Monday, October 26, 2009

Softball...there's nothing soft about it!

As I promised/threatened this is another of those off topic posts. I will get to Church & State, I promise. Just need some time to do so.

My wife has been playing softball since she was 11 years old and as a result the rest of her family; father, mother, and 2 younger sisters, also became involved in the sport. Her sisters dropped out to have kids and due to injuries, although one is returning to it this season, but her parents, in particular her father became heavily involved, in not just playing, but in the administration of their own local club and at a state level

2009 was the 7th World Masters Games to be held, scheduled this time for Sydney, Australia. This was the first time my wife was eligible to compete; the age qualification is 35 and over. She had worked in administration at the 5th WMG in Melbourne, but had always wanted to compete. As Sydney isn’t really that far from home in Melbourne, I made the decision that I’d also go to support her, and we decided to combine it with a trip away. Both my wife’s parents were also attending. My father in law was going to be playing for Mens 45+ team and my mother in law, while listed as a player and eligible to compete, was unlikely to do so, but would act as scorer for my wife’s team.

I never really knew much about the sport prior to meeting my wife. I knew it was a variation of baseball, mostly played by women and that Australia was pretty good at it, but the US were the best.

When my father in law found out that I was intending to go to Sydney he wondered if I wanted to play, he needed bodies for the Mens 35+ team. I did advise him that I’d never played before and that I have no athletic aptitude whatsoever, but he assured me that as long as I was fit and could catch and throw a ball I’d be fine. So it was I became not only a spectator and husband of a competitor, but an active competitor in my own right.

I actually knew less about the World Masters Games than I did about softball. I was aware of their existence, but like most people outside of the families of competitors I thought it consisted of really old people with a sprinkling of ex Olympians. It is unfortunate that the media focus on the oldest competitors, many of them 90+ who win their events because they’re the only entrants. It turns the event into a sideshow and hides the fact that it is the largest participant sporting event in the world. The Sydney Games had in excess of 28,000 active entrants across a range of sports. If you were to see the occasional media pieces on the Games you could be excused for thinking that it was a senior citizens athletics meet and somehow sailing was also involved. The only reason that sailing got a look in was because Prince Frederick of Denmark (considered newsworthy in Australia because his wife; Mary, is Australian born) was competing. Badly, I might add, he didn’t win a medal and seemed to spend more time in the water than on top of it, his only real talent lay in capsizing his craft repeatedly. The event really deserves better coverage and the media should be ashamed of their efforts.

The Games aren’t about winning or losing, they’re about participating and having fun. Proving that age is no barrier to either. Most of the entrants are social athletes who compete for the sake of competing and enjoy their sport. Like all people, they like to win, but it’s not the driving force behind their activity.

My wife and I decided, as we were already in Sydney, that we’d register early and not have the hassle of trying to fit it in around competing. My father in law had been grumbling for weeks about the disorganisation of the softball component in the Games, as opposed to the readiness of Melbourne in 2002. Neither of us realised that it extended to the Games as a whole. They had massively underestimated how many people would want to compete and hadn’t catered for it. One mistake was having everyone register at the same place; the Olympic centre in Homebush, another was allowing all competitors to register at the same time, rather than allocate days or times for the different disciplines, an option to register online would have been useful and you would have just had to drop by to collect a photo id as well, the final mistake, and the one that I found most mystifying, was the lack of direction or signage as to where to go to register. Homebush is a large centre, incorporating a number of stadiums and buildings. We parked about 10 minutes walk from the registration centre and only found it by following other people and then seeing the queue. I won’t go into details, but we waited in that queue for in excess of 3 hours and it took 4 and a half hours to complete a process that if properly organised could have been done in 10 minutes.

Once that was over and done with we found our accommodation (organised by the club in Melbourne) and had a free day in Sydney before competition started, and we took full advantage of the fact that our accreditation allowed us free public transport in and around the city. It came in useful the following evening when we attended the opening ceremony, too. It was about as well organised as registering had been, but it was still fun to do.

I still can’t work out why they call it softball, the ball is not soft! I have bruises that can attest to this. While you don’t want to let a ball run through your legs into the outfield it hurts a lot less than putting your shin in the way. There’s also a reason you have a glove…it really hurts to try and stop a ball with the ungloved hand.

I did have fun competing, although I discovered that there’s a lot more to the game than catching, throwing and hitting. There’s an art to all 3, plus no matter where you’re fielding you have to be aware of what’s going on all over the ground, the same applies when batting or even when waiting your turn to bat. I preferred playing right field, although my best game was at 3rd base, having a hand in 2 outs. The Mens 35+ team was always up against it. We only had 11 team members and one of those was part time, dividing his time between the 35’s and the 45’s. 3 of us had never played before. We’d never had a practice session with all 11 of us present at the one time prior to our first match. Consequently we failed to win a game, although we had a couple of close ones and were forced to forfeit 2, one when our catcher broke down with a back injury, finishing his tournament, and the other because we had injuries and were trying to regroup after the breakdown. We finished the event with 6 fit players, not really surprising, most of the guys weren’t all that fit to begin with, only about 4 players hadn’t undergone multiple knee reconstructions and we threw ourselves into the whole thing with very little regard to life and limb. Like I said the ball isn’t soft and playing with a no prisoners approach doesn’t help. Still and all I did have fun and I’ll be there in 4 years time in Turin. This time after training with my wife and taking a more active interest in the sport I should at least know what I’m doing.

Anyone know why they call it softball?

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