Friday, June 14, 2013

Softball, the Not-So Obscure

I was originally going to finish this blog post last week, but that never happened due to outside circumstances. Thanks for your unfailing patience.

Based on the events that occurred one week ago, there is something that resonates in my mind: Softball isn't dead. Not by a long shot.

Just because you don't see it very often on television or don't see it frequently on any kind of mass media, that doesn't mean the sport isn't popular. The sport of softball is actually more popular than you think. There is, of course, the competitive fastpitch, where women can throw 70mph fastballs and have a pitch count of over 150. There are also recreational leagues; some leagues include leagues for young girls, and others are for adults that play for bar leagues or even their own businesses. No, the adult leagues don't do the fastpitch, although that would be quite hilarious. These leagues use something called "high-arc" where it's tossed higher in the air and the batter has to cherry-pick to put the ball in play. When younger girls play, they almost use the same style but the pitch is straighter onto the plate; the pitching style is usually referred to as "slingshot." All three pitching styles mentioned involve timing and patience, and moving from one style to another is often a mess in adjustment. That might not be true for most people, but sometimes moving into different areas of the batter's box can really give one an edge while up to bat.

Even though it isn't a professional league, the NCAA Division I Women's Softball Tournament is a staple in numerous households each year. As I have said in several posts before, college sports are a different monster than professional sports, and the atmosphere at a college game has a different feel of electricity flowing through the field and the stands. Now that the tournament is over, women will be heading back home, either training for the next season, or preparing for their prospective career post-college.

There is often that chance that their softball careers end here.
Is it sad? It may be, especially if the athlete is All-American and is a star player on their team.

All is not lost! After the NCAA season, some young women are invited to train and play for the U.S. National Team, where they play International Friendly Matches or play exhibition matches against NCAA Division I teams. Unfortunately, softball was excluded from the Olympic Games beginning in 2012 [they have since been put on the shortlist for 2020, but it is competing with other sports including baseball and wrestling], and a grand stage was lost for them. After the information spread of the dropping of softball after the 2008 Beijing Games, the World Cup of Softball was established in 2005. It works in almost the same format as the Olympic Games, and the tournament takes place in Oklahoma City, OK--the same location of the NCAA Women's College World Series. Exclusion from the Olympic Games can only mean bigger and better things for the World Cup of Softball, and it keeps the sport from losing any sort of ground in popularity and the interests of young girls aspiring to play.

Here's another kicker for you: there actually is a professional softball league in the United States. I know. Soccer can barely keep one alive for three seasons, and there's a softball league. Allow me to indulge...

It is not well-known in many areas, but the partnerships it holds with several organizations has been keeping it afloat for nearly ten years. National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) began as the Women's Pro Softball League in 1997 until 2001 and was revitalized as NPF in 2004. Although there are only four teams, it has developed quite a following in the areas in which the teams are established, and the businessmen that are in charge of this league are shrewd enough to get decent-sized deals for these teams (albeit not widespread). You wouldn't think that considering the photo below.
2011 Photo posted on The Sports Nut Blogs on Facebook
I took this screenshot of the website two years ago, and the tab highlighted in red is still on there today. You could own a team. Right away, red flags started flying everywhere the very first time I saw this on their website. But no, it's not that easy, so don't think you can step up and own a team like in the film Major League. Anyway, there are four teams, and you start to wonder: "How are they still around?" One word: Sponsorships. That's right. These guys are solid in the business world, and they're doing everything right that the WNBA is scoring high in. Plus, these guys are also in a union with Major League Baseball, which is a massive plus. Even though the league looks small, it's extremely cemented, and it looks like the women that are playing are getting a pretty enough penny for it.

FUN FACT: Did you think professional softball was only for women? You're silly if you said 'yes.' Men's leagues actually exist around the world. There is a lesser-known league that is in practice in the U.S.
I remember one time they actually put one of the games on ESPN. Because it isn't fastpitch, men can easily pound home runs and rack up the score. However, there is actually a rule (I can't confirm this for other leagues), but each team is only allowed to hit a certain number of home runs in the game and any additional home runs over the limit are automatic outs. I'm not joking. I thought it was silly too.

In case you thought I was making this up, here's a video of it.

As a woman who played softball for over ten years, it's wonderful to see the sport getting as much development and care as it is in the United States. When you think about it, it doesn't have to have a professional league or an Olympic sport to represent it. If the passion is there, it's going to be contagious among girls on the teams and the people watching them. That's what makes the sport so strong. Would I like to see it become more mainstream in the States someday? Sure. It could be a great companion piece to professional baseball leagues around the globe. But for now, it's doing incredibly well as it is.

Just because softball isn't an Olympic sport anymore doesn't mean that the sport is dead. It may be more difficult to find than other mainstream sports like baseball and football, but it exists, and it's still incredibly exciting to watch.