Thinking Man's Softball By Michael Vaughn - The Art of Sliding
By Softball West
Shortstop Doug was tired out by the long season- his arm falling off, his nerves jangled by too many tough plays - so he asked me to come in from the outfield and give him a night off. Doug shifted over to second instead, where the throws are much shorter.
I'm always wary of playing short when I'm rusty, but it's amazing what a couple of easy grounders will do for your confidence. By the fourth inning, I was back in rhythm, and flipped a double-play ball to Doug with great hopes of getting two.
The runner had different ideas. He stood straight up into the base, forcing Doug to flip the ball weakly over his head. What's more, he kept going, burrowing into Doug like a lineman protecting his quarterback.
Doug and I looked at the base ump for an interference call. We didn't get one. Doug haggled with him for five minutes, and got nothing. He argued for the rest of the inning, one time in the middle of making a play. Nothing. Nada.
As Billy Martin used to say: "AAAAAARGH!:
I have no idea why umpires refuse to make the double-play interference call. It's pretty clear. If the infielder at second has a clear shot at making two, and the runner refuses to either A) slide, or B) get out of the baseline, then the trailing runner is called out. Perhaps umpires don't like calling an out that wasn't actually, physically made, but it leaves the infielder with an unsavory dilemma: try to work around the incoming bonehead, or throw the ball at his face. Disliking lawsuits or assault charges, we tend to do the former - but we tell the other team that, at any time, we may decide to do the latter.
Granted, a lot of this is unintentional. Forced to make a split-second decision between hitting the deck or veering right, lots of runners go into brainlock, sheepishly covering their heads as they stand up into the bag.
Which leads me to the obvious solution: Why don't you just slide, ya big jerk?
Oh yeah, I know. "But you can hurt yourself sliding!" To which I say, you can hurt yourself a lot worse not sliding. How many more of those rapid slow-down shufflesteps, coming into the base, till your poor knees fall right out? I got so sick of that maneuver that I wrote a poem about it:
the men in fashion glasses don't understand
the game is cloth on dirt
no fred astairing into third but a
drecrescendo sled across the gravel
one hand cupping the perfect white corner
Put less poetically, sliding is an essential - even enjoyable - part of softball, and if you aren't willing to do it, what are you even doing out there? ‘Course, I know the answer; I've seen those sack-of-potatoes dropslides out there. A lot of you never learned how to slide in the first place. For you, I've devised a quick lesson plan:
1.Sit on your bed, legs straight out. Now bend your right leg and tuck your foot under your left knee (for left-handers, left foot under right knee). This is your landing position.
2.Stand on your bed and drop to that same position, tucking your right foot under your left knee as you fall. You should be landing on three primary points: your right buttock, right shin and the back of your left heel. (If you've got a trampoline for practicing this - even better!)
3.Put on an old, loose pair of jeans or some disposable sweats. Hose down a spot of lawn, four feet wide, ten feet long. Now, run toward that spot and slide. Here's how it goes in slow motion: in the motion of running, plant your right foot, fall back, extend your left leg straight out and tuck your right foot into the landing position, landing on your butt. It'll feel weird at first, but the body learns quickly.
4.Try it on a field, with a real base. If you're feeling confident, try a stand-up slide: as you slide, hit the bag with your left foot for leverage, then use your right leg to push yourself up.
5.Buy some baseball pants, a pair of sliding undershorts and a shin guard, and put them to plentiful use during games. Slide whenever you need to stop at a base, whether the play's close or not. (This may puzzle your base coach, but never you mind.)
Once you've joined the ranks of sliders, you'll enjoy plentiful advantages. You'll be safe more often, because you'll get to the bag quicker and present less of a target for a tag. With a pop-up slide, you'll be able to stop on a dime and be ready to advance on a bad throw. Generally speaking, you'll stop punishing your poor legs with that awkward shuffle.
And - dig this! - not only will you never get called for double-play interference, you can break up a double play the legal way. As long as you make contact with the bag, and take a good, clean slide, that baseline is yours, baby. You have every right to clear out any infielders loitering around the bag.
And what will I do, when you send me sprawling into the air? As the old song goes, I'll pick myself up, dust myself off and say, "Hey! Good slide!"
The infielder who causes the most disruption the other direction is the catcher who blocks home plate when he hasn't yet received the ball. In baseball, the runner has the option of running this bozo over, but in softball he'd likely get himself ejected for such a maneuver.
So catchers! Do us all a favor. Receive that throw at the infield edge of home plate, and then sweep the tag across. Not only is it the right thing to do, you'll have a much better chance of retaining all your limbs.
Michael J. Vaughn was recently traded from the Second String team of Cupertino, CA to a Tacoma, WA team to be named later. The poem batbeat was first published by the literary journal Yarrow. Find more baseball poems stories, and the softball novel The Legendary Barons at geocities.com/michaeljvaughn.