While the motivation is a little different for everyone who plays the universal truth bringing everyone together week after week is there is no better feeling on planet Earth than making connection with the sweet spot.
For many who play the game, slow-pitch softball, the experience is one cherished for the camaraderie felt and the few hours a week players get a chance to forget the harsh reality of life: We all have to get up in the morning.
Because for those few hours on weeknights and weekends at ball fields across America men and women of all walks of life hack it out one 10-foot arch at a time ultimately looking for another chance at making that key play in the field or sending everyone home from a timely swing.
Slow-pitch softball is a game designed to encourage — and almost always predicate — contact with a ball 12 inches in diameter created with varying compression rates giving everyone who plays the game a chance to be a part of every at-bat.
The ball is delivered pitch after pitch in what is supposed to be an arch rotation with pitchers taking various liberties with how the ball leaves the hand. Variations of the pitching rules are from league to league but the general rules revolve around the idea that under-hand pitching remains constant.
“Well, I just kind of fell into it because I wasn’t playing baseball anymore,” said west Valley resident Jason Pinney in an Aug. 11 phone interview. “I had played baseball in high school and in college and when I got to the point in my life when I joined the Marine Corps and when I got out I hadn’t played any ball for some time.”
Mr. Pinney recalls in about 1996 a friend asked him to play on his slow-pitch softball tournament team. From there, Mr. Pinney says he fell back in love with a variation of America’s Pastime.
“I really enjoyed the camaraderie, the company of friends and guys I was playing with and the traveling,” he said of his first experience with competitive softball. “It was a different game then than it is now. The technology wasn’t even close to what is available today. The majority of the players who were playing were baseball players. They were guys who played and knew baseball and that is how it all started.”
An evolving culture
The game Mr. Pinney encountered in the mid 1990s has flourished into a subculture of baseball with competitive tournament leagues spanning the majority of the country with regional, statewide and local leagues hosting variations of pitching styles, age groups and allowable bat types.
As softball has become more and more organized over the last 25 years, Mr. Pinney says different generations interpret the game in new ways and it is not uncommon to see players who never played baseball become top-notch softball players.
“I really found that a certain camaraderie develops when you play on tournament teams and you play with guys that you start to have a lot of chemistry with — just like in baseball,” he said. “But in softball it is a hitters game and what is fun about that is recognizing the fact that everyone is going to be putting the bat on the ball. It is not just a pitchers’ duel. I think that entices people to play.”
It’s that endearing quality Mr. Pinney says is what has him calling strikes and balls week-in and week-out at local ball fields in the north Phoenix area.
“As a younger player I was always the player who would argue calls,” he said. “I have a perspective of an umpire as a player. I now realize that I have to contribute to making softball a recreational sport.”
Mr. Pinney says it’s that recreational perspective he tries to bring every time he is calling the outs on a league night or weekend tournament.
“If I know that I ran out there then I can stand behind the fact that I got there to make the right call,” he said. “For me, it is about giving those teams as players the same experience I would expect as a player.”
That experience is important for players like Peoria resident Mike Kalas.
“Softball gives me a chance to still be competitive as I grow older,” he said Aug. 11. “I have played sports my entire life and continues to be an outlet for me.”
Mr. Kalas plays both league and tournament play around the Phoenix metropolitan area and throughout the southwest.
“It came as a natural progression. I played baseball and basketball throughout high school and continued to play basketball until my late twenties,” he said of his introduction to the game. “As I got older, wear and tear was taking a toll on my body so I moved to playing softball. It is a little easier on my body and still allows me to continue to have physical competition in my life.”
Mr. Kalas says for him tournament play and recreational play are both keys to enjoying the sport of softball.
“Playing league is more about spending time with people you want to hang out with while getting some practice,” he explained. “Tournaments, for me, are all about my need to be competitive. Most take it very seriously as it requires a lot more of your time and financial responsibilities.”
But the softball community is of one truth, Mr. Kalas contends.
“I have found that there are two groups in the softball community. First are the average recreational player that plays one night a week. They love the game as a way to get out with friends and have some fun,” he said. “The second is the tournament player. They live for the game. They play upwards of four times a week and usually weekend tournaments. The one constant is that most truly love to play and enjoy spending time with people of similar interest.”
Slow-pitch but high stakes
“I never played baseball. I played one week of T-ball when I was young and I didn’t like it and I never went back,” said Jake Bejarano in an Aug. 11 phone interview. “I got into softball when I was 16 and he asked if I wanted to play with him on his team.”
Mr. Bejarano is playing for the No. 3 rated E team at USSSA.com and expects to make a run at the national title this year.
“We, Team Lund, as of right now are rated No. 3 in the state of Arizona in the E Division, which is how they do the ranking,” he said of the alphabet monikers for tournament divisions. “We are a really competitive group of guys and the team chemistry has really been building. This year we are really hoping for a good run at a championship.”
But championship or not, Mr. Bejarano says he is on the field for the love of the game and the people around him.
“I play at Victory Lane because of location and honestly it is nice to play league where I can play with other people who don’t take it serious when it is league,” he explained. “I think league is a time to go out and have fun. Who knows, I would like to be one of those guys that will play into their 60s. I hear that on the senior level it is a lot more fun because out there it’s just to be able to play some ball.”
While Mr. Bejarano says the best way to describe any kind of softball — slowpitch at league or tournament play on the weekends — is not the sport of baseball and new skills have to be learned to be successful.
“And at the end of the day, it is slow-pitch softball and we all have to work on Monday,” he said.
It’s that kind of customer Mike and Kim Krueger seek to capture at Victory Lane Sports Park, 22603 N. 43rd Ave.
“We purchased the park in June of 2006 and just now have entered our ninth year in June,” Mr. Krueger said in an Aug. 11 phone interview. “It was kind of an extension of youth sports that I thought it would be really cool. It took us about eight or nine months to make the decision after a hard look at the numbers but something just made it happen.”
At the Victory Lane Sports Park about 4,000 patrons every week participated in slow-pitch softball, baseball, kickball and sand volleyball leagues and tournaments, according to Mr. Krueger. In addition, this fall the park is expected to host games for the Arizona Miracle League as the Harmon Killebrew Field has been recently completed in the heart of the ballpark.
“I grew up playing baseball and I ended up playing college ball for a couple of years,” he said of his love for being a diamond. “I was always a baseball person.”
The atmosphere at Victory Lane Sports Park is one suited for all walks of life, Mr. Krueger says.
“Our crowd for softball ranges from kids just out of high school all they way up to folks who are 50- and 60-years-old,” he pointed out. “We have some people who have been playing here since the park opened in 1994. All kinds of people, blue collar to people who own business — it’s just a wide range of demographics.”
Mr. Krueger says the amenities offered at Victory Lane are what bring league and tournament players back to the private fields of play.
“The atmosphere, the competitiveness, there are just a lot of variables of why people play here,” he said. “We are year round here, seven days a week. We have people constantly using the park. We work our park really hard. Six out of the seven days a week we have Victory Lane softball leagues going.”
North Valley News Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at 623-445-2774 or at firstname.lastname@example.org