Softball association dumps time-honored tradition

Strike 1; strike 2: You're out!

May 8, 2009 

Some things in life come with such absolute guarantees that the mere recital of them prompts a "well, duh" response. The sun always rises. The Pope is a Catholic. Three strikes and you're out.

Scratch that last one. This summer, there's a new twist to the old ball game.

Every Anchorage Sports Association softball player is stepping to the plate with a ready-made 1-1 count -- one ball and one strike -- meaning if batters don't come out swinging, they could go down swinging on just two pitches.

The rule, which affects more than 4,000 players in Anchorage, is being used nationwide by the Amateur Softball Association and is meant to speed up play in a sport that limits each game to one hour. While batters with an 0-0 count can see as many as six pitches (in slow pitch, all foul balls count as strikes), with a 1-1 count the most pitches they'll see is four.

"It's going to pick up the pace of the game," said Vicki Paddock, a first baseman for the AlaskaSoftball.com coed team. "People will be less inclined to just stand in the box."

Though the rule tinkers with one of most fundamental aspects of a game based on tradition-seeped baseball, few seem to be crying foul.

If they are, longtime player Lance Sweet said, "it's not about the purity or the sanctity of the game." It's because they're not used to it.

"We've got folks out here playing who are 50 years old," said Sweet, who plays for the Wylie Coyotes of the coed A league. "They've been playing ball for 30 years and all of a sudden you take a strike and then foul one off, and you're out.

"Once we get used to it, it's gonna be fine."

So far, the rule is working as promised.

In previous seasons, many games were in the fifth or sixth inning when play hit the one-hour time limit, according to Donnie Brooks, softball director for Anchorage Sports. In the first 53 games of this season, 52 went the full seven innings, Brooks said.

That's great news for batters stuck deep in the lineup. More innings means more players go the plate.

"If you're the 8-9-10 batter in the lineup, you might get some extra at-bats," Brooks said.

Anchorage's other softball league -- Anchor Town Sports, home to another 1,300 players -- opted not to use the rule, although any of its teams with regional or national aspirations will have to abide by it if they play beyond the local level.

Speed of play hasn't been an issue among Anchor Town teams, president Patrick McCabe said. Every game goes five to seven innings, "and no one's complaining they're not getting enough game time," he said.

He fears the 1-1 count might speed things so much that some games would be over in 45 minutes. With an 0-0 count, teams are sure to play the full hour, if not the full seven innings, he said.

Though an alaskasoftball.com poll showed that 56 percent of 181 voters said they're "not a fan" of the 1-1 count, it was hard to find dissension on a recent night at Cartee Field.

"I'm a pitcher -- I love it," said Bobby Roe, who plays for the R&M Construction coed team. "If the first pitch is a strike, you've gotta swing. You've only got two strikes, so you've gotta put the ball in play."

Before, he said, 75 percent of the batters he faced would look at the first pitch. In R&M's game against the Coyotes on Wednesday, there was a lot of first-pitch swinging.

"It's gonna force you to swing at a marginal pitch," said Hal Froehle, a utility player for R&M.

Rod Hill, an umpire who is the state's Amateur Softball Association commissioner, doesn't think umpires will change their strike zone because of the new rule. And so far. he hasn't heard any stories about umps getting mixed up by setting their counters at 0-0 instead of 1-1.

"I haven't had one complaint call, but I've had several umps call to say that it's a great idea," Hill said. "The feedback I'm getting is it's really outstanding because it speeds up the game.

"It'll end a lot of fooling around at the plate by people who like to wait to get one strike till they take a swing."

And hurray for that, said Brooks.

"Softball has always been a hitter's game, so you should be swinging at the first pitch," he said. "It's not like the guy's going to throw a 98 mile-per-hour fastball past you."


Find Beth Bragg online at adn.com/contact/bbragg or call 257-4309.

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