An Evening in Lowell: Mixing in a Changeup

The New York Yankees came into Boston last Friday to play the Red Sox in the first game of a crucial series between these hardball rivals with the enormous player payrolls. It was a beautiful evening, and I felt very lucky to be at the ball park! Only I wasn’t at Fenway Park watching the Sox. Tickets are very difficult to get for Fenway, especially to a single game for five people on a Friday night at a low price. Especially right behind home plate. Well, there are no such tickets combining low price, availability, and great location in Fenway. Against the Yankees? Are you kidding? No, I was in Lowell, Mass., a bit to the north of Boston, to see my first New England Riptide game. That’s professional fast pitch softball, a sport played by women on a smaller field with a bigger ball, where the pitching is underhand from only forty-three feet and every pitch is some kind of breaking ball. The league’s official name is National Pro Fastpitch.

I was with my wife and a few girls on the summer league softball team for fourteen and under that my daughter plays on. I first became more interested in softball through coaching and watching my daughter’s teams. I’d watched some international matchups and Women’s College World Series games on television, but had never seen a game with highly skilled players in person. Since there was a promotion for this night that included members of our team and their guests, it seemed the right time to see what this league was like. The Riptide were playing the Chicago Bandits.

It was like going to a minor league baseball game, but on an even smaller scale. The Riptide home games are played on a nice regional high school field. The concession stand is not all that different from one at a Little League or high school game except they have more choices, including beer as well as sodas. Seating is not assigned; it’s first come, first seated. We were early, so we had time to buy food (I got a pulled pork sandwich—not bad for $5—and a Heineken—a little warm since they had just put their drinks in the ice, and of course more expensive than anywhere but a ball park at $4) and still find seats right behind home plate, from which vantage point we got to see the teams take pregame fielding and batting practice (screen with a hole in it for underhand pitching). I found watching the fielding practice a pleasure in itself, having seen so many muffed grounders, balls bouncing out of gloves, etc. at our girls’ level of play. I think the girls on our team were properly impressed, hopefully inspired, also.

The atmosphere at the ball park was quite enjoyable. Of course there were probably more young softball players in the stands than usual because of the promotion, and probably considerably more people in attendance than usual as well. In keeping with the minor league baseball tradition, they had various non-ballgame things going on. Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Taz were all visiting from Six Flags New England, and a couple of them threw out first pitches. Between innings one young girl raced the Riptide mascot character (a gull, I gather) and one of the Six Flag characters around the diamond. It was amusing to see the girl, all business, look back to see if they were gaining on her. Another break featured three girls in a hula hoop contest. Our girls got to join the Billerica Bratz team in singing Sweet Caroline (by accident or fate, a Red Sox anthem of sorts) into a microphone brought into the stands between innings. The sound operator had a different theme song for every home team player, and when a player came to the plate, he played a short excerpt of her theme. There were other musical effects for tense moments: the Jaws music still scares me a little, I’ll admit.

The NPF players have their traveling expenses paid and receive a modest salary. The sixteen-player teams in the league each have a salary cap for payroll of $100,000. No, I didn’t make a mistake on the number of zeros, and that is the total payroll, not just the single player limit. So most players make a couple or a few thousand dollars to play the 48-game summer season. There are a few big names in softball, with pitcher Jennie Finch being the biggest, but this year most of those are on the Olympic team, thus depleting the NPF of its top players. All of the players on both rosters had their colleges listed in the programs, and I would guess most are only a year or two out of college. Whatever else they may be doing, they really want to keep playing softball, and are glad to have found a way to make that happen. How is this desire to play manifested?

Well, for one thing they hustle. And how they hustle! While Red Sox fans were wondering whether their star hitter Manny Ramirez was faking a knee injury out of spite because the Red Sox management hadn’t yet picked up his $20 million option for next year (all the while paying him about that much for the current year), we in Lowell were seeing two teams put nine players on the field who never walked when they could run, although they are basically working for peanuts.

To get an idea of the level of enthusiasm exhibited and the amount of stretching that went on, just imagine (if you follow major league baseball) two teams composed of nothing but David Ecksteins and Ichiros, then jack it up a little. After that, morph those skilled players into young women in their twenties with the feminine charm that accompanies the bloom of health and vitality, and remember to include a good number of pony tails. I think of the Riptide player who loosened up while awaiting her turn to hit by jumping high off the ground in the on deck circle, feet pulled up behind her, in an impressive display of agility and eagerness. But don’t imagine all the players are slim and trim; one or two were bigger than what you’d normally associate with athleticism, which usually includes speed and agility. However, I’m sure the bigger girls have great balance and can hit the ball a long way, peg the ball to second to erase a runner, or demonstrate some other skill of value to the team. Baseball and softball are skill sports, where even a self-styled “non-athlete” such as John Kruk can excel with the proper physical skills.

The weather for the game was perfect and the mosquitos neither too plentiful nor too voracious. It was in every sense a good game (well-pitched, well-played, and dramatic), except that the home team lost 2-1. An early highlight for me was the Riptide’s first hit on a perfectly placed drag bunt. The third baseman for the Bandits, Stacy May, whom I had seen waiting in line at the concession stand before the game (imagine A-Rod in line before a game at Fenway!), turned out to be the heroine of the night. She hit a homerun over the center field fence to score her team’s first run and later made a couple of key plays in the field, most notably one on which she leaped high to snag a line drive and then dived to tag the base with her glove to double up the runner on third and kill a Riptide rally. Exemplifying the spirit and fun of the sport, the Riptide players danced along with the cheers they chanted during a rally, much as our young girl players do.

Both pitchers pitched very well, and I could really see the balls break in different directions, especially during warmup pitches when the umpire wasn’t in the way. I found it interesting that, contrary to the universal advice of the pitching books and videos I’ve studied in my effort to learn how to coach softball pitching, Jocelyn Forest, the Riptide pitcher, instead of landing with her stride foot on the “power line” straight from the pitching rubber to the plate, always landed well to the left of it—yet another example of someone coming up with an idiosyncratic way to do something successfully.

If there was an error made in the game, I can’t recall it, though a key hit by the Bandits was on a ball that hit off the glove of the center fielder as she ran in and attempted a shoestring catch. The cleanly played game was in marked contrast to a baseball game I saw in Lowell a few years ago, in which the Class A Lowell Spinners (Red Sox farm team) and their opponents each made multiple errors. That’s a small sample, and I can imagine why Class A baseball would have more errors: more balls put into play, more balls hit hard, more players just out of high school. However, it was a striking contrast, and I can say with a good deal of confidence that if one goes to an NPF game, one can expect to see good fielding.

The overall experience was refreshing and mind-clearing somehow. It is rare to find that many people so obviously relishing what they are engaged in and going about it with such elan and skill. Those girls are having a blast! I highly recommend going to an NPF game. In addition to the two teams already mentioned, there are others in Philadelphia, Akron, Washington DC, and Rockford, IL).

For me (and obviously there’s a personal and contingent element to every experience) the psychic refreshment from attending the game was like that obtained from a satisfying concert. Now that I think about it, the enjoyment and satisfaction for the players is probably similar to that of young people in a road band, where all the gigs and travel arrangements are lined up in advance, so that all the musicians have to do is show up and play their hearts out—with a lot of improvisation: all improvisation really, in the sense of responding to the unpredictable actions of others, always within the rules, but always different. They’re teammates, they’re young, it’s summer, and life is beautiful. Some of the joy gets passed on to the witnesses; try to find a game.

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