Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.
It’s so often misunderstood as to bear perpetual repetition: the softball played by women in the NCAA and beyond is NOT the same sport you play with your coworkers. It’s not an easier version of baseball; excellent baseball players will be deftly struck out by softball pitchers (and probably vice versa!) because they’re totally different sports.
What I’ve continued to argue is that softball is — at least for viewers — a more fun sport than baseball. The field is smaller, so everything happens faster. If you’re watching at home, it’s easier to see the emotion on the players’ faces because the TV cameras have less ground to cover. Games are seven innings instead of baseball’s practically interminable nine. A 100-plus pitch performance from a steely pitcher is fairly commonplace, and they’ll still be dishing out 70 MPH pitches even as they hit triple digits.
It has all the tension and catharsis of baseball without the exhausting machismo and weird retaliatory grudges. It’s impressive and emotional and compelling and unpredictable — especially during the NCAA tournament, or “Mayhem,” as it’s called, when the stakes are as high as they get outside the Olympics (and frankly, maybe higher). Mayhem starts today, and it only seemed right to pitch (pun intended) not-yet fans on why it’s must-see TV for any sports fan.
1. The Dingers
50 Division I softball teams are averaging at least one homer per game. The No. 1 overall seed, storied softball program Oklahoma, is averaging nearly three thanks in large part to sluggers Jocelyn Alo (27 home runs this season), freshman (!) Tiare Jennings (24) and Kinzie Hansen (20). And where there are dingers, there are bat flips.
You already know ???? had to get in on the ? HR party ?
Her ???? of the season, our fourth of the game!
T5 | OU 5, Tech 2 | ? ESPN+ pic.twitter.com/v0E9AXRDw7
— Oklahoma Softball (@OU_Softball) May 15, 2021
2. The Endurance
I will never forget where I was when I watched Rachel Garcia basically single-handedly destroy my beloved Washington Huskies in the 2019 Women’s College World Series. Garcia, who is still playing for No. 2 seeded UCLA and a member of Team USA, threw 179 pitches over 10 innings for 16 strikeouts — and then hit a three-run homer for a walkoff victory. It was one of the single most impressive sports performances I’ve ever seen, and after the last postseason was cancelled because of the pandemic, I can only imagine that Garcia (as well as a slew of other two-way players) is extra eager to put on an even wilder show.
— NCAA Softball (@NCAAsoftball) June 2, 2019
3. The Catches
Just try to get a base hit on LSU’s Aliyah Andrews. Really put your mind to it, and see what happens.
the Aliyah Andrews catches keep getting crazierpic.twitter.com/42EYznCUs6
— Céspedes Family BBQ (@CespedesBBQ) April 11, 2021
Or get a single past Washington’s Sis Bates — I’ve already exposed my bias, but it should be obvious to anyone that’s she’s one of one.
Sis Bates – Defensive Player of the Year, #Pac12SB
2nd Best Fielding % of Any Middle Infielder in Program History
Played Every Inning at SS for UW This Season
2nd Player in Pac-12 History to Win 3 DPOY Awards#GoHuskies | @UWSoftball | @Gatorade pic.twitter.com/l0Pys27NMr
— Pac-12 Conference (@pac12) May 16, 2021
4. The Pitching
Watching Tennessee’s Ashley Rogers in the SEC tournament made all the corniest sports cliches about grit and toughness and determination seem relevant. She threw hundreds of pitches against teams that were supposedly better than her own, and came away with improbable, glorious wins.
Ashley Rogers is an absolute warrior! ⚔ pic.twitter.com/xGBAPTYcZp
— Tennessee Softball (@Vol_Softball) May 14, 2021
5. The intensity
I’ve thought a lot about why I find softball so compelling — what makes it different from baseball (which I’m considerably less engaged in), and its appeal that can’t be explained by the game’s rules and design. It might sound strange, but I’ve concluded that it’s still novel to see women in deep focus. The game, with its slow, steady, methodical pace, its unforgiving poker faces and intent anticipation, is a demonstration of unself-conscious absorption. Women thinking, without the double-thought of thinking about how they appear, whether they look too unfeminine or menacing or ugly. They’re thinking about the ball, where it’s coming from and where it’s going. Nothing else matters, and it’s incredible to watch.