It's October! Do you know what that means? If you just screamed "PUMPKIN SPICE LATTES!!", then you clicked on the wrong blog post. Of course, what I mean is PLAYOFF BASEBALL!!! (although, admittedly, I love pumpkin flavored ANYTHING). I grew up in Los Angeles, so I am an avid Dodger fan, and my second favorite team was always the Cubs (because they played on national television). My fiance is a Cubs fan too, so, needless to say, this is a great October for baseball in my house, with both teams having a legitimate shot at getting to the World Series. Why am I getting so pumped about baseball while writing a blog about softball? Because you should be watching, too!
I coach females for a living, and have worked with a few males too. Overwhelmingly, I have learned one very disappointing fact: young women don't watch baseball. [Insert broken heart emoji here]. When I was a 10 year old kid, I remember standing in my living room with a bat in my hands and my older brother watching, imitating the batting stance of Ken Griffey Jr. and Jim Thome, my two absolute favorite players. I remember trying to throw a slider past my brother like Pedro Martinez, with my garage as a backstop. I also remember breaking my neck as he turned that "slider" right around and hit it over the neighbor's house across the street. I wanted to play for the Dodgers as badly as a teenager wants their driver's license. Which brings me to my first point on why watching baseball will help softball players.
1. WATCH AND IMITATE
As anyone with older or younger siblings will tell you, imitation is the best way to learn things. The youngest child in the family is often the best athlete (although not all the time) because they grow up watching big brother or big sister, and they have to learn quickly to catch up to them if they want to play with them. While I think it is fantastic that someone puts Sierra Romero or Lauren Chamberlain on the same pedestal that I put Thome and Griffey Jr., sadly those terrific athletes don't play on television 162 times a year. I hope that changes sooner rather than later. But Major League Baseball players do play on television 9 months out of the year. What's more, they get paid obscene amounts of money to be the best at what they do, and let's be serious, they are VERY GOOD at what they do.
We can learn a TON from watching them. In fact, just this week a catcher of mine asked me to help her get velocity on her throw. So I taught her how to pitch. Overhand. Like a baseball player. I tried to take the mechanics that non-injury prone baseball pitchers have in common and apply that to her throw. Imagine how much better female throwing mechanics would be if all of the 6 year old girls in the world tried to imitate what they saw on the mound . We would hear the phrase "throw like a girl" more as a compliment than a put-down.
The same goes for fielding and hitting. Notice baseball players throw sidearm a lot more than softball players. The best softball fielders in the world (think Romero, Natasha Watley, Jenn Salling, etc.) all field and throw like baseball players, and I'd bet you they all have either a passion for baseball or an actual baseball background. When I was a catcher, I tried to move like Yadier Molina. In hitting, the best softball swings look remarkably like baseball swings these days. The game has more of a power-heavy focus than it ever has, and the two swings are now being taught virtually the same way. Imitation is vital to learning new skills, especially when you are imitating the best at their craft.
I love playoff baseball because you get something you don't usually get during the regular season, and that is strategy. You will see bunts from players other than the pitcher, carefully executed hit and run plays, defensive shifts, intentional walks, and a much more calculated use of relievers in October and November. As players and coaches, we can learn how to manage lineups in the best way possible, as well as manage pitching staffs and pinch hitters. When there is no promise of tomorrow, MLB lineups usually go more defensive-minded. I think this is the opposite of what we see most in softball. Teams usually shuffle around lineups based on who is hitting best at that moment, not who is less likely to make an error in a key moment. There is no right answer, however, it is interesting to see coaches put a premium on pitching and defense in the playoffs.
One piece of strategy that is not often used in fastpitch is the intentional walk. I love the intentional walk. In fact, in the Blue Jays/Orioles game, an intentional walk to Edwin Encarnacion set up a double play to get the Orioles out of a jam. In the 11th inning, the Orioles elected not to walk Encarnacion, and he hit a walk-off home run. The intentional walk, or lack thereof, played a huge part in that game, and I think it can play a huge part in fastpitch as well, when used correctly. Shoutout to my Marshall University Head Coach Shonda Stanton, who uses the IBB as well as anyone. Love you, Coach!
One of the many reasons I hear my students say that they don't watch baseball is "because it is so boring and slow". MLB has, by far, the longest and most drawn out season of any of the major sports in this country. Game 65 doesn't exactly carry much drama, unless it is against a major rival or something spectacular happens. But the playoffs are much different. There is real competition, real drama, real love for the game on display. This is the only part of the season where we see all of these well paid guys give their all and lay it out on the line, with only winning in mind. This time of year we don't hear about contract disputes, injury prevention, or complaining about playing time. They are all just playing to WIN, plain and simple.
One of the biggest complaints I hear from college coaches when they are out recruiting is that they rarely get to see players in a competitive environment. College showcases are often in camp and pool play format, and they lack meaningful competition or bracket play. What worries these college coaches is that these players will come to campus without a desire to compete, which is what college sports are all about. If we are watching playoff baseball (or playoffs of any sport) we can see what real competition looks like. We can learn what clutch feels like (say what you will, but there is nothing as clutch in sports as the walk-off home run). We can learn to play with emotion in the manner that competitive sports require.
4. JOY AND FAILURE
When you watch the playoffs, look at how much FUN those guys are having when their teammate makes a great catch. They really are happy for each other in a way that only the playoffs can bring out. Also, look at how joyous the fans are after a big strikeout or a walk-off hit. Grown men playing a kid's game seems to bring out the best in people when the game is on the line. This is perhaps the reason we love to watch the WCWS every summer, because of the utter joy and passion in the stadium and on the field. It is unlike anything else.
On the other side, when player makes a mistake, look at how quickly they get over it and move on to the next play. Keep in mind, these players are on the grandest stage possible, playing in front of 50,000 fans in the stadium and millions more watching at home. Any error made seems like 5, because it can end the season right there. The pressure and the failure that come along with the playoffs is riveting. 99% of the time, players handle themselves very well, with the occasional bad egg that loses their mind. Every year, I am amazed at how emotionless these players seem on the field while I am screaming, yelling, and nail-biting at home.
As softball players, we can learn from these men at how to deal with failure and loss. As parents, we can learn a lot too at how to handle ourselves during tense moments.
It is time we stop treating baseball and softball as two drastically different sports and start appreciating their similarities. Until the day comes when fastpitch is on television as much as baseball, we need to take what we can get and learn from the guys playing a beautiful sport. Imitate them, learn strategy from them, compete like them, and learn to experience joy (and failure) like them. Who knows, maybe someday you will play in front of a stadium full of 50,000 with millions more watching at home. When that day comes, I hope you can channel your inner Ken Griffey Jr. and Jim Thome.
PS. For those of you who have no idea who the baseball players are in this article, they are basically to me what Mike Trout or Kris Bryant are to you. They're awesome.