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Archive for April, 2013

I have a love-hate relationship with softball. I only played the sport competitively* for about seven or eight years, but my father’s love for baseball means that I could catch a ball (glove and all) and swing a bat (and make contact) around age 4. The competitive years were roughly age 13-19, basically covering the last year of middle school, all through high school, and two years or so of college.

Unfortunately I did not leave competitive softball on good terms and, since then, I’ve only participated in softball when I can be assured it’s either going to just be some batting practice or playing catch with a friend, or it’s going to be a super laid-back slow-pitch game in which the results don’t matter too much (read: grad school intramural softball), the people are friendly, and there will be a BBQ – or at least beer and pizza – afterwards. There are a number of reasons for why I left competitive softball that stem from that period of time when I played competitively: the atmosphere of a dozen, hormonal teenage/college women with strong personalities, all traveling with one another, is a recipe for disaster. Also, society as a whole is just not encouraging of women in competitive sports past the age of 18, unless they’re Division I and/or Olympic level athletes, and even then not equal to their male counterparts.

But what strikes me about this conclusion is as follows: how happier I simply would have been had the teams I played on not been all-female. Prior to moving overseas at age 8, I’d played t-ball and some little league — as only one of two girls on a mixed team run by the other girl’s father. (Later, when I returned, she and I also both played for the high school JV team.) My father was very diligent in coaching both my brother and me, and I have extremely fond memories of throwing the ball back and forth even as a small child. We used to go to the local elementary school on the weekends for “extra practice” which was really just a fancy terms for what became a good way to sap the energy of out of two little kids. My father’s enthusiasm never waned, and even when we were overseas in a country where the sport was rather non-existent, he still took us out for that extra practice every now and then.

When we returned from living overseas, I had a rough year in school and didn’t really make any friends. Some of my most cherished moments were standing in the driveway on the weekend and playing catch with my father. (Much to my mother’s discontent, I might add, since on at least two occasions wild throws dented the mini-van and broke the glass to their bedroom window.) My parents, sensing that softball might be the solution to my difficult “adjustment” back to American public school, must have had a conversation about signing me up for a softball team the following spring. What I don’t think they were prepared for was the level of politics already involved in the leagues. Basically, a bunch of mostly middle-aged white men controlled the teenage girls’ teams and they all had their lists of “hot shot” players stacked for their own community teams… which naturally came from their travel teams, in other words: groups of girls who had been playing together since age 10 or so (about the time they got kicked out of  boys little league). Anyone new was just an after thought. My father correctly figured that this would hurt my chances of actually getting any playing time or attention–so he volunteered to coach a team. Then proceeded try-outs: a crappy public school gymnasium in late-winter where each girl was given a rating on her ability by several of these “experienced” coaches. The coaches then met up secretly and chose teams. My father ,with little knowledge about and no opportunity to pick and choose any player he wanted (aside from me of course), basically followed along. In terms of skills we ended up with a, shall we say, less-than-ideal team. As newbies to the league we also ended up with the worst color uniforms for our team — which, although we picked a “serious” name in the end, led to some of us forever referring to the team as “the puking green lizards.”

My father coached a summer season team as well. The politics were just as gruesome as in the spring season and sometimes even worse. Summer season in competitive softball is tournament time. Although that first summer was still mostly community play, I came to hate the summer tournaments. Each one lasts all day Saturday and most the day on Sunday — Saturday was usually 3-4 games and Sunday would be at least 1-2; if you went to the final then you might play 3. Saturday usually began fairly early with perhaps an 8:30 or 9AM game. Not a big deal when the game was in the backyard, but really crap when you had to travel any distance to get there. Then you’d have to kill time in between games, which meant lots of trips for fast food, BBQs, 7-11, pizza, and Friendly’s ice cream.  (Actually, it now kind of makes me sick to my stomach thinking about what we ate.) The truth is though, these tournaments, which also continued in some form throughout the Fall, were usually bearable because many families and friends would often drop by to watch. At the end of the day, and even for meals, people could really go whichever way they wanted; you weren’t tied to the teammates.

High school softball was where things began to change. Many of the girls knew each other from outside travel teams because usually you had to be that good in try-outs to actually make the team. I’d say about 25-30% of the girls at try-outs made my high school’s teams. I seem to remember two rounds of cuts – one after perhaps two days, maybe on a Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning, and another taking place either on Friday or the following Monday. Varsity was, of course, worse than JV try-outs, but once you hit 11th grade you were not allowed to try out for JV anymore. And unlike community leagues, if you didn’t make the team… well, you’d have to go join the track and field team. (Track and field always had space: not only was it low-cost to add new people, but very few teenagers voluntarily wanted to run.) This intense competition to make the team of course means that emotions ran very high and that the people who actually made the team tended to be fiercely competitive. The JV squad was a mish-mash of good, very good, and fantastic players. The varsity squad – of which I was a member for my last two years – was almost exclusively the best players from the areas best travel teams. For the varsity team, I played outfield. It wasn’t a bad thing; I had (still have!) a strong throwing arm, a good depth perception, and I could run faster than most the team.

But being a member of the high school team was different from the community travel team. For one, we practiced or played games five days a week during the season. Usually practice was 3 or 3:30-5:30 or 6pm; game days could last longer. We traveled on the same bus and often ate together and had to see each other in the halls of school. To top it off, the coaches decided it would be “fun” to start those secret pal things (you pick a name out of a hat and don’t tell who you picked) so, once every week or two, you had to secretly give your “pal” some sort of goodie bag or something. But I think, for me, worst of all was the drama that ensued between different girls on the team (gossip and bad-mouthing mostly) and those who taunted others about clothing they wore. What seems like “bonding” to some people was absolute hell for me. The first time I wore my braided sweatband to softball (after having worn it all of tennis season) some members decided I was “sweatin’ to the oldies” with Richard Simmons and every time I got up to bat they’d begin chanting “dancin’ in the street.” I couldn’t concentrate at all. And, of course, then there were the coaches favorites on the team – the ones who never could do any wrong and always got lots of playing time. It was all a weird experience, to say the least.

Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t give up on softball after high school. Because of age requirements, I could still play on my community travel team until the summer after my year of college, so I did. But I also decided to join softball at university because I love the sport. I get a big high out of clobbering a softball or throwing in from centerfield – in fact, it is similar to the runner’s high I get now after doing a set of intervals or going on a long trail run. I think a part of me also wanted to rebel a bit. When I got into this university, I began in the engineering department, an unusual choice for a female to begin with. So unusual that for my class – 1400+ freshmen engineers of which 225 of us were female – they had us all sign up for a special “women in engineering” counselor. My counselor was very encouraging of empowering women in engineering, and very discouraging of non-academic pursuits such as softball. When I told her I was considering trying out for the Division I softball team she flatly replied with “they practice 6 or 7 days a week and you won’t have time for that.” Gee, thanks.

So I did what anyone in my position would have done and I signed up for “club softball” which meant we still represented the university but we played only Division II and III schools.** In other words, we were kind of like the JV squad for the university, only we really didn’t have a decent coach or any money allocated to us, and we had to do these awful fundraisers all the time (“anybody want to eat at pizza hut and donate 10% of their bill to the team?”). In fact, the fundraisers were one of the reasons I decided to quit the team mid-way through my second year – let me explain. On average, we practiced several times per week on top of full academic schedules. This was not that bothersome, except that our field was not close to the dorm where I lived, nor was there any “real” coach or accountability. The coach – who I knew through another friend – was your typical male, who was the same age as us and I’m pretty sure liked coaching the team because of all the “extra benefits” he got out of it, whether that meant socially and parties or more is sometimes hard to say. (For the record he is not alone in this; many male coaches of female college teams try to take advantage of their position of power.) The schedule for our games was often disorganized and exhausting – we might have to leave on a Thursday or Friday and then take turns driving mini-vans across the state for the purposes of playing 2 or maybe 3 games. We paid for everything ourselves, as I’ve said before, although I think the university gave us some gas money in an annual budget. We often stayed with friends, relatives, or in cheap lodging found by the home team. I can’t say that was always bad. But the drama and politics on these trips drove me nuts – friction over dating or sleeping with other team members’ exes, gossip over who had a dildo in her trunk and who was a slut – and most of all, the obnoxious drinking habits of some of my teammates. Sometimes, it was so bad that certain teammates couldn’t actually play well because they were hung over from the night before.

The icing on the cake though – and what made me finally decide to leave the whole shebang for good – was discovering that the university van I was driving on one of these journeys had cases of cheap beer stuffed under the backseats, all bought with our hard-earned fundraising money. This was frustrating because 1) I was still under 21 and I could have been arrested for driving with all that beer under the seat (never mind it was a university van so I probably could have been expelled from the university) and 2) the beer was bought with money I was told would be going to new equipment, which we sorely needed. The experience left me jaded and at the end of the season (which was not far away at that point) I finally quit for good. Of course, by this point I had already considered leaving the team on several occasions, but this made it somewhat easier when people asked why – I told them I simply disagreed “with the way the funds had been allocated.” Some teammates begged for me to come back while I’m sure others were glad to see me gone; I never did get along well with people who drink Milwaukee’s Best Light.

Fast forwarding to grad school and today, I still don’t mind playing softball – as long as it’s casual and fun and low-key. When I lived in Taipei, I had a close friend from New York who likes baseball and swimming. We used to go swimming together some afternoons and then rent gloves from the gym and play catch  afterwards on the National Taiwan University campus’ fields. One time we even ended up playing a kind of pick-up game with the university baseball team. They were so happy to meet two native English speakers who spoke Chinese and completely shocked to see how well I played their sport. 🙂

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*By competitive I mean fast pitch softball for high school, as well as for travel teams that play together year-round, including in tournaments extending beyond a community league.

** DII and DIII softball schools are usually the lesser-known state universities and private universities – in our case this meant we did not play a UVa, Georgetown, or Duke, but we might play Mary Washington, NC State, or GMU.

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