Friday, June 19, 2015

Fathers of a Softball Girl

It was a Sunday afternoon in mid-November and all of Fred’s friends had gathered to watch the big game while the steaks large enough to feed an army simmered on the grill.  Cold beverages were flowing, and loud boisterous banter was going back and forth amongst the men.  These alpha males enjoyed this ritual as they wore the jersey of their favorite football player as conversations of who the fieriest athlete was.  Middle linebackers, D-lineman, Tight ends and Fullbacks were auctioned off as the greatest.

Soon, the fathers of the sons in the house turned the conversation and admiration of their boys exclaiming how tough each of their offspring was.  “My son can bench 120% of his body weight”, “My son can run the 40 in 4.8 seconds”, and “My son pancaked the D-end” were phrases thrown out like punches of a heavyweight fight.  Oh yeah, these proud pops somehow lived their glory days and championed their boys like live stock in the auction.

Before the kickoff one of the fathers who was quiet wanted to partake in the “battle of the beast” proudly looked at his buddy’s and said, “None of your boys can handle what my kid can!”

Now, this dad had a son who was a good athlete.  His boy played all of the popular sports such as football, baseball, wrestling and even basketball.  The young strapping athlete received recognition for hitting the game winning shot, knocking the ball over the fence, pinning down his opponent in less than three seconds and catching the touchdown pass to put his team into the playoffs.  Quickly, the focus on his son was starting to be minimalized as he quickly told the men “I’m not talking about Johnny!”  “I’m talking about Grace.”

There was deafening silence as all of the Neanderthals looked at each other with more confusion on their face than they had during their 7th grade final exam taken almost 30 years ago.  With the cockiness and sarcasm only a dear friend could muster the question was asked, “How so Fred?”

Fred stated, “I see each of your boys play their games each week.  They practice twice a week.  Some of your boys even spend an hour a day in the weight room, mostly talking with their friends about last week’s game.  However, none of them are asked to do what Grace is asked to do each week all year around.”   Fred now had the podium and attention to share why ‘Softball Girls’ are the toughest athletes in all of sports.

“You see, Grace has to wake up every day at 5:30 AM.  She does her sprints, long distance and cardio workouts.  After school we rush her to her hitting lessons and then pitching lessons.  When she doesn’t have hitting and pitching lessons; she has 2-hour workouts just on the skills she was taught in those lessons.  At practice, she is hit 1000 ground balls where she has to execute a perfect throw down the line.  After her fielding, she puts on her helmet and takes another 1000 swings where we ask her to place the ball in a specific location otherwise it doesn’t count.  As she takes the mound, she is asked to throw her different pitches with pinpoint accuracy maintaining the velocity and achieving the appropriate break of the ball.  When the 4 hour practice comes to a conclusion; she and her teammates finish the workout with speed and agility drills.”  The men say, “Well that’s just a hard workout, our boys do the same!”  Fred responded, “OK, but now let’s talk about the games themselves.”

“You see, my daughter does this during the week year around, then every Friday night we travel to the tournament destination usually preparing for an 8 AM Saturday game.  Your boys would be done after that football game.  My daughter follows that 8 AM game with three more the same day.  Those three determine the seeding of her team, and schedule for Sunday’s play.  Sunday’s play is usually 6 to 7 games with the girls on the field from 8 AM until 11 PM.  That doesn’t even take into effect of the all-night tournaments that have had games played at 3 and 4 in the morning just to beat the weather or get in all of the games” Fred shared.

Now, Fred had their attention, but he wasn’t
done.  “Let’s talk about the softball game itself.  You see, softball has different rules than men’s sports.  Any starting player may re-enter a game once.  What does that mean?  It means, using a pinch hitter or a pinch runner doesn't mean you have to move your best defender or hitter to the bench because you've used a replacement. It means that you haven't really knocked the opponent's best pitcher out of a game just because the other coach takes her out. It means that a good softball coach will typically use everyone on the bench in their area of strength except perhaps that one final player who may have to be inserted into a game in the event of injury.  At all times, the very best players or the perfect player at that time is on the field.”

“Softball is a faster game.  The fact that a runner can't lead off first means there are no annoying throws down to first base to keep a runner close and stalling of time.  There is always action in the field and there is even an international tie-breaker rule that can make a really close game suddenly very explosive.”

“Speaking of close, a softball field is much smaller than a baseball field which means you get to sit really close to the action and you'll be able to see, not only the ball on every play, but maybe even the sparkle in the eye of the fielder who is making the play. The backstop is only 25 feet behind home plate. When that potential game-tying run is scored? You'll really, actually know if the umpire made the right call and he can hear you when he didn't!  With the bases so close together, there is never enough time to think about a play as one hesitation will cost you an out or even a run.”

“Pitchers don’t just throw fastballs.  In fact, the best pitchers can change the speeds of their pitches between 10-15 miles per hour.  A batter can gear up for a 55 mph rise-ball (it gets faster as they get older) and then the pitcher may break off a 36 mph change up making the hitter look, frankly, just foolish. And, you're sitting so close, you can see that and the look on both the pitcher's and the hitter's faces. Usually, everyone laughs except the batter.”

“Often, the left-handed batters look like they're trying out a crazy new dance step, not hitting. They call it the slap game and it's unbelievable. A fast player who can run the 60 feet to first base in under 2.8 seconds is usually turned into a left-handed batter, whether she can so much as hold a spoon with that hand or not. Why? Because all she has to do is get really good at dribbling the ball on the ground and she can beat out a throw from any infielder at will. It's not really a bunt, it's not really hitting away, and it’s called slapping. And, from a slightly sadistic point of view, it's really fun to watch teams think a leftie is just a slapper and then drive the ball to deep right-center field (or off a charging third baseman's ear) and scamper around the bases while outfielders chase the ball to the fence. The slap game has made softball an extremely dynamic, offensive game. Each year some of the nation's fastest players routinely hit for averages greater than .400. The slap game has revolutionized fastpitch and has become a favorite facet of the game for those who follow it. Think of it as a bit of an antidote for all those great weapons the pitcher has.”

“Hitting a softball is the hardest thing to do in sports. A pitcher stands in a circle (not a mound) 43 feet from a batter when she starts her delivery and, since most of the great ones seem to be at least six feet tall, they feel like they're on top of you as the ball is pitched and a hitter having a reaction to a particular pitch is often as much luck as it is skill. It has been scientifically proven that the softball hitter has less time to react to a pitch, because of the distance and the velocity, than does the baseball hitter. Remember that softball pitchers not only throw the ball hard, they can routinely change speeds of a pitch dramatically. Add to that the fact that, because of the way a softball is delivered, the ball make break up as much as it can down. The pitch that moves up is called a rise ball and the best coaches in the game say the only way to hit a rise ball is not to even try. Imagine a ball coming toward the strike zone of the plate that suddenly jumps up? Sure, you see a great "breaking ball" that goes down or moves across the plate in baseball, but how often does it just leap up above the plane of the bat? And, yes, softball pitchers can break the ball down (that's called a drop) and they throw both a true curve (that breaks away from a hitter) and screw ball that breaks into a hitter. Oh, yes, and the really good ones throw that bloody change-up that can make a hitter feel so foolish. So, the softball pitcher uses all four quadrants of a plate, uses both an up and a down pitch and changes speeds on a hitter.”

As Fred finished his lesson on how his little Grace played a much more demanding sport mentally and physically; he sipped his drink and smiled as the conversation quickly turned to great commercials on TV and less controversial topics such as who has the toughest kid because whether they admitted it or not; Grace was the winner in the room.

Happy Father’s Day to all of the proud Softball Dad’s from the Texas Travelers.  Enjoy being the father of your world class athlete and have pity on your friends who were not blessed to have a girl who plays softball!

For more information on the Texas Travelers you can follow them on Facebook or their News Network Site or by calling Coach Kyle Bennett at 972.679.7702.

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