Watching Women’s Softball

Elena Kagan playing softball

I recently watched the 2010 World Cup of Softball, a game I used to play. Of course, not against women, as in the World Cup that featured teams of the fairer sex. And certainly not at their level of excellence.

When most people think about softball, they think about fast-pitch, 12″ battles between men who wear gloves on defense. Although I played a bit of that game, more often I enjoyed the Chicago-only version of softball — a 16″ slow-pitch ballgame played bare-handed.

Chicago-style softball is a very different game than the 12″ variety, but it’s another distinction I’d like to discuss. That is, the difference between the 12″ game when played by men and the same athletic contest among women.

Women have taken the game and made it quite their own. While no less dedicated and talented than men, their conduct on the field is remarkably dissimilar. Take the matter of cheering. Women will create cheers, sometimes musical, for their teammates and chant or sing them as a group. Similarly, at the end of a defensive inning, all those in the dugout rush on to the field to give their defensive compatriots “high fives.”  And, on offense, if you hit a home run, you get the same circle of congratulations with everyone participating.

There seems to be more smiling in the women’s game, more obvious pulling-together and concern for your teammates. Indeed, more good sportswomanship for the other team too. To wit, in a game against Japan, when Jessica Mendoza collided with the Japanese catcher in a play at home, Mendoza stood nearby as the catcher received medical attention, all the while showing her concern.

The females are also much more attentive to their appearance than male players. Makeup isn’t uncommon and the distaff athletes don’t scratch in public the way men do.

In all, the game seems to be a good deal more cooperative endeavor for the women, with more frequent displays of enthusiasm and goodwill for each other. More social too, as if the ladies know that the group really is more important than the individual and that the sun will rise tomorrow even if they lose.

Now, I’m not saying that the women don’t care. They appear to care deeply and have all worked hard to achieve elite status, certainly at the World Cup level. But they seem more balanced, less desperate and aggressive, so that the game becomes more about skill than about brute force or intimidation.

During one of the games, I watched an interview of Jenny Finch, the darling of women’s softball in America. Ms. Finch has a child and a husband, and has decided to retire at the end of this season; hardly ready for a pension, she is all of 29.

But what was really interesting about the interview is what Jenny Finch said she will miss most upon retirement. It isn’t trophies and triumphs, accolades and media attention, or the applause and the endorsements. Instead, she believes that she will ache for the camaraderie among her colleagues, whom she described as “family,” and “way more than teammates.” For her, the most memorable moments of her career happened off the softball diamond, not on it.

I think the women are on to something here and, to their credit, not so macho that they won’t talk about it publicly. Anyone who has played on an even moderately successful team knows that the sense of pulling-together as a group isn’t just the property of women.

If you love the game and know that your teammates are trying to win just as hard as you are, over a period of time you came to love them a little bit too. Men will never say it in quite that way, but then, men are generically well-known for having a little trouble in expressing their feelings (or even admitting to them).

I’ve written here before about the Zeolites, the high school summer league softball team of my last two years at Chicago’s Mather Public High School.

We won more than we lost, but never quite enough to distinguish ourselves as a powerhouse. Still, we gave everything we had to that version of the American Pastime and invested it with all the intensity and importance that is known to teenage followers of the great game.

In the end, the team reunited many years later (traveling from around the country to do so) and came to give an ongoing scholarship at Mather High School. But for the attachment to each other, the reunion (37 years after our graduation) would never have happened; nor the philanthropy that still bears the name of team: the Zeolite Scholarship Fund.

The women at the World Cup of Softball seem to know something that it took us many years to figure out. They understand the value of the people who wear the same uniforms and the significance of the acts they perform together, the bonding that comes from playing a child’s game, and the mutual benefit of the wish that your teammate will succeed just as much as if he were you.

As I said in a speech given at one of our annual scholarship ceremonies at Mather High, “The Zeolites never won a championship in the Mather summer softball league. But, as things turned out, we had something that was more important: our friendship.”

Once you learn this lesson, you don’t forget it.

The image above is of Elena Kagan, our newest supreme court justice.