Let’s play a little fastpitch Jeopardy! Here’s the answer: the Eastern Front, Siberia, and the outfield. What’s the question?
Name three things no one wants to get banished to.
During WWII, the Eastern Front (the losing war in a horrible winter in Russia) was the threat used to keep German soldiers and officers in line. At least it was on Hogan’s Heroes.
Throughout much of the tenure of the Soviet Union, Siberia was a place dissidents were “disappeared” to when the government didn’t want to outright kill them.
And to many in fastpitch softball, the outfield serves a similar function. They believe it’s where players are sent when they’re either judged (incorrectly) as not being not good enough for the infield, or they’re not part of the “in” crowd.
Sometimes that may be true. I won’t pretend there isn’t favoritism in where players are assigned on some teams, or that coaches don’t think some kids have the skillset to play the infield and have to put them somewhere else.
But there are a whole lot of reasons a perfectly good infielder may get assigned to the outfield instead. Beginning with the fact that she can actually catch a fly ball.
For those who have only observed it, catching a fly ball may seem like a pretty simple skill. It isn’t a quick reaction time thing like a sharp ground ball, and you have plenty of time to get into position – even if you have to run for the ball. How hard could it be?
Actually, plenty hard. It’s sort of like doing instant geometry.
You have to judge how hard the ball was hit, where its trajectory will take it, allow for the winds aloft as well as on the ground, avoid looking into the sun or lights for too long, and make your way through all the little divots and moguls no one has ever bothered to clean up. Not to mention the drainage grates and other knee-and ankle-destroying obstacles field designers who have obviously never played outfield might build in to keep the grass looking nice.
Then, quite frankly, there is the attention factor. With a top-quality pitcher in the circle, an outfielder may not see a ball hit her way for three or four innings. Sure, she has responsibilities to back up a base on every batted ball, but on many infield plays she can mentally be on a beach in Maui and still have time to realize something is happening in the game and then run to her spot.
Not saying she should, but she can. But then when the ball does come her way, she has to make all the calculations we just discussed and get there in time to make the play. It can be tougher than you think.
While the story about Gen Z’s attention span being shorter than a goldfish’s may be just a myth, it is definitely difficult to remain highly focused when A) not much happens around you for a long time and B) when it does happen it’s not likely to cause a significant injury (like a hot line drive in the infield will). An outfielder’s Spidey-sense just doesn’t need to be that acute.
Here’s the thing, though. Hits to the outfield tend to have larger consequences when they get through. You have no doubt heard of an “infield single,” which is either defined as A) a ball hit so sharply that even though it was fielded in time the runner made it to base safely or B) an error by the scorekeeper’s daughter.
But you never hear about an infield double, triple or home run. The fact is, a ball between infielders, or just over their heads, causes only minimal damage. A ball between outfielders, or just over their heads, often results in extra bases.
You also have the factor that a ball that gets by an infielder can and should be backed up by an outfielder, at least in most cases. A ball that gets by an outfielder is generally backed up by a fence – or a whole lot more grass on a fenceless field.
Then there’s the fact that outfielders have a much greater area of responsibility just in terms of square footage. An infielder overall is responsible for about three feet to either side for the most part, anywhere from five to about 60 feet forward, and maybe 20 feet backward. In most cases it’s more like a 3′ x 5′ box.
Outfielders, on the other hand, have their areas of responsibility measured in square yards. They could have a good 80-100 feet from the fence (real or imaginary) to the edge of the infield grass, and roughly 1/3 of the total area of the outfield. More if you count backing up other outfielders and balls that land fair and roll into the far corners of the field.
That’s a lot of open space to cover. Oh, and no one goes out and grooms the outfield before or between games. You’re lucky if someone picks up the poop left behind when the ballfield was used as a doggy park or as a rest stop for the local goose population.
You see where I’m going. While infielders may get more action throughout the course of a game, it doesn’t mean they are more important. In fact, I would argue just as many if not more games probably turn on poor outfield play than infield play.
I can think of a particular case in point. I remember watching the Olympics all those years ago when softball was still in it. Team USA and Japan were playing in the Gold Medal game, and it was a tight contest.
Late in the game, with runners on base, a Team USA player lofted a lazy fly ball to left field. The Japanese left fielder – who in all fairness probably played shortstop normally on whatever other team she played for – started backpedaling, tripped over her feet and fell down, allowing what would be the winning run to score. Had there been an actual outfielder out there, the outcome may have been different.
I also remember one of my students, who was playing at a D3 university in the Midwest, complaining about the lack of outfield play on her team. She would induce an easy fly ball that a semi-competent 14U travel ball outfielder could have caught and it would end up falling for a double. She couldn’t believe that a college softball player couldn’t handle a fly ball hit directly to her, but there you are.
The point of all this is that, outside of 10U travel and probably most rec league ball, the outfield isn’t simply the equivalent of the reject couch in the first scene in Animal House.
It’s a valuable position that requires speed, agility, mental acuity, mental toughness and a willingness to lay yourself out when the game is on the line.
Being put in the outfield doesn’t mean you’re bad. It actually means, as Liam Neeson would say, you possess a particular set of skills.
Any coach who has ever experienced a major, heartbreaking loss because of poor outfield play, which is pretty much every high-level coach, knows just how important that position is. Instead of lamenting that you’re not in the infield, embrace your role in the outfield and give it all you’ve got.
You may just find that you love it. And even if you don’t, it could end up being your portal to where you want to go.
Goldfish photo by Chait Goli on Pexels.com