loved me to death, that they would do anything for me, and the only thing they wanted in return was for me to get an education. I doubt they ever said that to me. But I knew it."
After the Little League affair, Tom and Jo tried everything to make their firstborn happy. They called up and pleaded with coaches of industrial-league teams to give her a chance. They tried to distract her with horseback-riding lessons. They bribed patrons to go behind the restaurant and play catch with her. Sometimes even they did; today, Jo's pinky finger is crooked from trying to catch one of the pitches her daughter would later dare Darrell Royal to hit.
And then one day several months before Donna's 16th birthday, a friend of Tom's from Bridgeport, Conn., a scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates named Sal Cagginello, wandered into the restaurant. Cagginello, it turned out, knew Wee Devitt, the coach of the Brakettes, the storied women's softball team in nearby Stratford, Conn. So Tom plied Sal with food, and wine, and more wine. And at some point during the course of the meal he extracted from Cagginello a promise to take Donna for a tryout.
Cagginello showed up a week later with scant idea what, if anything, Tom's girl could do with a softball. As he drove Donna to the Brakettes' compound, he didn't say a word. Even as Donna took the field, he stayed holed up in his car, too sheepish to watch. Twenty minutes into the workout he crept to the outfield fence, curious. Another 20 and he was alongside one baseline, intrigued. Eventually, he was in the dugout, chesty as all getout, with Devitt's arm draped around him.
"Sal! You're the greatest scout in the world!"
"Ah," Sal said. "Was nothing."
Suddenly, the little girl's world opened gloriously up. At 16, Lopiano started at second base in a national championship game at Stratford. By 17 she was touring France, Hong Kong, India and Australia with the Brakettes. For 10 years she played with the team, and in between she attended Stamford High School, Southern Connecticut State (where she received her bachelor's degree in physical education) and Southern Cal (where she earned her master's in phys ed). By the time she played out her softball career-pitching a no-hitter, socking a grand slam and leading the tournament in hitting as the Brakettes won the 1972 national title—Lopiano had begun work on her doctorate, which she would eventually get from Southern Cal.