Thinking Man's Softball by Michael Vaughn - A little spring cleaning
By Michael Vaughn
Spring means it's time to attempt to remember all those things you thought you knew about softball (for me, it's that tricky outfield depth perception). Let me start you out with a few random strategic ideas.
(The Name of the Dance is) The First Baseman Twist
What are you guys doing down there? Far too many theories on which foot to attach to the first base bag (the left on Sundays, the right when the wind's from the west; in an election year, both!). The real problem is brainlock, so let's cut to the chase - use whichever foot feels comfortable.
And another thing: please ditch that cheerleader-split stretch. In the effort to save two milliseconds on the shortstop's throw, you're cutting your catching range to the size of a small dartboard. Stay loose, keep your feet at a normal distance from each other, and just catch that puppy. Okay?
(Mama Loves) The Second-Base Mambo
Every second baseman knows that awful feeling: standing at the bag, waiting for a throw from the third baseman, and for all you know the runner from first is coming at your back with a bayonet.
The thing here is to decide your plan of action months ahead of time, drill it into your muscle memory at practice, and then, come game time, stick to your guns. Two basic options here, and one advanced: 1) Receive the ball, step backward toward right field and make an open-shoulder throw toward first; 2) Step forward, past the bag, and throw across your body (sidearm, if you got it); or, for you studs, 3) Hit the bag, jump up, twist and make that throw in mid-air, just like Brett Favre. Try all three of these at practice, and decide which toss is most comfortable (and accurate). Rule number two: don't rush the throw - it never works.
The Last Out, Third Base, Go-Go No-No
You're on second, one out, and the batter hits a less-than-deep fly. So you tag up and go for third. What are you, crazy? Do a simple computation here: once this fly is caught, there will be two outs. The following batter will need a base hit to keep the inning alive, so whether you're on second or third, you're probably going to score. So! Unless that fly ball goes halfway to Uzbekistan, do yourself a favor and stay put. You make that third out at third, I give your teammates license to kick your derriere for the rest of the game.
Making the Big Cut
Are you one of those pesky singles hitters? Is there a runner at third with less than two outs? Guess what - time to crank it up. At worst, you'll hit a sac fly and drive the run in. At best, you'll hit a gap for extra bases. Either way, for the rest of the game the outfielders will play a little deeper on you, giving you more room to land those pesky singles. However, try not to get too excited - you don't want to lunge at a pitch and hit a weak fly. Driving the ball toward center will keep your swing smo-oo-oth.
Devils in the Outfield
Some of my less intelligent outfielders used to do the ol' fake-lollygag, hoping to lure runners into going for that extra bag, then gun them down with their manly heat-seeking throws. But it was sort of like communism: a nice theory on paper that never really worked in actual practice.
My own approach is just the opposite. On the first meaningless single of the game, I like to charge the ball, field it cleanly (keeping my body in front of the ball like an infielder) then fire a smooth one-hop tag throw to second. I have just sent the other team a signal: the left fielder means business. In real terms, you won't prevent that many runs by throwing out base runners; the outfield assist is a fairly uncommon occurrence. You'll save many more runs by getting into their heads right away, and discouraging them from trying to take that extra bag in the first place.
The Benefits of Insider Trading
As an opposite-field hitter, I go to the plate looking for something waist-high on the outside corner. The most entertaining part comes in subsequent at-bats, when the pitcher inevitably inches his way further and further outside, trying to foul me out. By my last at-bat, he's about a foot wide of the plate, and I'm still smacking singles into right.
Here's an idea for you pitchers: Don't give the batter what he wants! About once a year, a pitcher actually goes inside corner on me, and yes, it has an effect. Because he's taken me out of my game, and forced me to adjust. In fact, in a damage-control game like slow-pitch, I like the inside-corner approach, period. You're reducing the other team's power, by preventing them from extending their arms, and forcing them to hit more toward the handle.
The Run and Toss
Back to the outfield. With someone tagging up to take a base, a good outfielder will line up a step or two behind a fly ball, then move forward through the catch into a smooth throwing motion. If you're new at this, be careful. The catch, after all, is priority one, and you don't want to mess it up by getting too fancy. Start out by simply keeping the fly in front of you, catch the ball about face-level, and stay on the balls of your feet so you can move directly into your throw.
Footwork is tremendously important in fielding, and this last summer I got a painful reminder. Tiring of my own eternal vigilance, I decided to play it cool and take a fly flat-footed. Sure enough, just before the ball arrived I stepped into an unexpected depression in the grass. Because of the lack of "flex" in my legs, the movement went straight to my hands, and the ball clanked off the top of my glove. Though it didn't cost us any runs, it was extremely embarrassing, and set off an epidemic of shakyglovitis amongst my teammates. Softball is a harsh mistress.
Michael J. Vaughn is the author of The Legendary Barons, a softball novel from Dead End Street Press (deadendstreet.com). Home page: geocities.com/michaeljvaughn