by: ryan divish
Last of a dying breed
If you get a chance to go to this weekend's Montana Men's State Fast-Pitch tournament in Havre, you'll notice something about fast-pitch players - they love their fast-pitch T-shirts.
They wear these shirts like badges of honor or medals of accomplishment. It doesn't matter whether it came from a state tournament or some invitational tourney they played in 10 years ago.
It doesn't even matter if they won said tournament. For fast-pitch players, the shirts symbolize something greater, something more meaningful.
It isn't the quality of fabric, the particular color, the stitching or even the snappy design. Instead, it's the sayings on the back of the t-shirt that make them so important.
It seems that every fast-pitch T-shirt has a catchy or funny catchphrase on it. A phrase that signifies the relevance or difficulty of fast-pitch softball. A phrase that also usually takes a cheap shot at people who play slow-pitch softball.
They range in variety and sensitivity:
Mild - "Fast pitch: If you don't like it, go lob it."
Lenient - "Fast pitch: Where home runs always count."
Predictable - "Slow pitch sucks."
Somewhat over the top - "If you can't hit the gas, you kiss my a**."
Over the top - "In fast pitch, what starts up, stays up."
Bad - "If you can't stand the heat, go beat the slow pitch meat."
Ridiculous - "I'd rather my sister be a hooker, than my brother play slow pitch."
One year, we even had a shirt that had an list of reasons why fast pitch is better than slow pitch, called "the fast-pitch player's creed." My particular favorite belief of the creed was: "If everyone can play, then it's not much of a game."
So when it came time to make this weekend's tournament T-shirts, I of course offered my opinion as I always do. My proposed saying was simple and to the point. It didn't offer any swear words, but took a minor shot at slow pitch, while still honoring the few who call themselves fast pitch players.
If I had to classify it like the other sayings above, it wouldn't be moderate, nor would it would be ridiculous. I guess the word to use would be depressing or maybe mournful.
It was simply ... "The last of a dying breed."
Honestly, that's what men's fast pitch players are in the state of Montana. Men's fast-pitch softball has seen a steady decline in the number of teams, the number of players and the number of summer tournaments around the state.
There are any number of reasons that fast pitch is dying a slow death. I have more than a few.
The game is hard. I don't care if you played baseball all your life. Fast pitch is a different game. It's faster and the batting principles are completely different. For people looking for something to replace the competitiveness of baseball, fast pitch offers the closest replacement.
The game is difficult. People looking for instant gratification should look somewhere else. You aren't going to get a hit every time up in fast pitch. There are plenty of times where you won't make contact. That's what makes getting a hit in fast pitch an accomplishment. It doesn't happen every time and it shouldn't.
Lack of pitching. The number of pitchers is slowly dwindling around the state. Like every aspect of the game, pitching is a challenge. You can't step on the mound and pitch. It takes practice - years of practice - to be really good. It took me almost three years to feel completely comfortable on the mound.
There are a small group of young pitchers that are starting to matriculate into the sport. However, there needs to be a large group. The equations are simple: More pitching = more teams, better pitching = better competition.
Slow pitch and co-ed softball. Look, I'm not going to disparage these other forms of softball. To tell you the truth, I've played both and have had fun playing each, but they never came close to fast pitch. Yet, it seems that people only play one of the three forms. To be fair to slow pitch, co-ed softball has taken over Montana. The number of co-ed team dwarfs slow pitch and fast pitch teams combined. Why? Well, like my buddy said, "I can't get in trouble for going and playing softball if my wife is playing too." And the downside? "I'm playing softball with my wife."
Fading tradition. Take Havre for example, the strong tradition of men's fast pitch here in Havre, particularly its summer league, is slowly disappearing. Growing up, fast pitch league nights were an event with at least six different teams competing on a night. Now, we have three teams in the league. As a kid growing up, I knew I would play fast pitch when my baseball days were over with, because that's what my dad did, that's what everyone did.
However, a lot of the better athletes don't play for a number of reasons. What has hurt Havre lately is that college students simply don't come home during the summer. They cite lack of good summer employment, boredom and any number of reasons for avoiding Havre in the summertime. Still, there are plenty of good players that could make the league good again.
Part of the reason the tradition is dissipating in Havre is the lack of older players in the league. People are quitting playing in their mid-30s and early 40s for a variety of reasons. I don't understand this. I remember when my dad was 40 years old, he made Havre's all-star team to play in the old International softball tournament. He was so excited and honored by his selection. You need the older players to provide a foundation for younger players and to help build interest. It's still a fight to get kids interested in fast pitch, which leads to our next reason.
Lack of commitment. People just don't want to commit to being a part of team that makes you devote two nights a week to playing softball. It's just too much. Nowadays, people would rather be at the lake, on the golf course or working on their yard. It's particularly bad for our younger kids, who look at giving up two hours for two nights a week as the end of the world.
So where does this leave fast-pitch softball in Montana? It's tough to figure out. This year's league received an injection of energy with the Gallery Lounge team filled with college and high school kids. However, the fact that Great Falls can't field a single team for this weekend's state tournament borders on pathetic.
It's frustrating, puzzling and maddening. The sport is so great for people who want to compete. Maybe that's the problem. Maybe there aren't just enough people out there who need that rush of competition. Maybe fast-pitch players truly are "the last of a dying breed."