In April of 2010, author Tim Forbes embarked on a one-year “sports walkabout” that took him across the country to 100 sporting events involving 50 completely different sports. Why? Well, it’s complicated. His journey and ultimate discoveries about the true value of sports were published in the book “It’s Game Time Somewhere” (Bascom Hill Publishing, 2013).
UCLA’s Easton Field is about as charming as a softball field can get. Tucked (and I do mean tucked) into a glen in the northwest corner of the UCLA campus, it basically occupies the space created when the bordering Sunset Boulevard decided to take a sudden bend. It’s a nice place to watch a game, but you’d better be on your toes. Everywhere you sit is close to the action—and there is the occasional foul ball. But more on that later.
Game time for the first contest at this NCAA College Softball World Series Regional site was published as 1:00. Beset by traffic and running late, I arrived expecting to be greeted by second- or third-inning action. Instead I saw San Diego State doing warm-up calisthenics and Fresno State…actually nowhere in sight.
“Change of plans—everything’s pushed back two hours,” I was told when I inquired about the unmistakable lack of softball being played. “Sorry for the inconvenience” did not accompany that explanation. They are, after all, the NCAA, and I…am not. So I picked out a sunny spot in the bleachers and settled in.
On the bright side, the delay resulted in a lengthy period of milling around by both teams in front of their dugouts, putting on full display the following dynamic: softball at the collegiate level has a society and culture that extends far above and beyond that of most team sports. This was an anthropologist’s dream!
As I would witness throughout the day and evening, each of the four teams involved had developed an elaborate set of rituals that are waaayyy beyond those practiced by a men’s baseball team. To be fair, baseball players definitely do invest some significant time these days in creating unique “handshakes” and other methods of physical connection. But that absolutely pales in comparison to the effort their softball-playing counterparts put into developing a full array of cheers, chants and assorted call-and-response routines.
The primary responsibility for maintaining these in-game cultural dynamics falls to the non-starters (or “bench-warmers” as we were humbly known back in the pre-self-esteem days). The San Diego State non-starters, for example, doubled as a well-orchestrated pep squad, performing a running series of cheers and routines customized to whatever specific team member was at bat. During the breaks between innings, they all ran from the dugout to the outfield wall and back before engaging in a spirited round of catch. These girls were involved! And they kept up that level of energy more or less for the duration of the game.
It probably goes without saying that guys wouldn’t be bothered to do that for one inning, let alone non-stop for 2 ½ hours. They’d just hire a deejay and be done with it.
As the afternoon wore on, I started to realize that while softball and baseball are at their core the same game, the deeper you go into the rules of each game, the more divergent they become. Let’s start with baseball’s “Designated Hitter”, whose job it is to bat in place of the pitcher. One guy hits, a different guy pitches—done and done.
Meanwhile, the softball counterpart to baseball’s DH is the “Designated Player,” and in the NCAA Softball Rules & Regulations publication, six pages are dedicated to what that player may and may not do. They can hit. They can play the field. There can be players that just pitch, players that just hit, players that just field, and players that just run…or don’t. But only under certain conditions. It depends.
In baseball, if you are removed from the game for another player, you are done for the day. In softball, players cycle in and out of the game with regularity. But only under certain conditions. It depends.
The entire field of medicine doesn’t have as many specialists as does a softball team in it’s relentless effort to secure contributions from all corners. It’s the ultimate anti-star system. When baseball agent and general-menace-to-society Scott Boras passes on to the next life, he will no doubt be condemned to an eternity of having to represent softball players in contract negotiations. “Well, Mr. GM, my client Ashley led all designated runners in the league in average time from second to third base. We feel that’s worth $65 million over three years…What’s that?…Oh…Well actually what you’re suggesting is impossible, but yes, I’ll see myself out.”
Sainthood, on the other hand, is undoubtedly reserved for the Softball Official Scorer. With rampant substituting the order of the day in any game, I’d place Softball Official Scorer up there with Air Traffic Controller and High School Dance Chaperone as one of the most difficult jobs in the country.