Thinking Man's Softball By Michael Vaughn – S-T-R-E-T-C-H
By Softball West
Spring training again? Already? Wasn't the Super Bowl just yesterday?
A lot of people wonder how it is I'm still diving around at shortstop "at my age" (the most accursed three-word phrase in the language), and a big part of the answer is my stretching routine, which I developed sometime around high school soccer and haven't changed since. I perform it before each and every game, often giving it priority over the standard warmup tosses (because I've seen a lot more pulled hamstrings than tweaked arms in this sport, baby).
But enough of the airy generalities! Let's run through it a step at a time.
Touch your toes! Legs straight and together, bend over slowly, as far as is comfortable (you don't actually have to touch your toes, that's not really the point).
Work that spine! Stand with your legs wide apart and circle your upper body around like a hand on a clock. Try to ignore all those crunching sounds. Finish by swiveling your head around on your neck.
Kiss your knees! Keeping the same position, lean over one direction and then the other, putting your head as close to your leg as your pathetic mortal powers will allow.
Make like a stork! Stand on one leg (balancing against a fence if you like), then grab your right foot with your right hand and pull it behind you till foot meets butt-cheek. Repeat with left. Rinse.
Swing it, baby! Hold your arms straight out and flap them in towards each other, crossing them over across your chest. Make sure one is slightly higher than the other, or you might break something. Doh!
Make like the Dutch! You know – make some windmills. Throw out a straight arm and spin it around at the shoulder like a hydroelectric turbine. Especially good for third base coaches.
Round up them calves! Hyah! Stand before a fence. Put the toe of your cleats up on the fence, with your heel on the ground, and keep your leg straight as you lean slowly forward. Feel the burn.
Now! Jog up the line, touch the fair pole (this isn't stretching, just superstition). On the way back, pretend you're on first and sprint to second. Then find a partner and have a good game of catch.
Speaking of wind sprints, I've noticed a particularly amusing type of softball character – that wiry, speedy guy at first base, hyped up on Red Bull and ready to take off like Carl Lewis the moment bat meets ball. Some of these guys actually jump on every pitch, the moment the ball crosses the plate – just in case.
Of course, the reason I notice these guys is that they're constantly getting doubled up on infield line drives. Surprise!
The preferred approach is to stay where you are, Bubba, rise up on the balls of your feet as the pitch nears the plate, and be ready for anything. This might cost you a split second on your arrival time, but will also prevent some embarrassing outs.
Speaking of baserunning…
Did you ever consider taking out the third baseman? (Not on a date, silly!) With runners on first and second, and a grounder to third, it might be pretty easy for him to tag the bag and throw to first for the double play – unless, of course, there's some maniac tearing his way for a hard (but clean) slide at his feet. Relish the look of surprise as he hurls the ball into the right field stands. (Just try to make sure your slide is somewhere near the base, Bubba.)
Speaking of getting to first base…
No, not on a date, silly! (Is there an echo in here?) Let's face it – receiving a throw at first is one of the simplest – and most frequently screwed-up - jobs in the sport. And the reason is that you've all been watching those limbered-up circus freaks in MLB, doing the splits so they can shave a couple microseconds off the throw. (They've obviously been doing the stretches at the beginning of this column.)
The thing is, think about what you're doing when you make that stretch. You've just narrowed your glove mobility to an area the size of my 1977 model black-and-white television, and I'm just taking a wild guess here, but I'm betting your infielders don't always make perfect chest-high Omar Vizquel throws. So just plant a foot on that bag, Bubba, stand like a normal person and catch the ball, fer gosh sake.
Speaking of catching…
The other thing that really fries my gizzards is a catcher who's apparently been watching Ivan Rodriguez and thinks he's allowed to block the plate on a throw home. Let's take a look at two important reasons why this isn't true: 1) You don't have the same heavy-duty padding that Pudge wears, Bubba, and 2) that runner doesn't enjoy the possibly compensatory privilege of taking you out like cheap date (is there an echo in here?). So please! In consideration of safety and fair access to this, our most cherished base, please position yourself at the front of the plate, receive the throw and then make the tag in a sweeping motion to your left. And if the guy scores, I'm sure your teammates can make it up the next inning.
Something for fun…
The next time your team is up 22-0 or some such ridiculous number, try this: try to hit the first pitch, no matter where it is. I tried this a couple of times on the last game of fall 2006, swung at balls outrageously out of the strike zone, and got base hits both times. It could be that this game is simpler than we think it is. My dream – and be sure to write me if you've done this – is to hit a pitch on a short-hop. I'm thinking sand wedge…
Michael J. Vaughn is the author of the softball novel "The Legendary Barons" (available at amazon.com) and a regular contributor to Writer's Digest. Home page: geocities.com/michaeljvaughn.