For women only? NCAA should rethink softball's pitch

I played first base on a Dixie Youth softball team for years (all-star five years in a row). It was great, especially after I learned if I ran over third base I could be tagged out. If could run over first, why not third? It was two years before anyone told me, but it was much later before I learned other, even more nonsensical, rules of the game.

On most Little League and school teams, softball is about the same as baseball. The ball is bigger and the pitches underhanded, but the games are pretty much the same. It isn’t until college that the sports diverge dramatically.

Softball was first played as indoor baseball and evolved into an outdoor sport that adapted to the confines of whatever space was available, usually a vacant lot. Softball began as a man’s game of convenience but quickly caught on with women. Both men and women were playing in 1910 when the NCAA first sanctioned the game, but today softball– along with field hockey– is designated by the NCAA as “women only” and is still very much a game of convenience.

When Title IX became law, the NCAA must have thanked its lucky stars for softball. Now, 39 years later, there still isn’t a women’s sport that compares to football. But in 1972, keeping women off the baseball diamond was easy. Women took to softball early (the 1904 Spalding Indoor Baseball Guide devoted an entire section to women's softball) and started competing internationally in 1965. Softball offered the NCAA a convenient alternative to baseball. But it’s not 1972 anymore, and we’re supposed to know better.

I (and almost every little girl I know) love playing softball, but we also love playing baseball. It’s so different: baseball has leadoffs, pickoffs, stealing and balks. Softball has different rules.

The smaller field (60 feet between bases versus baseball’s 90, and 40 feet from the– flat, not raised– mound to home plate versus 60 feet 6 inches in baseball, and a maximum of 250 feet to the outfield fence) necessitates a few “gimmes”: many leagues (not the NCAA) limit over-the-fence home runs.

You can’t play softball by baseball’s rules because it’s a different game, just as badminton isn’t tennis and rugby isn’t football. They just look similar.

In the 2004 Pepsi All-Star Softball Game, superstar Jennie Finch struck out Albert Pujols, Mike Piazza, and Brian Giles; and she dominates MLB players on “Jennie’s Challenge,” a This Week in Baseball segment.

Finch told ESPN, “I was throwing them mostly rise balls and change-ups. They've never seen a pitch like that, you know? With the closer distance from the mound, I think it really surprises them how fast the pitch gets there. And especially with the rise– when they're used to that over-the-top release point– there's nothing else like it. The ball movement throws them off.”

Softball is fantastic, but it’s not as if women don’t want to play baseball: Vassar had a team in 1866, the American Women's Baseball Federation started in 1992, USA Baseball, amateur baseball’s governing body, annually selects a women’s national team, and the International Baseball Federation hosts the Women's Baseball World Cup every two years (the US has won twice).

And men and boys don’t love only baseball. USA Softball holds a high school boy’s fastpitch tournament every year, and the International Softball Federation hosts the Men’s World Cup.

When the NCAA meets on July 13 to reconsider several of softball’s rules and regulations, they should also reconsider the sport’s designation. As great as it is, softball is not the female equivalent of baseball, nor is it for “women only.” It’s a rule we should never have to learn.
Juanita on a farm in Charlotte County with her husband, son, and many dogs.