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There was a remarkable athletic accomplishment recently, and you may have missed it. Danielle Gibson, a sophomore at the University of Arkansas, hit for what is known as the homerun cycle. She hit a solo, two-run, and three-run home run, and a grand slam – in four separate innings. With four swings of a bat, Gibson accounted for ten runs for her team. No, it wasn’t a baseball game. She achieved this feat playing softball.
Softball is a variant of baseball. It is enormously popular in the United States and is played in an estimated 113 countries. It was originally conceived as a form of indoor baseball, to be played primarily in the Midwest, where the weather can make playing baseball during a school year rather difficult. As the decades passed, standardized playing rules and regulations have evolved although, it should be noted, there are outlying groups who play with their own modified rules. We’ll mostly cover the recognized rules of the World Baseball Softball Confederation (the WBSC).
To begin, the standard softball itself is not soft. You do not want to be hit by one. The ball is 12” in diameter, 3” wider than a standard baseball. And, the ball is yellow, as opposed to the standard white baseball. The pitcher does not throw from a mound, but rather from flat ground. The distance from the pitcher’s area is also shorter than in baseball, 50 feet vs. 60 feet, 6 inches. And, significantly, the pitcher throws the ball with an underhand motion instead of overhand or sidearm. This puts more emphasis on pitching in softball. Oh, and one other thing – many of the best softball players are women!
Gender is important in softball because there are essentially two styles of play. Fastpitch, or quick pitch, softball is almost always played by women. Because of the shorter distance between the pitching surface and Homeplate (where the batter stands), men use an underhanded soft pitch style. This is much safer for the batter, giving him time to react. Women, however, use a rapid, swinging arm movement when they deliver their pitches. Good pitchers in women’s softball are amazing to watch. The windmill-like windup before the ball’s whip-like release is very deceptive at first viewing.
Because of the bigger ball and the shorter distance from the pitcher’s surface, bats are smaller. This makes the swinging bat speed quicker for greater impact. If a batter is fortunate enough to connect with the ball, at least they don’t have to run as far as in baseball. Bases are 90 feet apart in baseball, but only 60 feet apart in softball.
However, the batter has yet another disadvantage in softball – the playing field is all dirt. There’s no grass to slow a ground ball down, unlike in baseball. So, a quicker bat, a quicker roll or bounce, a quicker out. Oh, and if you are fortunate enough to get on base, runners can’t take a lead to get a head start before the next pitch. Runners must remain on base until the ball is thrown. This is a difficult sport to play!
It can also be as dangerous as baseball, if not more so. Those dirt playing surfaces are murder on your legs if you fall or slide. Hitters and runners must wear protective helmets in fastpitch softball. Most are also required to have a cage on these helmets, similar to the protective masks worn by catchers and umpires in baseball. It certainly didn’t seem to affect Danielle Gibson’s game!
Innings are the basic units of play time for baseball and softball. Each inning is divided into two halves. The visiting team bats first until three outs are registered, then the home team bats until they register three outs. Softball games are seven innings long, unlike the nine innings of baseball. Like baseball, there is no clock, and tie games will be played until a team is leading after an inning. However, there is a rule in softball called the Mercy Rule. In fastpitch and modified pitch, a margin of 15 runs after three innings, 10 after four, or 7 after five is sufficient for a win to be declared for the leading team. Believe me, I’ve seen baseball games where this rule would have been welcome!
Have you ever seen a softball game? Did you enjoy it? And, if you are a baseball fan, how did you feel about the differences?
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