MINNEAPOLIS -- Amber Fiser’s father, Rob, worked the graveyard shift in the wee hours of each morning, and had his daughter every night.
Most of those evenings were spent on softball fields.
Rob played competitive softball until he was 42 years old. For years, he played roughly four nights a week and three weekends a month.
“So we spent a whole lot of time at the ballpark,” he said.
And before every game, he’d set his daughter down on the front row of the bleachers, right next to the dugout, and give her a bucket of popcorn, a pop and a few toys with which she could play.
“And she’d sit right there the whole night,” Rob said. “She wouldn’t move until we were done.”
Fiser’s mom was a pitcher, her dad played for seemingly forever. She was probably destined to play the sport.
“Oh yeah,” Fiser said, “for sure.”
Fiser started playing 8U softball for the team in Marion, Iowa, when she was 7 years old. She played for the 10U team in the state tournament when she was nine. She was chosen to play for the Barracudas Gold elite softball team when she was just 14.
And she was almost always in the circle.
“She moved up the ranks pretty quick once she got going,” Rob said. “She had the ball in her hand every time. She seemed to like pitching, so that’s what we started working on.”
During that time, Rob had a consistent message for his daughter — if she wanted to pitch, pitching would become her lifestyle.
“This isn’t for fun if you’re going to be really good,” he said. “And she took to it.”
All the way to today.
The Gophers ace has improved in each of her three seasons at Minnesota. This season, the junior is 25-7 in the circle. Fiser is 16th in the nation in earned-run average (1.25) and fifth in strikeouts (281).
Gophers coach Jamie Trachsel said Fiser has a “desire to be great.”
“Meaning that she comes every day to work to get better,” Trachsel said. “She’s not satisfied with where she’s at.”
On Wednesday, Fiser was named the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, which led to a message from a certain someone who helped spark her career..
“The first thing I did (when I found out) is text Amber. and tell her, ‘Great job,’ ” Rob said, “and tell her I’m proud of her.”
“I think it means a lot to my family,” Fiser said. “Just because they know what I’ve been going through off the field.”
Rob Fiser noted he’s had “a few medical problems” in recent years. Several years ago, he started to battle kidney failure, which required multiple transplants and ample time spent away from home.
Another issue arose last year, when Rob had an illness he couldn’t kick. He eventually discovered he had prostate cancer. One of the worst side effects for Rob? He had to miss Gophers games.
Rob was able to attend the team’s first two Florida trips this season, but then had to stay home for radiation treatments.
That was hard for father and daughter, both of whom wanted to be together during the difficult time. But Amber, who talks to both of her parents essentially every day, said regular communication helped.
“Being able to talk to him every single day has helped me get through a lot,” Fiser said.
“It doesn’t seem like she’s so far away,” Rob said. “And with texting and stuff now, we can send pictures and this and that, it just makes it a lot easier.”
Fiser said her father is “kind of like my big rock. He supports me through everything,” to the point where she feels bad for ranting from time to time.
“I guess it’s to be expected as a dad, huh?” Rob said with a chuckle. “The biggest thing I try to teach her is just relax and don’t overreact. We have that conversation a lot — think this out, let it play out and everything will work out in the end.”
Rob had a number of talks with his daughter about locking in on the task at hand when she was in high school.
“When it was a high school game and it was a big game and she was having problems with her boyfriend that week or whatever, we’d talk about how you once you go out there on that field, you’ve got to support and do the best for your teammates,” Rob said. “We’re going to lock this other stuff out and focus on the game, and we’ll worry about this other stuff after the game.”
Her father’s medical issues are far greater than any relationship roadblocks. Still, Fiser hasn’t allowed anything occurring off the field to affect her on-field performance.
“I think it’s just taught me how to be stronger,” she said. “Like yes, I’ve been going through stuff on and off the field. But it’s just how I overcome that and mentally get over that and just show up for the game in that moment. I think that’s what’s really been helping me a lot this year.”
Trachsel said she’s seen the Gophers’ ace accept all challenges, using everything she faces as a chance to better herself.
“It’s pretty amazing that at her age she can do that,” Rob said.
Particularly for a player who wasn’t always known for her mental focus.
Fiser mowed opponents down in high school, to the point where few could even put the bat on the ball. So opposing coaches tried other tactics. They’d shout out for the umpire to call illegal pitches, which Rob saw get into his daughter’s head.
That’s no longer the case.
“She worked really hard to make sure her pitch was not illegal, so she didn’t even have to worry about that,” he said. “The thing for me is I’ve known she’s always had the ability. It’s the mental focus and the mental toughness that’s just developed more and more each year, and here lately, it’s really become obvious that she’s going out on the field, she’s going to do her job and she’s not going to let anybody distract her or knock her off her game.”
It’s just another example of how Rob has seen his daughter mature in recent years. Even in the difficult times, he finds himself taken aback by his college student’s wisdom.
“When some of these issues are going on and she gives me some answers about stuff … I’m like, ‘Wow, where’d that come from?’ ” he said. “She’s very mature about it.”
Ever since she started pitching, Fiser’s primary catcher has been her father. That’s still true today. When she returns home each winter, it’s Rob sitting on the receiving end of Fiser’s throws.
“I’ve told him I can get a different catcher, it’s fine, but he loves catching me,” Fiser said. “He reminds me of the little things I sometimes forget about, so I think it just helps me in the long run.”
In more recent years, as Fiser’s velocity and nastiness continued to climb, Rob had to buy shin guards and a face mask. Rob was wearing his gear, and hard-toed shoes, but that was no match for Fiser’s changeup this winter.
An off-speed pitch fooled her father, who missed the ball. It shattered his toe and Rob was in a walking boot for about a month. Rob’s toe was a casualty of his daughter’s development.
In high school, Fiser was able to simply throw it past hitters. But she realized soon after arriving at Minnesota that college hitters can catch up to any speed.
“So being able to hit your spots more, being able to spin the ball more and have that off-speed or changeup really is what makes such a big difference,” Fiser said.
By her sophomore year, she had incorporated a changeup, inspired by the one she watched Sara Groenewegen dominate with in 2017.
“For her to get better and develop at the higher levels, she had to develop those other pitches,” Rob said. “That just makes her that much better and more unhittable when those are working. … That was a really good thing.”
Rob recently finished his radiation treatments, and was able to resume his travel to Gophers games around the start of Minnesota’s home schedule this spring.
While he missed turkey hunting season, he’s looking forward to getting back on the boat and fishing as he continues to get stronger.
But first, he’s looking forward to this weekend’s Big Ten tournament. These are the stages where his daughter shines brightest. The Gophers are the third seed in this weekend’s conference tournament, but with Fiser in the circle, it’s hard to consider them anything but a favorite.
“Amber is awesome,” second baseman Makenna Partain said. “There’s no one like her, honestly, in the country. She’s insanely talented. She’s got a mentality that’s just like a fighter, like nothing is going to get to her, ever.”
Fellow pitcher Sydney Smith described Fiser as “a competitor.”
“Whoever is standing in front of her, she wants to beat them,” Smith said. “It’s cool to watch. Her fight and her love for the game, it’s pretty awesome.”
The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
“I’d say it’s a family trait,” Rob said. “When it comes to going out on the field, there’s one goal, and that is to win. She spent a lot of time with me at the ballpark, so I guess that rubbed off a little bit.”
And now Fiser is rubbing off on her teammates.
“If you have someone as confident, as dominating as that, I have 100 percent confidence in her every time she steps into the circle, and I know all of my other teammates do, as well,” Partain said. “It’s just encouraging, for sure. … She’s really stepped into this role of being such a dominant pitcher, and it’s honestly super awesome to watch her.”