Sandra Simmons tracked the ball as it sailed toward the wall in left field, the new part-time spot for the longtime first baseman.
South Carolina’s Ansley Ard clobbered the pitch for what looked to be a solo home run to even the score with LSU in the third inning of last Sunday’s series finale. But Simmons, a member of last year’s Southeastern Conference all-defensive team, reached the wall in time to rob Ard of the homer, eliciting gasps from everyone in Tiger Park.
Everyone except Chuck and Linda Fortenberry.
“Somebody said, ‘Oh my God,’ ” Linda recalled after the Tigers’ eventual 2-0 win. “And I said, ‘That’s just Sandy.’ ”
Take it from the Fortenberrys: They’ve witnessed just about every moment of their granddaughter’s softball career.
Simmons’ maternal grandparents have attended nearly every game of her four-year stint at LSU, following the team in their RV from park to park. Linda said she and her husband may have missed only “one or two” midweek games while traveling back to Baton Rouge from a road series.
Other than those few times, Simmons, a California native, knows she can find her grandparents sitting in the first row behind the Tigers’ dugout.
“Every game, same spots,” Simmons said last Thursday. “It’s exciting to know that I have family that is here no matter what. ... No matter what type of game we had as a team and no matter what I did, (to them) I did awesome.”
Chuck, a retired owner-operator truck driver, considers himself and his wife lucky to have the good health and resources for the frequent travel. They trailed their three grandchildren throughout high school and travel ball and kept up the tradition when Simmons gave them the chance to keep going.
“We don’t feel like we need to do it; we just chose to,” said Linda, a former senior buyer at an electronics company. “We’re retired, we have a motor home and we thought, ‘What’s better than to see our granddaughter?’ ”
The Fortenberrys haven’t returned home to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, since they departed in January. It’s a 1,782-mile drive from there to Baton Rouge, but Chuck needed only a few moments to pinpoint the worst part of the long trip east.
“Not being here,” he said.
During the short periods of the season when they aren’t on the road, Chuck and Linda stay at the Farr Park Equestrian Center’s campground, a mere 10-minute drive down River Road from Tiger Park.
They pack clothes — usually too many, Chuck acknowledged — and keep food in their RV’s freezer and refrigerator, supplementing any other necessities from local stores.
That has been their routine for the past four years, during which they’ve watched Simmons develop into a four-year starter and, lately, the most consistent hitter in the Tigers’ lineup.
“She has grown as an athlete,” Chuck said. “But through it all, I’ve never heard her say one bragging word about it.”
Simmons has grown alongside classmate Kellsi Kloss, an eight-year teammate dating back to their travel ball days with the SoCal Firecrackers. Kloss said the Fortenberrys have become entrenched in the LSU community, and she even calls them “Nana and Papa” like Simmons does.
“It means everything to Sandy,” Kloss said of the Fortenberrys’ devotion to their granddaughter. “The fact that we’re both so far away from home, and she can look in the stands every single game and know there are people there that love her and care for her. That’s blood to her.”
Chuck and Linda’s next stop is Fayetteville, Arkansas, where they’ll watch Simmons and LSU face the Razorbacks in their final SEC series of the season. They hope they’ll need to make a return trip to Oklahoma City, where the Tigers finished third at last year’s Women’s College World Series.
Though Simmons’ senior season is winding down, the Fortenberrys still have plenty of traveling ahead of them.
Simmons will play professionally for the Akron Racers, who selected her in the second round of the National Pro Fastpitch College Draft on April 14. She called her grandparents upon learning the news and discussed her future in a conversation Linda said brought her to tears.
The Fortenberrys said they’ll return to LSU in the coming years to visit some of the “great friends” they’ve made during Simmons’ time in Baton Rouge.
But they’ll first go wherever their granddaughter is, just as they’ve done for years.
“We have some things to take care of after LSU. We have to go home, then we’ll look at the schedule and see where she is,” Linda said. “We’ll go to some (Akron) games, absolutely.”