We are coming up to the best time of the year for fastpitch softball fanatics: the NCAA D1 Women’s Softball tournament. Over the next couple of weeks 64 of (presumably) the best college softball teams in the country will be going head-to-head to see which will ultimately make it into the Elite 8 and the Women’s College World Series WCWS).
Fortunately for those of us who love it, these games will be all over ESPN. Not because ESPN has any particular love or feels any particular sense of responsibility to the sport, but because over the last few years it has been a rating juggernaut.
In fact, last year alone it drew more than 1.2 million viewers, which is 60% more than the Men’s Baseball College World Series. It draws the eyeballs, which draws the sponsors, which ensures you’ll see it.
Yet as popular as it is, if you ask the average youth or even high school player if she plans to watch any of the games, she will probably turn her head and stare at you the way a dog does when you ask it if it knows what it just did. That’s her way of saying no.
In fact, I have found over the years that most players don’t have a favorite team, or a favorite player, or can even name a college or pro player. That’s because it never occurs to them to watch the games. And if they do watch because a parent makes them, they don’t really pay attention or get invested in it.
That’s a shame, because there is much that younger players can learn by watching these elite athletes perform in the biggest showcase fastpitch softball has. (Yes, you can argue that the Olympics and other international tournaments offer a higher level of play but there’s no guarantee softball will be in the Olympics again – and just try finding international tournaments if you don’t have more than a basic cable or satellite subscription.)
So with that in mind, here are some of the reasons why you either want to watch the games with your favorite player or team live, or DVR them and watch them later. Even if you feel you have to turn off the sound on some of them.
1. See the Speed of the Game
This is probably one of the biggest eye-openers, especially for players in the 10-14 year age range. The game happens fast.
Players who are used to taking their time gathering a ground ball and making a throw to first, or jogging after a pop fly, will see how quickly plays develop – and are over. With slappers in particular, one little bobble by an infielder (no matter how minor it seems) gives the hitter just enough time to reach base safely.
Seeing the sense of urgency in every play can help individuals and teams learn to play at a higher level.
2. Watch How Top Players Execute Their Skills
It’s often said that when you’re looking at what techniques or mechanics to use for pitching, fielding, throwing, hitting, etc. that we should look at how the best players in the world do it. While the players on TV may not all be the “best” players they’re still pretty darned good at what they do so they make fine examples to study.
Here’s where DVRing the games comes in particularly handy. If a player hits a home run, you can go back and look at her swing from the multiple angles they show. Sooner or later you’ll get to see how a top pitcher throws her riseball – assuming it’s an actual rise and not a gyro spinning high fastball.
You can also use it for quantitative analysis, such as looking at how many pitchers use the “hello elbow” technique versus how many are using internal rotation. You can compare how many hitters “squish the bug” on their back leg versus shift their weight forward and get completely off the leg.
You can watch how infielders throw on a bang-bang play, how they make tags on steals, how they position themselves in bunt situations. You can watch how outfielders go back on a ball and how they scoop and throw home in a do-or-die situation. You can watch how many catchers throw from their knees versus their feet, and the specific techniques they use.
It’s a virtual cornucopia of skills on display, all delivered free to your living room.
3. See How Player Recover from Mistakes
One of the biggest challenges youth players face is learning how to recover from their mistakes, e.g., committing errors, striking out (particularly with runners on base), giving up leadoff walks, etc. As a general rule girls take “failure” rather hard, to the point where fear of failure can prevent them from performing at their highest level.
Well ya know what? Those players on TV do all those things too.
I remember the great Cindy Bristow telling a room full of coaches at a clinic that “My girls make the same mistakes your girls do. They just do it faster.”
So having your player(s) see one of the best in the game bobble a ball, strikeout, throw a wild pitch with a runner on third, or make some other mistake at the least will show her she’s in good company. (It will also show coaches and parents why they need to have realistic expectations for their 10 year olds.)
But the most important lesson for the player will be what happens next. Instead of brooding about it, the player in the WCWS will move on and keep playing. Sure, she may beat herself up over it later, especially if her team loses, but in the moment she pushes it down because she knows she needs to be ready for the next opportunity.
That is not necessarily a natural skill for most humans. But it’s one that can be learned of you make the effort.
4. Hear Some Inspirational Stories
Softball is absolutely a game of failure and adversity. And for some the journey is more challenging than others.
It’s easy to assume that everyone you see was a star from the beginning who was recognized for their talent and treated like royalty their whole career. But that isn’t always the case.
Fortunately, ESPN does a great job of profiling players and where they came from to tell fascinating human interest stories. Such as last year when Odicci Alexander captured the nation’s hearts with her story of being self-taught before leading her James Madison University team to the WCWS.
There are always stories players can relate to. Some talk about overcoming challenging injuries, including some that were supposed to be career-ending.
Some relate to issues such as being cut from a travel team or not making varsity and having to work even harder to elevate their games. Some involve personal tragedies.
Whatever the story, it shows that obstacles are only temporary – if you have the will to overcome them.
5. Bond With Your Player(s)
Remember the great James Earl Jones speech in “Field of Dreams” about how America marched along like an army of steamrollers, but through it all there was baseball? The shared experience of watching a sport played at its highest level can really help parents bond with their children and coaches bond with their players.
To make that happen, of course, you can’t make watching the games like school. Or at least totally like school.
Sure, you can go over plays and evaluate the coverages and executions. But you can also simply appreciate an amazing diving catch or the inner struggle on both sides of a 12-pitch at-bat.
But of course the best part will be spending time with those players sharing something you mutually love.
6. Follow the Benjamins
In the beginning of this post I mentioned that ESPN broadcasts every game of the tournament not because they love softball or softball players so much but because it makes them money. Lots of money.
Well, the downside of that is if the audience dries up so does the coverage. So if you want to keep seeing games on TV, even occasionally, one of the best things you can do is watch them now.
Keep those ratings growing and it will encourage even more coverage. Otherwise you’ll be singing this sad song.
One of the pivotal moments in the movie Field of Dreams occurs when the protagonist Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) and Terrance Mann (James Earl Jones) pick up a hitchhiker as they are driving back to Iowa. Young Archibald “Moonlight” Graham tells them he is on his way to join a baseball team barnstorming its way across the country – an idea that was quaint and a reminder of a bygone era even in 1989 when the movie came out.
Yet at that same time there was a fastpitch softball team that was still hitting the road every day throughout the summer, traveling across the country when it seemed every small town (and many larger ones) had a men’s team or two. And around the world as well, putting on an amazing yet entertaining exhibition of some of the finest softball ever played.
That team was the legendary “King and His Court” led by the King himself Eddie Feigner. With a rotating crew consisting of only a pitcher (Feigner in the early years, others later on), catcher, shortstop and first baseman, the King and His Court would play standard nine-man teams – and beat them soundly, night after night, throughout the summer months.
Recently The Fastpitch Zone gathered together six former members of the Court for a Zoom call commemorating the 10 year anniversary of the team’s last game in 2011 to talk about Feigner, what it was like to be a member of the team, life on the road, and the impact the team had on the people who came to see them as well as their own lives. Click the link above and set aside about 90 minutes to be enthralled.
As they talk about driving in the team van (they didn’t need a tour bus since there were only four of them) and heading out to the field, I swear you will actually be able to smell the sweet aromas of summer – freshly cut grass, that scent as the heat of the day is cooled by a breeze at night, the leather of well-worn gloves – as well as hear the sounds of tires rolling down the road, gloves popping as a Feigner fastball blows by yet another hitter, and fans cheering in the stands. In short, you’ll be transported back to a time when life seemed a little simpler and entertainment was in front of you, life-sized, or perhaps a bit larger than life, instead of squeezed onto a screen.
Oh, and the stories they tell! The six players represent various era of a team that crisscrossed the nation and the world from 1946 through the last game in 2011.
They share fond memories of how some of them saw the team play when they were 11 years old and then were thrilled when asked to become a player later. They also aren’t shy about laughingly talking about how anyone who played while Feigner was alive and running the team was abruptly fired at one point or another, only to be asked back later. That’s life on the road!
Yet the King and His Court was about more than just softball. Yes, they were amazing athletes – so amazing that it only took four of them on the field to beat a full nine-man opponent. At one point they explain they had to have four players so opposing pitchers couldn’t just walk everyone and leave them without a hitter.
But they were also entertainers, with set routines they would pull out to keep the fans engaged and amazed throughout what was often a blowout.
For example, on the first pitch of a game the catcher would tell the umpire to get in real close to him. Then when the pitch came in, the catcher would catch it and act like he had been blown back into the umpire like you would see in a cartoon.
Another standard bit was for the pitcher (Feigner or later Rich Hoppe) to pitch an entire inning blindfolded, or pitch from second base or even right field – and still blow the ball by the hitter.
The goal was to give the fans more than just a softball game. It was to give them something they’d never seen anywhere else and would want to tell their grandchildren about. Then do it again when they came through town again in a couple of years, like a rock band playing its greatest hits for its top fans.
That’s how legends become legends.
Yet they didn’t do all of this to show up the locals. In fact, they did it in a way to make stars of the locals who faced them. It was all in good fun, like if the Harlem Globetrotters were to play your town’s all-star basketball team. Getting “done in” by the King and His Court was a badge of honor for anyone gusty enough to face them.
The hour and a half moves along quickly. Each of the players speaks reverently about Feigner himself, and the massive amount of work he put in – most of them in the pre-Internet days – to hire his players, find opponents, schedule games, arrange for local accommodations and publicity, handle the financials, and essentially keep this labor of love operating for 65 years.
The men’s fastpitch game doesn’t get a lot of love these days; most people reading this are probably focused on the women’s side, particularly younger players. But the reality is the King and His Court did a lot to popularize fastpitch softball and create the opportunities to play that are available today.
Do yourself a favor and give this video a look. If you’re a lover of history you’ll have a chance to explore some of it first-hand from people who were there.
But even if you’re not big on the past be sure to check it out. I think you’ll find it to be time well-spent.