Thinking Man's Softball by Michael Vaughn - Rehearsal Time!
By Softball West
Okay, it's time for a confession. I really like practice.
Not that I get to do it anymore. Now that I'm playing with crafty veterans (who have pounded the basic motions of the game into their muscle memory), it just doesn't happen anymore. We show up for that first practice game, spend all seven innings playing like big fat goofs and we're good to go.
In the old days (okay, just put me on a park bench and give me some chewin' tobacky), spring practice was a tremendously important ritual. A time not just to relearn the fundamentals, but also to reacquaint ourselves with our teammates, and to welcome the sunshine back into our calendars.
That said if you're one of the lucky young souls who get to practice this month, the following are a few tips, observations and rabid opinions to guide you along.
1. Stre-e-etch! Every player should develop a five-minute routine of stretches to run through before every game and practice. For that first springtime practice, it's crucial. You might be in excellent shape - you might have spent the winter doing cross-country marathons, for all I know - but you haven't used the specific muscles involved in playing softball (you'll know what muscles I'm talking about the morning after your first practice). So take your time; do a little yoga. And, naturally, spend a good long time throwing a few warm-up tosses with a teammate.
2. Take it easy, coach! This is what I'd shout to Big D as he hit infield to us. D liked to take the boot camp approach; if he hit us nothing but screaming, nasty grounders, it would make the ones we got during games seem like marshmallows. WRONG! (Thank you -please play again.) Infield is entirely a rhythm thing, a ‘Dance With Softballs', an effort to get a good hop and find some momentum going into the throw. It's also entirely about confidence, so you actually want to start with marshmallows, and build from there. Don't worry, coach, they can practice the nasty stuff during batting practice.
3. Left! Right! Kick! Turn! Yeah, you know the drill, lining up your cutoff man like you're choreographing A Chorus Line. Hey, well guess what? Do you ever actually do this during a game? Not me. Let him locate that midpoint by himself. And, unless a ball goes deep in the gap, let the outfielders throw directly to second like they normally would anyway. As for you outfielders, however, don't show off that howitzer too early. Focus on your footwork, lining up behind fly balls so you can run into your throw. You don't want to end up on the DL in your first five minutes.
4. Bat the game. Yeah, it's fun to play slugger for a while, but think about what actually works for you during a game. Being an off-field hitter, for instance, I ask the pitcher to hit the outside corner and try to shoot line drives to right. But think situational, too. For that man-on-third, less-than-two-outs thing, I work on hitting the ball deep - then I pretend I have two strikes and take the ball whichever direction it's pitched.
5. Expand your repertoire. Batting practice is a great time to wander. Chasing fly balls in left will give infielders a better grasp on those high popups. A session of grounders at second base will help you outfielders cut down on those base-hit muffs, and chasing shallow pops will give you a better idea of how to go back on a deep fly.
6. Richard Simmons, eat your heart out! Let's face it; unless you go five-for-five some night, you're not ever going to get the game-time workout of your average soccer player. You want some aerobics, though, there's nothing like shagging an hour's worth of fly balls.
7. Double up. Get someone to play first base during BP, so the infielders can practice their throws. In fact, pretend there's a runner on first and try out some double plays. Also, make the last swing of a batter's turn a "live ball." The batter's job is to run the bases until he gets out, which is a great way of forcing your defense to make that tag play, or even get into one of those complicated rundowns. (It can also be pretty freakin' hilarious.)
8. Water, water, water! Be sure to keep yourself hydrated. All this sudden sweating and running around might be quite a shock to the ol' bod, so it's best to play it safe. You might also want to do some light exercise later in the day - walk around the block, nine holes of golf - to keep those muscles from stiffening up.
Picking from the Pros
I wanted to end this month's column by introducing the idea of stealing not-so-obvious techniques from the pros. This month's pick: the standup slide of Barry Bonds. What gets largely ignored amid the ruckus around Bonds' prickly personality and slugging prowess is his remarkable ability (with the exception of last year) to avoid serious injuries. Much of this comes from his absolute refusal to slide headfirst, a move, which would put too many MVP parts - wrists, shoulders, and eyes - at peril.
It's not just a preventive measure, of course. Keep in mind that this guy's the only member of the 500-500 homer/stolen base club. And also, he practices the popup slide - in which he applies the slide's momentum to bring him to a standing position on the base - leaving him ready to move up on a wayward throw.
Another confession: I thoroughly enjoyed the headfirst slide myself for years and years - until I separated my shoulder playing soccer. An involuntary switch to the Bonds philosophy has harmed my running game not a wit. (Oh, and just in case you're wondering about all those head-first slides that Rickey Henderson took all those years - the man's a freak of nature.)
Michael J. Vaughn is the author of the softball novel The Legendary Barons. Visit his home page at: geocities.com/michaeljvaughn