MINNEAPOLIS No matter where or when or how people get their first taste, glimpse or breath of fastpitch, most probably think close to the same thoughts:
Whys the barrel of that bat so long?
Whats that hitter doing running out of the box while she hits?
When did Cracker Jack toys get so crummy?
And, perhaps most resoundingly, Why cant they hit the freakin ball?
Hey, maybe the exact words never crossed your mind. But you cant tell me the idea hasnt. While there are occasional offensive outbursts, fastpitch is more often saturated with game scores like 2-1 and 1-0.
Fact of the matter is, fastpitch is a pitchers sport. Having a great pitcher will probably make your team do reasonably well, no matter how anemic the rest of your roster may be.
And while tremendous pitching is the sports greatest drawing point, it is, at the same time, its biggest problem.
As shown in the recent Spurs-Nets NBA Finals, which matched up two defensive-oriented teams, low scores and great defense dont necessarily translate into wide-spread fan interest.
The vast majority of the viewing public wants to see the slam dunk. They want the 80-yard touchdown bomb, they want the home run. A strike-outs all well and good, but it just doesnt pack the same punch as a ball sailing like a cruise missile through the air and over the fence.
In the same way, womens sports often dont often get the street credibility as their male counterparts for being wimpy in nature. Where mens hoops has the slam dunk, womens hoops has the power lay-up.
Every so often, though, fate gives us that happen to work for professional womens sports leagues the chance to prove just how tough the game actually is.
Take, for instance, last weekend in Minneapolis.
Who among you gentlemen would like a chance to hit off All-Star pitcher Amy Kyler? I boomed into the loud speaker that hot summer evening.
To my surprise, several men, young and old, came rushing towards me, equal to the task of getting their bat on a 70 mph fastball from 43 feet away.
Following a scientific drawing (picking a number between 1-100), one man was left standing: A young, strapping man from Minnesota named Fred.
The gist of our little hit the pitcher promotion is as follows: Macho guy volunteers to attempt and hit any of three pitches from our starting pitcher of the day. Macho guy swings and misses, people have a fun time whilst realizing, Hey, this fastpitch is pretty cool!
That having been said, young and strapping Fred from Minnesota had me a little worried.
For starters, he just LOOKED like a ballplayer. He talked of the fact hed been around fastpitch for quite sometime. How his girlfriend was playing right field for the Minnesota All-Stars that night. How he played in the Junior College world series as a baseball player.
He looked the part of a man who could hit the ball and, subsequently, ruin our promotion and perhaps my brief PR career with one swift stroke of aluminum.
As the moment neared when mighty Fred would take his position in the batters box, he offered me a request: Let me say something to my girlfriend on the mic before I get up there, Fred asked.
Just like that, the middle of the sixth inning was upon us and Fred took his helmet and bat towards home.
A couple things to know about this particular promotion:
1. Really the apex of the night, promotionally speaking, as we get to see actual competition with actual athletes.
2. Beyond that, this promotion gives fastpitch a sense of legitimacy. More than hitter v. pitcher, its man v. woman. A three-pitch battle of the sexes.
As I introduced Fred, the crowd let their excitement be known and both teams seemed to stop what they were doing to observe.
Fred might have actually had a couple of fans rooting for him that night. That was, of course, until he opened his mouth.
This ones for you, He said pointing to his girlfriend in the Minnesota dugout. Im going to show you all up right now.
Talk about dropping the turd in the proverbial punch bowl of sympathy.
Whether he had meant to or not, Fred had put himself into the role of the villain. Much like a melodrama, the crowd hissed and booed, bemoaning Fred and his chauvinistic approach.
But Fred had bigger problems than the unhappy mob behind him. Namely a ticked off pitcher in front of him.
Kyler rocked and fired for her first delivery. The smoking fastball, thrown probably as hard as any Kyler had delivered during the actual game, left Fred, the junior college world series veteran, looking more like the hot dog vendor. Strike one.
The crowd cheered, but Fred was looking for a sweat cloth.
Kyler came to the plate with her second offering, this time a wobbly change-up that looked straight from the junkyard. Different speed, same result. Strike two.
Even though Fred had seen both speeds from Kyler, his confidence, it was obvious, looked as bulletproof as Swiss cheese.
Third pitch, Kylers second fastball, Freds third strike.
The crowd stood and cheered with a mixture of laughter and excitement. The promotion was over. But Fred, was not. Only one of those pitches was over the plate, Fred complained on the microphone in our post-promotion interview, drawing only more ire from the crowd for making excuses.
The home plate umpire also caught Freds complaint. Bring him back out here, Ill call the strikes if hes not happy, the blue offered up.
The lightbulb went off in my head and, much to Freds delight, we decided to give the young man a second attempt a rarity and a risk.
What if he became more accustomed to the speed? What if Kyler, now pitching her seventh inning of the night, didnt have her best stuff? What if there happened to be a plane ticket and a pink slip waiting for me back at my hotel room?
Whatever the questions, the chance to bring an encore to the crowd was too great to pass up. The show must go on.
Come the next inning, Fred walked onto the field again, this time with an umpire behind the plate to call balls and strikes. This was it, no more questions, no more excuses: Fred was going to get three strikes.
Luckily for everyone besides Fred, Kyler was still pretty peeved. Not only at the remarks made by our young hero (I was going to just give him some straight fastballs until I heard him speak up, Kyler said later.), but at the fact she had to waste three more good pitches before the last inning of a game.
Fred stepped into the batters box, like the words to the Eagles Hotel California, a prisoner of his own device. He had offered himself up as a sacrifice to the fastpitch gods not once, but twice.
Three blazing Amy Kyler fastballs and three whiffing Fred swings later, the show was finally over. The crowd had its encore and a second round of applause.
As Fred and I walked off the field and up towards the stands, he made a confession to me. Wish I hadnt said anything on that microphone, Fred said.
Yeah, Fred. I said.
So the next time you find yourself wondering about the lack of run production in a fastpitch game, just remember: hitting that ball is far from easy. Just ask Fred.
Pictured is Fred, striking out for the second time off of All-Star pitcher Amy Kyler.
Reed Saunders is a 2003 graduate of Colorado State University. Hell be working public relations on the 2003 NPF All-Star tour this summer. Follow along with his travels with his weekly column on profastpitch.com.