On the road…again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
Slow Pitch Softball and Some Unanswered Questions
True sports fans may not pay much attention to such quaint pastimes as softball, especially the easy going variety of quasi-sport known as slow pitch softball. But older ladies and gents who once enjoyed playing the much more challenging game of baseball, with its fastballs and expansive outfields, are still inclined to play; and play they do in great numbers around the world. Softball is enjoyed by many millions of people partly because it embraces the look and the feel of baseball, without the rigorous demands for competitive speed on the base paths, the ability to hit a hanging curveball or to outrun a deep line drive to the left field wall. There is joy in being on the field, such as it is; and a deep sense of satisfaction in knowing that other adults do not demean you for acting like kids who never grew up.
Much like golf, softball is one sport that can be played and enjoyed for decades beyond our youthful years, without the disparagement of wallflowers who may think that playing ball is only for kids. On the contrary, most observers give a certain amount of credit to those who stay sufficiently in shape to take on the physical challenges that come with being on a team.
Those who have been playing organized softball long enough know that physical limitations are real; thus softball teams are inclined to be structured by age classes suited to those limitations. As with most sports with physical prowess and individual skills as part of the selection criteria, age alone is not the sole determining factor when teams are formulated. That may be true in cities and towns that have a large pool of candidates to choose from, thus the presumed skill levels will more closely match the physical capabilities of the participants. On the other hand, in those places where there never seem to be enough interested and capable would-be players, the teams tend to be all-age mélanges of enthusiasts of male and female, young and old--anything it takes to make up a roster; anything it takes to make a game. Such pick-up games are an established part of softball lure, despite the fact that nobody can describe what a pick-up team roster will look like, today or next time.
It is just because the appeal of softball is so widespread that so many concessions have been made by the players who want to participate. The skillful reluctantly allow the less skillful to participate just to be able to play themselves. In informal circles, there are few all-stars. Speedy runners may be few; nobody will be boasting of having previously won a handful of golden gloves for their defensive skills; and a handful of weak hitters will likely be on the same roster with good hitters. It is for the love of the game that softballers come to play; not to compete with a quest for domination. Thus, for the many reasons that older players concede their own declining speed and reflex action, they also self-elect to choose the rules that they will follow.
Except in the case where organized leagues exist, casual or social groups that gather to play softball almost always establish the rules in the moments before the game begins, while standing on the playing field. The designated team captains or the leaders in the group sort out what is reasonable or acceptable to the majority of players; then put those “rules” into practice. Those rules, stated or otherwise, may include moving the pitching mound closer to the plate when a very young batter stands in to take her swings, or to pitch to her until she hits a fair ball.
A high arc pitch is on the way
It so happens, in my humble opinion, that nobody really cares what rules were used, once the game is over. The players are out there for the love of playing, not as watchdogs of the purity of the sport, as recorded in an official rulebook. Indeed, there is an official rulebook for softball; and it dictates the specifications of the playing field, the strike zone; and other details that structure the game in such a way that everybody can start from a common set of parameters. Unfortunately, few casual softball games are played on diamonds that conform in size and shape to official standards; and the local rules that are adopted by pick-up gamers are even less inclined to conform to ideals as described in the book. Casual softballers play with what they have and with who they have. First and foremost, the playing is the thing that counts.
Having said all that, there is a purpose for which this chronicle is written. Even loosely structured teams that face each other in week-end competition have to reach agreement about some of the rules that they prefer to follow, in order to speed up play, to balance out the competitive advantages and disadvantages of, say fast-pitch vs. slow- pitch; and other practical considerations, such as the actual delimiting dimensions of the playing field.
There is even the matter of whether slow-pitch softball refers to balls that are tossed with a gentle arc of 6-12 feet, or an unlimited arc whereby the slowly pitched ball can be delivered to the plate at a steep angle. Some players prefer limited arc pitching, while others find that unlimited arc pitching is more challenging. Our USAID team in Kenya faced making that decision at the start of each and every new season.
The USAID softball team in Kenya to which the Footloose Forester belonged was definitely of the pick-up genre. The mixed-age individuals who seemed to pop up at the International School of Kenya sports field eventually coalesced into a roster or regulars, based on their interest in always showing up to play; their comparative skills and interests at playing infield or outfield; pitching or catching. A nominal team captain made the decisions to place players when the position players were ample to allow any needed substitutions. It didn’t happen very often, since potential players usually selected themselves out if they personally believed that they would not be competitive enough at a designated position. And sometimes players were borrowed from other teams, just to get the games underway. The other teams had the same problems filling out the rosters and employed the same solution of borrowing players. Those were glorious years, when grown men donned their T-shirts and sports shoes and eagerly took the field to play like they never grew up.
Only one sticky issue remained as a grand question that went unanswered. During those times when we all agreed that pitches could be delivered within a limited arc of 6-12 feet, the precise location of the strike zone was a debatable issue. In baseball and in softball when pitches were delivered at a modest speed, the textbook definition of the strike zone was known far and wide as the imaginary zone between the hitters’ shoulders and kneecaps AND over the plate. Whereas a baseball player would sometimes stand deep in the batter’s box to wait for a curve ball to break, the slow-pitch softball player didn’t have to contend with curve balls, so was more inclined to stand in the middle of the batter’s box. Whether or not s/he stood deep in the batter’s box or somewhere in the middle, a strike was called if the pitch was over the plate and passed through the zone between shoulders and kneecaps—where the batter stood. But in slow-pitch softball, the flight of the ball dropped sharply if the original arc of the ball was near the 12 foot upper limit, thus it mattered greatly where the ball finished up. On the other hand, a slowly pitched ball with a 6 foot arc was in danger of hitting the ground even before it reached the plate.
In limited-arc pitching, a pitch with a 12 foot arc was legitimate, but one that arced higher than 12 feet was counted as a ball; likewise a pitch with a flatter arc of less than 6 feet was also counted as a ball.
Also in limited arc pitching (6-12 foot arc), a low pitch that passes over the plate may or may not pass above the rear kneecap of the batter, if the batter stands deep in the batter’s box. In that case, the strike zone as defined by the height of the player is more important than the distance from the ground to the imaginary parallel lines defining shoulders and kneecaps. A low pitch likewise may or may not even reach the plate, if the batter chooses to take a shallow position in the batter’s box. In the case of a deep position, a batter that is within the defined limits of the batter’s box is behind the plate; and a batter in a shallow position is in front of the plate. Most players were accustomed to positioning themselves in line with the plate, or slightly deep in their stance, so it was not usually an issue. Nevertheless, the strike zone changed in relation to where they stood and the dimensions of the plate was the minor part of the controversy.
The outlandish circumstances of high arc pitches were more extreme. If a batter chose to stand deep in the batter’s box, the ball did not cross beyond his/her rear knee until it was beyond the confines of the batter’s box, itself. It was irrelevant how high or how low it was when it passed over the plate, if the distance between batter’s shoulders and knees was the key that umpires concentrated on (which they did). More pronounced was the case for batters who chose to stand shallow in the batter’s box. In that case, if the imaginary parallel line between shoulders and knees was still key, the batters might be charged with a strike if the ball passed within that zone, however; the ball would not ever reach the plate before it hit the ground. It was virtually impossible under the law of gravity to include both the relational strike zone of the player and the plate; to define what was and what was not a strike. In practice, it was calling balls and strikes based either on the batter and his/her position; or on the plate. It could not be both, in most cases.
As a pitcher of both limited arc and unlimited arc slow-pitch softball in competition, the Footloose Forester asked others to comment on the imprecise location of the virtual strike zone. He never got anyone to commit to a comment of any kind, perhaps because nobody had a plausible answer. Thus, the Footloose Forester debated the issues only with himself, never having anyone take the bait to discuss with him the flaws in the adaptive rules of slow-pitch softball. Thus, the questions remained as seemingly rhetorical ones, such as: how could a pitch be called a strike if it was between the shoulders and knees of the batter, but didn't even reach the plate before hitting the ground? Likewise, how could a pitch over the plate be called a strike if dropped below the knees as it passed the batter?
Some of the differences between softball and baseball rules went by the wayside, and we casual softballers looked to the body language of other players rather than the rules found in books to settle our disputes. But to this very day, the questions have not been answered. They have not even been asked.