Remember rounders? We didn't play it much at my school. Even then, I don't remember a game ever being finished. We either lost the tennis ball, or matches disbanded in disarray because of I-was-in-oh-no-you-weren't arguments. The fatties and the squirts liked rounders because the ball was lobbed gently at them, not hurled at 80 mph, and it was soft anyway.
My theory is that the latent influence of those formative years playing rounders has stayed hidden, like a Sindy doll's shoe lurking in the carpet for an unwary bare foot, until softball came along. The first truly designer sport is now a familiar sight in parkland. Softball has been outselling cricket equipment at London's biggest sport shop. It has become so popular that the American Embassy and Downing Street were said to be involved when the sport was briefly banned from a London park.
Just try to get a game of football in Regent's Park during the summer. You can't get near the place for fake American accents and high-fives.
Softball has just become part of the national curriculum and is now recognised by the Sports Council. In London alone, there are now about 500 teams. It is played in 70 countries, with 43 million participants worldwide. Come 1996, women's softball will be a demonstration sport at the Atlanta Olympics. But you can't fool me. This is just rounders, wearing skintight trousers and speaking with a Transatlantic accent.
The whole thing probably goes back to Abner Doubleday, who showed his Yankee soldier pals in 1839 how to play a game with a ball, bat and bases. Then again, similar but informal games had been played in America since the late 1700s under names ranging from catapult ball and one-eyed cat to roundball (now that sounds familiar). But it took an Englishman to get baseball organised. Harry Wright, an early cricket professional, organised the first serious club, the Cincinnati Red Stockings. Soon other clubs went professional, too, and named themselves after their stocking colours, and it is now the national game.
Those very American women (you know, the Bette Midler / Joan Rivers crosses) played a key role in softball's birth. Discouraged from playing baseball, they bullied through their own version using a slightly smaller diamond and an orange-sized ball (not soft at all, however). To make hitting easier, the ball had to have an arc on its trajectory of at least three feet. Otherwise, it was pretty much baseball rules. Their players mocked it as kiddie stuff. But now, even in the most redneck parts of the US, there's nothing unmanly about playing softball.
The slow-pitch version has been a key reason for its success. Because the ball is so easy to hit, different tactics are called for. And for those who want a more macho version, fast-pitch still uses the underarm delivery but a windmill motion can deliver the ball at up to 90 mph.
Both are played in the United Kingdom but the upwardly mobile of both sexes are particularly attracted to mixed slow pitch. 'It is very easy to learn the rules, it's cheap to start playing, and it is one of the very few sports where women can play on equal terms,' said Jeremy Bedford, chairman of the Windsor and Eton Softball League.
It is the perfect sport, too, for those who want a bit of exercise but don't want it to interfere with their social life. Dan McConnell is one of the stars of Tequila Slammers, who won the UK National Championships at the weekend, possibly because of their shocking pink team strip. 'One of the great appeals is the social aspect,' he says. 'With a mixed league, it is a chance for people to get out from work and get together with their friends.' And yes, softball is a great way to meet women, he admits.
McConnell, 24, plays in the London Advertising League. 'I can't think of a major corporate company that doesn't play softball,' Bedford says. This week the Slammers (just two defeats in their last 40 games 'We're the winningest team in the country over the last five years' McConnell says) head for Fort Lauderdale to compete in the Advertising Age World Series, with the World Corporate Games to follow.
The sport is still in its infancy here. There is no national coaching scheme, no full-time staff, no permanent stadium. Training for young players and umpires is largely ad hoc. 'Our biggest problem is lack of facilities,' Bedford says. It's a problem the sport will soon need to address very seriously. McConnell is trying to start a pubs league in the Greater London area, which will put further pressure on park pitches. But if it keeps the Club Med set out of mischief, perhaps we should not complain.
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