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Softball -
Good games with any number of players

"The problem with softball is . . . baseball."

Now what can I possibly mean by that?

People see baseball on television, probably from before they even learn to talk, and figure, "Now that's the way a bat and ball game has to be! Such beauty! Such perfection!"

Then, when they go to get up a game of softball with relatives or friends or neighborhood kids, emulating what they've seen on tv is all they can imagine.

In particular, people view the 9-man team, the four bases and the 90 degree angle between foul lines as sacred.

Well, if you don't have 18 people handy, something has to give. And lo, there arose such silliness such as imaginary base-runners; the batting team supplying a catcher to put its own men out(!); an outfield declared foul; and the "pitcher's mound rule", whereby a ball thrown to the pitcher's mound gets a runner out at first.

Come on, people! The fundamental essence of the game is a race between runners representing the offensive team, and a ball under the control of the defensive team. If the ball and the runner are going to different destinations, what you have is utter nonsense.

Or kids will just throw in the towel on having a real game and play "three flies in", or some variant where you score points by hitting the ball from out of your hand. We played a variant called "two at bat" where there were just two batters and everyone else was out in the field. That sort of worked, but players were always running themselves to death just changing places between outfielder and batter.

My humble suggestion for having a perfectly good, valid, fun, satisfying, and real game of softball is to simply adjust the foul lines and the number of bases for the number of players you have. The number of bases and the foul line separation are not fundamental properties of the game.

For example, if you have 6 players, you might lay out the field like this with foul lines separated by about 45 degrees.

         \                 outfielder       /                  
          \                   *            /                   
           \                              /                    
            \                            /                     
             \                          /                         
              \   infielder            /                          
               \      *               /                           
                \                    /                            
                 \                /\/                             
                  \               \/ base               
                   \     pitcher  /                               
                    \       *    /                                
                     \          /                                 
                      \        /                                    
                       \      /                                     
                        \    /                                      
                          \/ home                                    

The base path is simply home to (first) base to home. The pitcher can easily cover either one. Note also that there is nothing sacred about a pitcher's mound. In our softball game, the pitcher may pitch from any reasonable spot within fair territory. He might even stand where the batter requests, for example, near the left-field foul line for a left-handed batter who likes to pull the ball.

Even in this scaled-back 6-man game, you could set up another base somewhere on the left-field foul line. There would still be a batter when bases are loaded.

If you only have 5 players, a typical solution is for one player to be an all-time fielder (maybe pitcher). In that case, the batting team only has two members and one base is the reasonable maximum.

Playing softball with so few people may sound bizarre. I've met people who refused to give it a go, even when we were standing right there next to the field, even with all the equipment lying there, even with my heart-rending pleadings. Nope, got to have 18 guys, like on tv, I guess.

If you ever try it, you might be surprised to find it a superior game, even. It maintains all the elements of the "real" game - plus everyone is much more involved all the time, as in tennis, basketball, or soccer.

It can even be extended down to three players, in which case the batter is obligated to hit a home run every time. Or, he might earn a point for making first, and two points for the round-tripper. Softball with three people may sound far-fetched, but I assure you that you can find a good foul line separation and first-base placement to make an excellent game for the players at hand. And it still retains all the important elements of big league baseball.

By the way, I am a proponent of nice, worn-in (worn out?) softballs. I've never made sense of rock-hard "softballs". I've seen grown men in softball leagues afraid to get in front of hard-hit grounders. Isn't that what it's not about? I also do not view softball as being about smashing balls over fences. But, I guess that's what the boys on tv do . . .

If you have more players, just open up the foul lines and increase the number of bases accordingly. For two 4-man teams, a logical setup would be something like 60 degree foul lines, 2 bases, with a pitcher, infielder and 2 outfielders.

Starting at 5-man teams, you would set out all 4 bases (including home). With 70 degree foul lines, the pitcher, 2 infielders and 2 outfielders can cover everything. If you lay out equal-lengthed base paths there will be a hair-pin turn at second base, but that's no big deal - 90 degree angles are not essential.

So that's how to have great softball games with small teams. But you're not through with me yet. Here are a few more ideas born of many years of sandlot softball.

Strikes: Just because the boys on tv get 3 strikes, should it carry over to softball? Think about it. Hitting a baseball flying by at 90 miles and hour is one thing; hitting a big, fat softball just floating up is another.

My recommendation: you get one swing in slow-pitch softball. A miss or a foul is an out.

That's not unreasonable, is it? Keeping the ball fair is not difficult at all in softball. If you want to place it just inside a foul line, you accept the responsibility for failing to do so - which is as it should be. Besides, who wants to spend all afternoon chasing down foul ball after foul ball?

Of course, the number of strikes, including fouls, can be adjusted according to player ability. Little kids would have no limit.

Leads: Here's another instance where emulation is insanity. In this case, it isn't even clear to me why there are leads in baseball. Why should a runner be part of the way to the next base before the play even starts? I don't know what the official softball rules say about leads, but I know that softball players have a variety of ideas. Some think you can take leads; some think you may leave the base when the ball leaves the pitcher's hand, or when the ball reaches the plate (however that is determined.)

From a philosophical point of view, it seems obvious that the offensive team's runners should not be allowed to move until the offensive team's batter has set the ball in motion. Obvious to me, at least.

Overthrows: There is another big difference between professional baseball and recreational softball that is not so much rule-related, but ability-related. That is that the professionals are very capable throwers, while the rest of humanity is abysmal in this regard. If you observe an amateur softball game, you will see that most runs are scored not because of successful hitting (which is how it should be), but courtesy of wild throwing by the fielding team.

The batter hits a ball to the shortstop. The shortstop throws it over the head of the first baseman. The runner goes on to second. He dances around out there hoping to draw another throw. The first baseman takes the bait. He throws at second. The ball lands who knows where. The runner helps himself to another base. This goes on and on, turning the most miserable little grounders into doubles, triples and home runs.

That's not what the game is about, folks! A perfect solution to this problem may be a bit elusive, but we can take steps in the right direction. For a start, runners may not advance on an overthrow. Look, you should just be happy they didn't get you out!

This leads me to the more general issue of when a play is over. To my mind, there should be a definite, clean, no-questions-asked endpoint to every play.

For a start, I propose that when the fielding team gets anyone out, the play stops. This means no tagging up after a fly out - and good riddance to that silliness. (I know, I know . . . they do it on tv!) This means no more throwing the ball into the woods going for the second out of a double play. It means no double plays, period, which is no great loss - normally executed double plays are rare birds in amateur softball, anyway.

The next suggestion is a little fuzzier, but shouldn't be so hard to implement. The play stops when the fielding team gets the ball back to the pitcher. The idea is that a fielding team may be happy to give you credit for a good hit and be content to simply halt the advancement of your runners rather than going after one - and risk letting others advance in the process. When the pitcher gets the ball on the "mound", he yells, Halt!"

The slight problem is deciding whether a runner between bases may claim the next one or has to go back. If halfway is considered sufficient (I've always felt it should be more like two thirds), you could place halfway markers between the bases. In friendly games I doubt this would be necessary.

If these ideas are implemented, a play in softball will have clearly defined start and stop points. It starts with the crack of the bat and ends with an out, or an overthrow into foul territory, or the pitcher regaining the ball. Isn't that much more satisfying and sensible than in baseball where the plays sort of drift amorphously into each other? (I've never figured out, for example, what prevents a runner from taking an 89.5 foot "lead" after a foul ball, and when the umpire throws in a new ball, just stepping on the next base. Don't tell me a runner has to be on his base when the ump throws a ball in.)

End Note: This is NOT the OFFICIAL SOFTBALL RULES. You, of course, know it is not the OFFICIAL SOFTBALL RULES. I mention that explicitly in the hopes of snagging anybody who is looking for OFFICIAL SOFTBALL RULES. (This used to work in the early days of the web.)

Note to readers from after the fall of the US empire:

       1 foot = 12 inches = 12 x 2.54 cm.


Date: Jan 2002
From: Fancypants89
Subject: softball sight

what you said stinks looser

[Geez, what did I say now? DS]


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