Thinking Man's Softball By Michael Vaughn - Pitcher's Mound or Shooting Gallery
By Softball West
In a year in which I was never really sure what my bat would do next, I saw a pitch headed for a spot a foot in front of the plate and, quite naturally, went after it. The initial result was actually not bad a golf-shot drive off the last two inches but the ball went straight at the pitcher. She ducked her head one way, waved her glove the other, knocked the ball down and managed to throw me out at first.
Halfway through my return to the dugout, I was surprised to find three of my teammates at the on-deck circle, yelling at me. The leader was Bill, our sometime-pitcher.
"You just can't do that!" he said.
My expression was likely one of utter confusion, so Bill filled in the blanks.
"You can't go up the middle like that against an inexperienced pitcher!"
(Note: In consideration of our younger, more impressionable readers, all expletives will henceforth be replaced by the word "quack.")
"What the quack are you talking about, Bill? You think I'm good enough to take a pitch off the quacking ground like that and aim it?"
"But you just can't do it! It's too dangerous!"
"Don't tell me how to play the quacking game, Bill!"
I was good and ticked off at this little ambush; it was like someone had changed the rules of a game I'd played for twenty years, and not bothered to tell me.
And on this team, that kind of accusation carries some notable weight. One of our long-time regulars, Terry, was pitching a few years ago when a line drive nailed him in the face, and took out an eye. I am a very occasional sub for this team, and had never really felt the reality of Terry's plight, had not seen him again until his remarkably well-crafted artificial eye disguised his loss to all but the most trained observer. A couple weeks before Bill's ambush, however, I overheard him talking to a teammate in the dugout.
"Today's my bad luck day."
"What do you mean?"
"Three years ago, to the day, when I lost my eye."
It wasn't the words so much as the sorrow in Terry's voice. It really hit me. Given the loss of depth perception, it's pretty remarkable how well Terry still plays. He still hits hard liners at the plate, and still plays pretty well in the outfield. That night, he let a ball get past him in the right field corner, then tracked it down and proceeded to unleash a rifle-shot to third base, where I caught it on a hop and tagged out the runner. I was mighty impressed. So you can see the weight of my dilemma. When Terry's pal Bill who wears a mask when he pitches these days made his on-field accusation, he was saying, "You could put someone's eye out" in a very real way.
But there's another side to this. Hitting up the middle is a time-honored part of the sport not to hit the pitcher, but because that's where you get a lot of singles. And Terry's loss was most decidedly a freak accident. If Bill has decided to convict every hard-hitting player of attempted manslaughter, it could be time for him to simply hang up his cleats and leave the rest of us alone. Every sport has risks; if you can't live with risks, don't play the sport.
A couple of weeks later, I showed up for a game with my other team to find that our substitute pitcher was Bill. Yikes. But I thought it would be okay, because our opposing pitcher was a big, tough-looking veteran guy. No dice. Inevitably, I lined a ball up the middle, and Bill was back on his soapbox.
"You just can't do that!"
This time I was much better prepared to respond.
"No, Bill. I can do that. And occasionally I'm going to, because that's how the game is played!"
"How'd you like to play pitcher for a while?" Bill asked. Ah, I thought. So now it's time to question my manhood. "Oh, you're so right, Bill! Shortstop is such an easy position."
The next at-bat, I was so messed up by all of this that I couldn't figure out where to hit the ball. So I struck out on a foul ball. I tossed my bat to the ground and fixed Bill with a stare. "There! You quacking happy?!"
The thing was, though, like most missionaries, Bill seemed generally unfazed by my negative responses. A couple innings later, I had calmed down enough to conduct a little investigation. "Okay, Bill. So I understand about the thing with Terry, but Am I missing something? Is there a trend here? Are there a lot more pitchers being injured?"
"Well, it's more that the bats have changed," he said. "They get more and more powerful, which takes away all your reaction time. The balls come through the box way too fast. And I play tournaments where guys are actually trying to take out the pitcher. I mean, they tell them they're going to do it."
So yes, I'm glad I asked. I understand a little more and I think Bill's doing precisely the right thing, wearing a mask when he pitches. And if somebody actually made the kind of threats he's talking about, to my pitcher, I would most definitely have a talk with that batter.
But I have to come back to this: it's a risky sport. I was reminded of this recently, when I was chasing a flyball from short and had a near-collision with my left fielder. I managed to hold on to the ball, he managed to slide underneath me, but I did land pretty hard on my tailbone, and managed to spike his arm on the way down. It turns out we both called the ball, but at precisely the same time, so we didn't hear each other.
And the left fielder was Terry.