The seemingly endless seasons of softball are in full swing for fervent fans of a sport involving garish yellow balls, smelly leather cleats and dirt filled diamonds. It has provided us some much-needed diversion over the last three months watching JV, varsity and traveling team players come into their own.
The season got off to a soggy start, with local diamonds initially covered with a blanket of snow only to be replaced with mud puddles that never seemed to dry. The cold and wet kickoff made it a miserable spectator sport. Umbrellas, blankets and jackets molded in the back of the car, the smell reminiscent of tennis shoes lost in a forgotten gym locker. As the high school season began winding down, the sun broke through those persistent rain clouds, causing our internal temperatures to make radical adjustments. Wet umbrellas became multi-functional, held high overhead to protect from the solar rays. Dark glasses, hats and sunscreen became our uniform accessories. Blankets were folded into compact cushions to ward off the blistering heat of aluminum bleachers baked in the afternoon sun.
We learned how to use google map or smart phone navigation tools, following the bouncing series of text messages that sent us from one field to the next. I never realized how many other towns had softball fields tucked into parks, behind elementary schools or built along the banks of the Columbia. We would often arrive at what we believed was our final destination only to receive another text sending us to a different diamond on the outskirts of town.
Each field had its own personality, with quirky rules that followed the lay of the land. Some had sloping outfields that made a fly ball unplayable, or structures that infringed on the playing areas, creating out of play designations. As the school softball season waned, the traveling team schedules emerged. We began searching new fields dotting urban areas in Clackamas, Happy Valley, Milwaukie, Tigard and Lake Oswego.
We learned to size up our opponent by their matching equipment bags and banners. The more decked out a team was, the better they thought they were on the playing field. Parking lots served as a barometer of investment in the sport, the more abundant and lavish the RV, the greater investment in the daughter or the game. We graded the physical amenities on and around the fields, artificial turf, lush grass or blowing dustbowl. Flush toilet or porta potty. Bleachers or splintered benches. Concession stand or neighborhood 7-Eleven.
We began to decipher a vocabulary previously unknown to newbies on the evolving softball season circuit. Hits came in all shapes and sizes; slap, drag, bunt, line drive, high fly and the weird whiff. Stealing was an art form, stand up, hooked leg, pop up, slide to the side with a backward base grab and the infamous belly buster. A dirty uniform was the player’s brown badge of courage. Whatever the favored slide employed, you must at all costs avoid being tagged.
There was a Morse code of sorts between coach and batter. First the coach shouts a sequence of numbers towards the batter as they approach the plate. Batter checks her Dick Tracy code busting wrist band to determine what action she is to take. Numbers changing as fast as the tumbler in a Bingo game, leading to some confusion on the part of all parties, rather than the intended deception of the opposing team. Occasionally the coach just shouts out “BUNT” or “HIT AWAY.” The outcome was often the same whether or not the opponents knew what the batter intended to do. The outcome was more frequently predicted by the ability of the batter to execute the type of hit requested.
The umpire was called blue, as in “Blue, that was across the inside corner” and “Blue, the ball just hit her foot.” There were assorted other names that should only be whispered under abated breath, but were occasionally shouted out loud enough to embarrass player and crowd alike. Many fans believed themselves to be as qualified as “blue” with a better view of the strike zone regardless of where they were seated. For the most part, the crowds were most courteous when we were playing in parking lots with pickup trucks rather than snazzy motor homes.
If your head wasn’t full of softball vernacular, you could overload your system by watching college softball streaming on your cell phones, listen to another softball game on the radio while sitting in the stands watching yet another team in person. Over time, your mind starts going all “coach” on you, as if you really understood the tactics and techniques of the sport and you want to suggest to the players different things to try. This is a definite sign of softball fever, which can be detrimental to your health.
Updates on the players’ stats were texted, Facebooked, Instagrammed or messaged in real time between fans. My daughter would text me a play by play if I was unable to go to a game. While text is no substitute for Mark Bailey’s exciting radio commentary, it does help you feel like you are still supporting the team.
In small towns like ours, you don’t have to have social media or technology to stay connected. We haven’t lost the art of face to face. I could be standing in the grocery line, filling up my gas tank, getting my hair cut or returning spray to the chemical company and have a proud parent or grandparent update me on the team’s stats.
When it all goes right, softball can teach fans, coaches and players on multiple levels. My hope is that each softball team we are following would carry their opponent around the bases when she hit that first homerun but suffered an incapacitating injury. It is the iconic image of good sportsmanship and love of the game. The players appreciate how it feels to swing for the fences and finally achieve that goal.
I hope that the players, coaches and spectators are inspired by soccer player Mia Hamm’s quote, “Somewhere behind the athlete you’ve become and the hours of practice and the coaches who have pushed you, is a little girl who fell in love with the game and never looked back ... play for her.”