As the season turns from “almost-pleasant” to “persistently-sweltering,” it is doubtless many of you are beginning to embark on your company or social summer softball leagues.
Baltimore is a great place for softball. We have ample fields and parks, a great baseball tradition, and police who enforce the spirit of the public alcohol consumption laws, versus the letter.
Whether you’re going to be legging out infield singles at Patterson Park, chasing down fly balls at Joseph Lee, or swatting ground-rule doubles at Druid Hill, it’s important to enjoy softball responsibly. Here are some principles that will keep it fun for everyone this summer.
“I’m just lobbing it in.”
This is my personal softball mantra, lifted from an underwhelming Seinfeld episode entitled “The Bris.” In it, Jerry laments that he is chosen to be the Godfather for the catcher on his softball team’s son. He explains to Elaine, “Maybe in hardball it’s more involved, you know they have signals and everything. I’m just lobbing it in. We don’t have conferences. He doesn’t come out to the mound and encourage me.” Especially as my team’s primary “pitcher,” I try and take this notion to heart. It’s easy to get caught up in the competitive nature of the game, fuming at umpires who are making $26 a game and breaking up double plays. You have to remember, once the dust settles, an out-of-shape dude is going to take a step and lob a big neon-colored ball in at roughly 13 mph. It’s silly to get worked up about anything that involves throwing something underhand. It’s not worth sliding. It’s not worth name-calling, cheating, accusing people of cheating, or injuring your has-been self. It’s slow-pitch softball. If it were more serious, they’d call it something else.
Beer, Sweat and Tears
Some leagues and umpires have draconian regulations on beer consumption for softball, which to me seems preposterous. I’m not talking about how much beer you can bring in a cooler, or what kind of device you need to drink it in. That’s the City of Baltimore’s department and they seem to be relatively at ease with the status quo. I’m talking primarily about base coaches, and possibly right fielders. Given that many a big league ballplayer brings an entire bag of dip or seeds in his pocket out to the field with him, you would think that there’d be no quarrel with letting the third base coach sip a Natty Boh while waving a base-runner in. I believe the real reason some folks are so stringent about beer on the field is that it puts softball dangerously in the “activity” category rather than a “sport.” However, I would protest that Manny Ramirez could’ve eaten entire chicken dinners in the outfield during his career and his fielding stats would’ve been identical. Basically, even though I’m usually too dehydrated to have a beer until after the game, I’m pro-beer and softball. I know, such a controversial stance. However, things can get dicey after too many, so I would appeal to you to stay within a Larry Miller Stage Two until AFTER the game.
Carry a Big Stick
Now that I’ve devoted a good deal of this column telling you to chill out, I must also address the fact that getting mercy-ruled is never a very fun experience. While the two leagues I play in do not currently address P.E.D. usage in their league rules pamphlet, there are certainly teams made up of what Snooki would call “gorilla juiceheads.” These guys are not easy to pitch to. However, you can level the playing field if your team pulls together an extra $250 and gets a decent bat every season. For reasons scientific and unfathomable, softball bats seem to lose their “pop” after a season or so. Certain bats also just make the ball fly like that dusty thing you’re swinging simply cannot. Just the confidence of having such an instrument in the hands of your average hitter is worth the purchase.
Girls, Girls, Girls
I only play in co-ed leagues, where there are many strange rule modifications put in place to ensure competitive balance. This sort of makes sense in sports like basketball and flag football, where a man’s general size advantage can make for awkward situations. Baseball, and by proxy, softball, should be equal when it comes to competition, but it is clearly not. Usually, you need at least 3 women in the field at all times, and at least every fourth batter needs to be female. Also, some leagues practice a rule where if you walk a guy who bats ahead of a gal, she automatically reaches base. To me, this all seems very antiquated. Why would you enter a team in a co-ed softball league if you didn’t plan on using any of your female players? So, here is my message to female softball players and the team managers who perpetually stick them at the bottom of the order playing catcher, second base, and right field: you’re not helping. If you haven’t played a lot of ball in your life, the only way to get better is to get up there and take your cuts. Take a few ground balls off the shins, be aggressive on a 2-strike count, and try and stretch a double into a triple. It’s completely arcane to believe that women are incapable of competing evenly in a softball league where the prize for first place is usually a big bag of nothing and at most a plastic trophy.
While football may be America’s most popular sport, soccer its fastest-growing, and basketball it’s most accessible to play, there is something intrinsically wonderful about taking to a patch of dirt and playing a full-fledged game of softball. Maybe it’s because, as kids, it always seemed implausible to get a full 9-on-9 game going in your neighborhood. There’s a level of orchestration there that only adults are capable of. Its antiquity– no scoreboards, old-timey terminology, funny socks, is part of its charm. The fact that nearly every company with more than 10 people can and usually does field a team at some point, is unique solely to this country. The beer of choice, the dusty Orioles’ caps, and the collective memories of baseball in Baltimore, are unique to us and our City by the Bay, even if we are just standing in a park, trying to keep our cool, and simply lobbing it in there.
Dave Gilmore lives in Baltimore, works for a sports-oriented non-profit, and writes “The Win Column” for BaltimoreSportsReport. He is currently working on a novel about college football. Find him on Twitter @dave_gilmore.