The Culture of Softball
UCLA’s Easton Field is about as charming as a softball field can get. Tucked, and I do mean tucked, into a glen in the northwest corner of the UCLA campus, it basically occupies the space that is created when the bordering Sunset Boulevard takes a sudden bend. It’s a nice venue in which to watch a game, but you’d better be on your toes because everywhere you sit is close to the action – and there is the occasional foul ball. But more on that tomorrow.
Game time for first-round action at this NCAA Softball World Series regional site was published as 1:00 for Game One (Fresno State vs. San Diego State) and 3:30 for Game Two (St. Mary’s vs UCLA). Running late and stuck in traffic, I arrived expecting to be greeted by inning 2 or 3 of the first game. Instead I saw SDSU doing warm-up calisthenics and Fresno State nowhere in sight. “Change of plans – everything’s pushed back two hours,” I was told upon inquiring as to the unmistakable lack of softball being played. “Sorry for the inconvenience,” did not accompany that explanation. They are after all, the NCAA, and I…am not. So I picked out a sunny spot in the bleachers and settled in.
I can’t say with assurance that the schedule change came as a surprise to the teams, but there was definitely a lengthy period of milling around in front of the dugouts by both teams prior to the first game. Thus really putting on display the following dynamic: Softball, as it is played at the collegiate level, strikes me as a society and culture unto its own, above and beyond that of most team sports. As I saw throughout the day and evening, each team had developed an elaborate set of rituals that are waaayy beyond that which you would find being practiced by a baseball team. There is definitely some significant time invested in coming up with unique “handshakes” and other methods of physical connection. But that pales in comparison to the effort put into developing various cheers, chants and assorted call-and-response routines.
During the first game, it became obvious that the primary responsibility for maintaining the in-game culture of the team falls to the non-starters (or “bench-warmers” as we were humbly known back in the pre-self-esteem days). For example, the San Diego State non-starters doubled as a very well-orchestrated pep squad, lining up in the back of the dugout and maintaining a running series of cheers and routines that were customized to individual members of their team when they were at bat. And during the break between innings, they would all run from the dugout to the outfield wall and back before breaking into a spirited round of catch. These girls were Involved! And they more or less kept up that level of energy for the entire 2½ hour duration of the game. Guys wouldn’t be bothered to do that for one inning, let alone an entire game. They’d just hire a deejay and be done with it.
And then there are the team huddles. After every inning, the defensive team comes off the field and gathers around the coach out in front of the dugout. I know this is a Venus/Mars thing and that women are by and large better communicators than men, but seriously – what is there to talk about after a 1-2-3 inning that lasted maybe 8 minutes?
As the afternoon wore on, I started to realize that while softball and baseball are at their core the same game, the deeper you go into the rules of each game, the more divergent they become. Let’s start with baseball’s “Designated Hitter”, whose job it is to bat in place of the pitcher. One guy hits, a different guy pitches – done and done. The softball counterpart to baseball’s DH is the “Designated Player”, and in the NCAA Softball Rules & Regulations publication, six pages are dedicated to what that player may and may not do. They can hit, they can play the field, they can come in and out of the game – but only under certain conditions. It depends.
In baseball, if you are removed from the game for another player, you are done for the day. In softball, players cycle in and out of the game with regularity – but only under certain conditions. There can be players that just pitch, players that just hit, players that just field, and players that just run…or not. It depends.
The point is this – the entire field of medicine doesn’t have as many specialists as does a softball team. It’s all part of a relentless effort to have contributions come from all corners. The ultimate anti-star system. When baseball agent and menace to society Scott Boras passes on to the next life, he will no doubt be condemned to an eternity of having to represent softball players in contract negotiations. “Well, Mr. GM, my client Ashley led all designated runners in the entire league in average time running from second to third base. We feel that’s worth $65 million over three years.”
Sainthood, on the other hand, is definitely reserved for the Softball Official Scorer. Having just witnessed two games in which substitutions were the order of the day, I now place Softball Official Scorer up there with Air Traffic Controller and High School Dance Chaperone as one of the most difficult jobs in the country.
To be continued…