Whenever we hear anyone talk about softball, we automatically assume that they’re referring to a dumbed-down version of baseball (which many people – particularly Englishmen – view as a dumbed-down version of cricket). Of course, this assumption is based on no facts whatsoever, just the rather misinformed view that American sports are slightly weird and played only by Americans.
‘I’ve travelled with teams and played in tournaments in Jakarta, Seoul, Taipei and Bangkok and I’ve been amazed to find leagues running there, facilities and fields, people involved and just… great times,’ counters Dubai Softball League organiser John Clarkson. Of course, he’s right – softball is a game that’s enjoyed the world over. There’s been a softball league in Dubai since the early ’80s and now there are 21 teams playing in a three-tiered competition (two men’s divisions and a competitive-social co-ed league). Surely there can’t be this many Americans in Dubai?
‘We’ve got a nice mix. Every season, every year, the dynamics change, because people come and go constantly in Dubai. There are lots of South Africans, New Zealanders and Australians, as well as plenty of people from Germany and France who say they used to play with the guys on a military base. And lots of Canadians… too many Canadians!’ laughs John (it goes without saying that he’s American).
John has successfully managed to dispel our illusions that softball is a game by Americans, for Americans, but we’ve still got it in our heads it’s really only played by kids in oversized helmets in front of a crowd of baying, super-competitive parents. Besides, why not just play baseball?
‘Baseball is fundamentally the hardest sport ever invented,’ explains John. It’s quite a claim, but I let him continue. ‘Put it this way: a guy stands on a cricket pitch and can score 100 runs by himself after a day and a half. In baseball, the best players in the history of the game fail [to hit the ball] seven out of 10 times. Baseball is an incredibly tough game requiring a combination of skills that are very difficult to master. People here don’t have the time to put in the practice and you can’t find pitchers whose arms aren’t destroyed by the time they’re 30 or 40 years old.
‘Softball, on the other hand, is approachable at whatever level you want to go at it. Pitches are all underarm and have to be delivered at a certain height, so it’s easy to find anyone to pitch. And because someone’s going to toss the ball at you slow, [the game is] designed so you can hit the ball and put it in play every time you step up there.’
This, concludes John, is why so many people, men and women, from all different countries are taking up the game. ‘And hey, you get to go out in a field and chase a ball around like a kid,’ he adds with a smile.
Dubai Softball League’s spring season starts on January 26. Games are played every Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday evening on the softball fields next to the Metropolitan Hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road. Dhs150 per person. For details, email email@example.com or see www.dubaisoftball.com
It’s widely agreed that the first game of softball was played by accident between Yale and Harvard alumni at the Farragut Boat Club in Chicago in 1887. They had convened to hear the results of an American football game that was being played by the two universities. When the results came in, a Harvard alumnus threw a boxing glove at one of the Yale supporters, who knocked the glove away with a broomstick. A jocular game ensued and softball was born.
Softball v baseball
Other than the ball being pitched underarm, softball differs from baseball in that the ball is bigger – ball sizes generally range from 30cm to 36cm in circumference, whereas a baseball is 23cm. A softball pitch is also smaller: the baselines measure 18m as opposed to 27m, and the pitching distance in baseball is usually a good 20m further than in softball.