Softball

Thursday was a weird evening for me in several ways.

First, I was staying the night at my mom’s house. Thanks to everyone who prayed for her hip replacement surgery Tuesday. After a rough first night she rebounded fantastically on Wednesday and was able to go home Thursday. She’s already getting around as well as she was before the procedure and I’m very hopeful that this will greatly increase her quality of life. But I didn’t want her staying home alone on that first night.

Which leads to Weird Thing #2. Mom went to bed early as usual and I had a kid-free evening of relaxation, but with no DVR on the TV. I don’t watch anything live on TV. Even sports, which is the one thing everyone watches live. I still DVR it, wait until the kids go to bed and then fire it up in peace and zip through the games quickly. I can watch a Cubs or Thunder game in about 45 minutes and a football game quicker than that. If it means I have to stay off my phone for a few hours in the evening to avoid spoilers then I consider that an added bonus. So I’m just chilling on her couch, flipping between the NBA Finals and the Women’s College World Series.

Which leads to Weird Thing #3. I watched a lot more of the softball game than I expected to. I’d still say the TV was on the basketball game more than 50% of the time, but it was close.

It was a great back-and-forth game, with OU beating Alabama 3-2. The next night while playing poker I watched the winner’s bracket game between OU and OSU. It’s pretty cool that both schools made it and the atmosphere at Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City seemed really electric. The top-ranked Sooners pulled away late for a 6-1 victory.

Why is it that I enjoyed watching softball two nights in a row when I never watch women’s basketball? Why did I watch more softball the past two nights than I’ve watched college baseball over the past two years? I think it comes down to the product. Women’s basketball is (in my opinion) an inferior product to men’s college basketball, which itself has become barely watchable ever since we got an NBA team. But they are essentially the same game. College baseball is an inferior product to minor league baseball, which is an inferior product to Major League Baseball. But they are essentially the same game. Softball is a different sport entirely, and the differences are what make it fun.

Start with the underhanded pitching motion. For one thing, it allows pitchers to throw multiple games in a row, as opposed to major league games where starters get pulled after four innings and it takes 6 guys to complete a game. It also allows for some different spin and manipulation of the ball. It doesn’t take long to figure out how hard it is to make solid contact off of these elite softball pitchers.

Softball games are full of chants and songs that don’t really make sense to an outsider like myself but they make for a festive environment. The whole field and base paths are smaller and shorter than a traditional baseball diamond, which makes the whole game move quicker. The shortstop doesn’t have time to play patty cake with the ball before throwing to first; any hesitation will cost her the out. My great friend and former OU softball beat reporter Josh Ward compares it to Arena League football, and it’s a perfect comparison. The quirks are what make it fun to watch. Yet it’s still very similar to baseball, and the players can easily display their athleticism in the field and on the basepaths.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt when your alma mater has the best program in the country. In 1995, OU hired the coach at Long Beach City College. All Patty Gasso has done since then is win 78% of her games and four national titles. And this year’s squad may be her best yet. OU is 54-4 and didn’t lose a game in Big 12 Conference play. Statistically, this would be their best team ever if they can win three more games and capture another title.

Patty Gasso

I came to OU three years after Gasso did, and in 2000 I was the sports editor of the school paper. The aforementioned Josh Ward covered the softball team, which looked like it might be a special one.

If you know Josh, you know he can be a tough critic (especially the Y2k version of Dub). But he never had a negative word to say about Gasso or the way she ran her program. He said she was great to work with and always “had her shit together.” Not that anyone could have predicted this level of success, but Josh says he never had a doubt that OU would be a big winner under Gasso.

One of the coolest experiences I ever had at OU came on the softball field while I was sports editor. Gasso let me, Josh, and our sports photographer Paul Dryden take batting practice against OU’s pitchers that spring. It was really a testament to both Josh and Coach Gasso. Most reporters wouldn’t have developed the kind of relationship with the team to make that a possibility, and most coaches wouldn’t be cool enough to go along with it.

I remember going to the old (and now defunct) Perfect Swing off Highway 9 to get some practice cuts in. I didn’t plan on hitting a home run but I was darn sure going to get the bat on the ball. OU’s pitchers that year were Jennifer Stewart and Lana Moran. Stewart was the ace and she had a changeup that made Josh and Paul look silly. Like any good pitcher she threw it with the same motion as her fastball and you only had about half a millisecond to react to that if you wanted to hit it, so when she threw the change you looked like Bugs Bunny swinging three times at the same pitch and striking out. I don’t know how anyone hits that pitch unless they just guess right that it’s coming.

Gasso only allowed us 5 or 10 pitches each. Neither Josh nor Paul made contact with any of Stewart’s pitches and the entire team was sitting on the outfield grass laughing up a storm and talking trash. So the pressure was on yours truly. Luckily I didn’t have to face Stewart. Moran was also a good pitcher but she didn’t have that nasty changeup and I was able to send her first pitch over the fence and into the parking lot, where it shattered Gasso’s car window. OK maybe that’s not quite how it happened. Actually, I just fouled it straight back, which was already a pretty big win for me. I also managed to hit one fair, although it would have been a routine ground out.

But it was a blast, and it made me appreciate how hard the sport is. As the sports editor of the paper, it stinks that the school year ends before the Women’s College World Series. Josh had some great coverage of the team during the season but by the time the WCWS rolled around it was summer and I had a regular job.

I’ll never forget the day OU won the national championship that year. It was Memorial Day and our family tradition at that time was to split into two groups. Mom took Andrew and Allison to her hometown of Enid to decorate the graves there, and I went with dad to the small town of Jones where his family was from. In the world before smartphones, I had no idea what was going on in the game against UCLA. As soon as we got home I turned on ESPN and the first batter I saw was the last batter of the game. It was really exciting to see this team we had been covering all year celebrating a national championship. The football championship wouldn’t come for another 7 months so this was the first time OU won anything during my tenure there.

Josh covered the WCWS and says he remembers some kind of special edition of the paper after it was over. It just stinks that the majority of the students wouldn’t have been on campus to read his great work and that I didn’t get to be part of the coverage or design of that paper. He said he gathered his notes and mementos from that WCWS and later gave them to Gasso, although he doesn’t know if she kept them or what she did with them. She’s won three championships since then (with a fourth hopefully on the way in the next week), but that first one is always special.

I was never the beat reporter for the softball team; I covered the baseball team. I covered several high school state tournament games at the Constitution but only one OU game. It was a Bedlam game in Norman, and I wasn’t actually sent to write about the game itself.

I was there to do a feature on Courtney Totte, who was a catcher for Oklahoma State. She was a great player and as far as I can remember she was the only Lawton kid during my time there to go on to play for OU or OSU. The stadium was packed and the crowd was really into it. I remember the weather being absolutely perfect that night, the game moved along at a good pace and OU won (sorry Courtney). Afterward I got a good interview which turned into a pretty good story, if I do say so myself. I remember it being one of those nights that make sportswriting the best job in the world. (The nights when the game takes four hours, the coaches are grumpy and the computer quits working, not so much).

This summer my daughter Addison is playing softball for the first time. We watched some of OSU’s win over Florida the other night together. We’ve gone to the park a few times to practice, just her and I, and it’s those kind of moments that you live for as a parent. She’s got some natural talent but she’s also good at volleyball, basketball, and a lot of non-sports stuff like music, acting, cooking and science so it will be interesting to see what piques her interest the most in the upcoming years.

I’m not pushing her toward softball by any means, but I’ll enjoy whatever time we end up getting on the diamond. And I’ll be watching the Women’s College World Series, at least as long as Gasso and the Sooners are in it.

Boomer.

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