American sport has always had a glamorous edge over its UK counterparts; the conservative style of snooker compared to the showmanship of pool, the down and dirty play of rugby versus American football’s blockbuster pyrotechnics and the cold concentration of curling set against the pugilistic skills of ice hockey players.
Even the humble game of rounders has been topped by baseball’s younger brother, softball. But with both sports sharing four bases, batters and fielders, how different can they be? According to Andy Burgess, recruitment officer for the Solent Softball League, it’s size that matters.
‘Softball uses a 12-inch circumference ball which is like two fists grasping each other and it’s as hard as a cricket ball,’ says Andy. ‘The main difference between softball and rounders is that every player has to wear a leather catching glove. I know the name says softball but it’s by no means soft, so when you get one of these hit towards you with a metal softball bat you need to have some sort of glove to help you. A lot of cricketers come along and they try it out and they say “we’re fine with just our hands” but it’s a rule you have to wear one and you’ll see why!’
It seems that softball also shares something in common with other traditional British sports.
Andy adds: ‘Softball’s like a pub football level of baseball. In the states every company, church and bar has a softball team. It’s that sort of level, it’s almost like a British darts team or football team. Every pub’s got a football team and a darts team and over in the states everywhere you have church leagues and corporate leagues. I think it’s officially classed as the sport with the most participation in the US but it’s still classed as a minority sport over here.’
The American roots of softball are a big part of its appeal and were certainly the reason Andy first got involved with the sport.
‘I think the American connection is part of the appeal for people. When I was a young lad I saw it on TV. Channel 4 showed the first baseball games in 1986. They showed it live on a Sunday lunchtime and that was it, I was hooked, I wanted to find out more, where I could play it. It definitely had that American sort of “wow” you see in films and movies and things,’
Despite its minority status in the UK softball is increasingly popular and the Solent league has continued to develop. Since it was established in 1995, the league has grown from a handful of teams to 12 teams spread across two divisions.
Players meet once a week for matches and practice between April and September. During the winter the league moves indoors to practice and also finds time to raise money for a good cause.
‘We have an annual indoor tournament at the end of March which we do for Tom Prince Cancer Trust. The league is a patron of that trust because Tom and the Prince family all played softball. Tom was always at the practices, he would practice with us on the sidelines. The trust has become the league’s nominated charity and we’ve raised about £17,000 for them over the years.’
The league has players that represent the area at all national levels including training with the Great Britain Team but remains open to any level of ability.
Andy says: ‘You’ve got guys that will practice and go to the gym and obviously they tend to play for the better teams but then you’ve got teams that are full of people that don’t play sport and they literally turn up and have fun. People of all shapes and sizes can play, it’s not one of these sports where you have to be of a certain fitness to be able to play.
‘In a team of 10 people you have to have five men and five women, you have to have an equal split otherwise you can’t play. In theory the men with the bigger builds should be hitting the ball further but with the technology in the bats we use nowadays it really evens it out. If you catch the ball right you’ll get ladies hitting the ball just as far as men.
Softball’s other big draw is its emphasis on fun.
‘Fun is an important part of the sport although you can’t take competitiveness out completely – you want to win. My team have just been relegated because we’ve lost nine out of our 10 games but still these people are coming along. I haven’t had anyone suddenly say “I don’t want to play any more,” and they’ll be back next year. So it really is about the fun of the game rather than the win or lose element.
‘I love the team spirit of softball – it’s not just on the field it’s off the field as well. We socialise with each other, we’ve had softball marriages from the same team and now we’ve got a family element as well where you’ll bring your family along and the kids will play on the sidelines while mum and dad are playing softball on the field.’
As one of the leagues’ newest coaches, Jerry Borel, the manager of the Portsmouth based Zombies softball team, has experienced that welcoming family atmopsphere first-hand.
‘I used to play football, it’s very aggressive and this isn’t like that at all, it’s really relaxed,’ says Jerry. ‘Everyone is welcoming and excellent with advice. We played a game against one team and they hammered us, then straight after they went over to our pitcher and gave him advice on how he could get better – no one mocks you if you’re terrible, it’s really good.’
The Zombies played their first season this year and have been together since March but thanks to softball’s accessible style the team are already having fun.
Jerry adds: ‘Softball is a pretty easy sport to pick up because you don’t necessarily have to be supremely fit or athletic to play it. What outweighs fitness in softball is probably hand-eye co-ordination – that’s probably the most important thing but it’s something that with practice you pick up quickly.
‘The fantastic thing for me this season is taking people that have never played before and teaching them this sport. When you see players improving and doing better it’s absolutely fantastic, it’s a really great feeling. They’re proud and you’re proud of them.’
And what does it feel like to hit that elusive home run?
‘Hitting a home run is very exhilarating.
‘You have to catch the ball just right with your bat.
‘You have to make the swing just right, the timing has to be perfect. It doesn’t come along very often but when it does it’s an amazing feeling.’
Solent Softball League
WHERE: Various locations throughout the area including Chichester, Eastleigh and in Portsmouth at Tangier field, Tangier Road, Baffins, PO36PZ
WHEN: Practice and game times vary for each team
CALL: 07887 951 440
Two divisions each featuring six teams.
Open to all abilities and ages from 16 years plus.
Players can attend regular softball matches and practice sessions within the league all year round and have the opportunity to go to tournaments in other regions during the summer season.