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.
I’ve wanted to go to the Women’s College World Series for years. In fact, I had planned to leave for a months-long softball-themed road trip that would conclude in Oklahoma City… in March 2020. Needless to say, that didn’t happen.
Even before the trip was called off, though, plenty of people would look at me quizzically when I explained the trip to them. “That’s…cool?” they’d reply, at which point I’d have to begin my softball spiel. A sport that gets dismissed because it’s mostly played by women (in this country), with a name and conceit that makes people assume it’s the baby version of baseball — when, in fact, it’s an as (or more, if you’re me) appealing sport. I could go on, which is why I wrote about it.
The Women’s College World Series offered an opportunity to escape the rationalizations, and simply celebrate the game with thousands of other people who don’t need to be convinced that it’s great. They’re busy setting up elaborate tailgates and making custom shirts to celebrate their favorite team, shit-talking opponents future and past and trying to find a place to buy food without endless lines of fellow fans who are just trying to get back to the game as soon as possible. But more on that later.
This year, I live within driving distance of Oklahoma City — so I had to go, if only for a day. I decided that, to do it right, I should go on the first day and see all eight teams play, for an extremely enjoyable endurance test. Below are a few of the highlights.
11:15 a.m.: I thought that since it was a Thursday, since there were eight games, and since first pitch was at 11 a.m., getting to the stadium around then wouldn’t put me that far behind. I was wrong! All the parking lots around the stadium are long since full, and so I’m relegated to the overflow lot about a 15 minute walk away. A random guy in an Oklahoma State shirt wandering around the overflow lot alone while listening to the radio call of the Oklahoma-James Madison match-up on his phone reassures me that I am finally among kindred spirits.
11:30 a.m.: Walking into the stadium is a shock. I cover women’s sports; I have seen very, very large crowds of fans for women’s sports. But to see the stands that full on a random Thursday morning, to see all the people decked out in team gear sitting under an impossible sky of fluffy white clouds and sunshine, to feel the energy brought by the kind of people who would take a day off of work to come support their team — or just to watch some championship softball… well, to describe it I’m compelled to use a cliché: it takes my breath away. For a moment. And then I sit down and start watching.
it's 11:30 am on a thursday, please tell me more about how no one cares about women's sports pic.twitter.com/P4ho8zwfDX
— Natalie Weiner (@natalieweiner) June 3, 2021
11:45 a.m.: The unthinkable has happened. An unranked James Madison, playing in the WCWS for the first time, strikes first in the third inning against No. 1 Oklahoma, a record-setting juggernaut of a team that had previously boasted a 50-2 record — in Oklahoma. Dukes junior Sara Jubas doesn’t seem impressed by them at all, though, when she blasts a three-run homer past all the esteemed Sooner defenders; the small cluster of purple above the JMU dugout erupts. “That sounded like the whole stadium,” says one of the Sooner fans next to me; she and her thousands of compatriots are quieter.
12:35 p.m.: Oklahoma ties the game in the bottom of the third, but tensions are still high — the Sooner fans aren’t accustomed to playing close with anyone, much less the Cinderella team that crashed the OKC party in the first place. “There’s a conspiracy,” one mutters after a JMU player barely steals second. The stadium is bursting at the seams, and people are mad and hungry (you aren’t allowed to bring food in) as they wait in food lines that stretch 30 to 40 people long. It takes 20 minutes just to get lemonade and kettle corn — seeming evidence that per usual, those in charge of women’s sports have underestimated how many people want to watch them, and are throwing away money in the process.
1:24 p.m.: The first game of the WCWS, which on paper should have been a blowout, is going to extras — because of course it is, because softball is the best. JMU pitcher Odicci Alexander has the Sooners seeing ghosts, swinging at outside pitches for eight strikeouts. A man in a red clown wig and Hawaiian shirt is walking through the stands with a “Boomer” sign, trying to goad the agape Sooner fans into their signature chant in spite of the circumstances.
1:30 p.m.: It almost feels like a hallucination: the sun is directly over us, so maybe that JMU potential go-ahead homer on a full count was all in our heads? Only the increasingly disgruntled Sooner fans confirm it’s real.
1:47 p.m.: They fucking did it. The first game of the 2021 WCWS ends with a nearly unprecedented upset. “I need a cigarette after that one but we’ll be back in — we’ll be here the whole week,” one Sooner fan says. “We’re OU fans but we’re softball fans.” A little boy decked out in head-to-toe UCLA gear has been pacing around the section, glove in hand, through the entire game; now, he’s gleefully yelling, “What did I say?!”
UPSET COMPLETE ✅
— ESPN (@espn) June 3, 2021
2:54 p.m.: Everything is a little more mellow through the beginning of the Oklahoma State-Georgia match-up, which is scoreless through the start of the third inning. The clouds finally offer some respite from the heat, and the game isn’t yet intense enough to require close attention; good for the post-lunch haze.
3:46 p.m.: I have a long conversation with an Oklahoma fan who tells me that she’s been sitting in these same seats for years alongside her group of fellow Oklahoma fan friends, who she met at the Women’s College World Series — now, they come together wearing matching shirts. She tells me about how she got into the game, about how her nieces played and how when she was at a point where she was “sick of her life” she went to an Oklahoma softball game and the fans there welcomed her with open arms. Now she’s been a season ticket holder for what seems like forever, watching the team and the sport grow in the process.
She tells me about how things have changed at the WCWS — about how the USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium added 4,000 seats ahead of this year’s tournament, but it seems like they have fewer food vendors than normal and the lines have never been like this. About how silly it is that the stadium’s single scoreboard is set back so that half of the fans can’t see the entire thing, leaving them to try figure out the balls and strikes on their phones; the MPH section is, for some reason, dark through all the games despite the fact that pitchers’ speeds are shown on TV.
She’s frustrated that the NCAA told her friends that they couldn’t tailgate this year, which they’ve been doing forever — plenty of people are doing it anyway, but she doesn’t get why it has to be a fight. She’s worried for the players because the back wall of the field isn’t padded. Basically, she loves the sport — it’s changed her life — but she wants it to be better.
4:30 p.m.: OSU clinched the W, and the lines outside to get in for the late slate of games are already hundreds of people deep. The NCAA merch tent, stocked with about 20 different WCWS shirts and a ton of other swag, is doing a booming business selling $40 tank tops and $18 WCWS softballs — money that we know isn’t going to the players, and doesn’t seem to be going to enhancing the facilities to accommodate all the fans.
5:05 p.m.: Between games, fans are encouraged to visit the free USA Softball Hall of Fame and its almost equally-sized gift shop. Many seem to be simply searching for an air-conditioned place to sit, but others are looking at the impressive collection of artifacts and stories — and the excellent vintage softball uniforms. The softball fan demographic is pretty diverse in terms of age and gender, but it’s hard not to be particularly moved by the young girls wearing their own softball uniforms, learning about the stories of the men and women who came before them. And then buying neon green backpacks with red stitching (like a softball, they were amazing).
6:02 p.m.: Ahead of the third game, Arizona’s lineup is introduced with Warren G, and Alabama’s with “Sweet Home Alabama.” It’s hard to ignore how much greater the degree of racial diversity among both fans and players during this later slot, which includes both Pac-12 teams. Softball, like baseball, is alarmingly white (at least domestically) — work needs to be done to understand why some college teams are so much more inclusive than others.
6:50 p.m.: Alabama comes out of the gate hot, with their ace Montana Fouts getting eight strikeouts in three innings. In spite of the fact that the pitch speed isn’t on the scoreboard, it’s not hard to tell that she’s dealing — the dust comes up around her feet like smoke after she throws a heater, and the crack of her pitch in catcher Bailey Hemphill’s hits like a firecracker, even in the upper deck.
8:09 p.m.: Fouts gets a near-record 16 Ks in what one fan calls the “biggest ass whuppin’ all day” — Arizona slugger Jessie Harper gets a solo homer in the 7th to save the shutout, but their fate has already been sealed. The Tide faithful are loud, and there are a lot of them; Fouts finds out that legendary pitcher Jennie Finch, one of her heroes, has been in the stands the whole time.
?? ?? ?
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 4, 2021
8:50 p.m.: Star UCLA pitcher Rachel Garcia throws an uncharacteristic lead-off walk with the colors of the sunset still in the sky to begin the last game of the day; the crowds have died down slightly, but plenty of people are still strolling around, Dippin’ Dots in hand (I may or may not have been one of them).
10:20 p.m.: The last game of the day is a pitchers’ duel, but we finally get a run on the board in the bottom of the fifth inning from UCLA. It’s a little grueling and the non-UCLA/FSU fans are trickling out. The kids are having a blast, though. A girl in her softball uniform makes a barehanded catch of a hard hit foul ball and earns applause from the whole section, while another decides to go ask former Oklahoma star Lauren Chamberlain for an autograph — she returns with a picture and a signed WCWS hat. Another walks by in a shirt that says “How To Bunt: 1) Don’t. 2) Hit dingers.”
10:48 p.m.: Maya Brady hits a home run to the moon to seal Florida State’s fate late in the sixth inning, and more people leave to beat traffic. A TV camera hovers over the UCLA fan section, capturing their jubilation while the Florida State fans continue to do the Tomahawk Chop. It doesn’t help.
Brady ?! Her 14th of the season to tie for the team lead, and third in as many games!!!
4-0 Bruins, B6.
— UCLA Softball (@UCLASoftball) June 4, 2021
10:59 p.m.: UCLA’s Bri Perez makes an incredible catch to end the first day of the WCWS. Everyone trudges back to their cars, and most of them prepare to do it all again for the rest of the weekend.