Let's play a quick little jeopardy! Here is the answer: the Eastern Front, Siberia and the Outfield. What is the question?
Name three things that no one wants to be banned from.
During World War II, the Eastern Front (the war lost in a horrific winter in Russia) was the threat used to keep German soldiers and officers in line. At least it was on Hogan's Heroes.
For much of the Soviet Union's tenure, Siberia was a place where dissidents “disappeared” when the government did not want to kill them outright.
And for many fastpitch softball players, the outfield serves a similar function. They believe this is where players are sent when they are judged (wrongly) not to be good enough for the infield, or when they are not part of the “in” crowd.
Sometimes this can be true. I'm not going to claim that there isn't favoritism in assigning players to certain teams, or that coaches don't think some kids have the skills to play on the field and need to place them elsewhere.
But there are a lot of reasons why a great infielder can be assigned to the outfield instead. Starting with the fact that she can actually catch a flying ball.
For those who have only observed it, catching a ball may seem like a fairly straightforward skill. It's not a quick reaction time like a sharp ground ball, and you have plenty of time to get into position - even if you have to run for the ball. How difficult could that be?
In fact, very hard. It's a bit like doing instant geometry.
You have to judge how far the ball has been hit, where its trajectory will take it, take into account the winds at altitude as well as on the ground, avoid looking too long at the sun or the lights and making your way through all the small holes and dents, no one ever bothered to clean up. Not to mention the drainage grates and other knee and ankle-destroying obstacles, court designers who have clearly never played on the court could integrate to keep the grass looking good.
Then, quite frankly, there is the attention factor. With a top quality pitcher in the circle, an outfielder may not see a ball hitting his way for three or four innings. Of course, she has a responsibility to save a base on every batted ball, but on many games on the field, she can mentally be on a Maui beach and still have time to realize that something is going on in the game, then to run in his place.
I'm not saying she should, but she can. But then when the ball comes in, it has to do all the math we just talked about and get there in time to make the game. It can be more difficult than you think.
While the story of Generation Z the attention span being shorter than that of a goldfish may be just a myth, it is certainly difficult to stay very focused when A) there is not much going on around you for a long time and B) when it does, it is not likely to cause injury serious (such as a helpline in the field will). The Spidey sense of an outfielder just doesn't have to be that sharp.
Here's the thing, though. Hits on the outfield tend to have greater consequences when passing. You have no doubt heard of a "field single," which is either defined as A) a ball hit so sharply that even though it has been lined up in time the runner has managed to ground safely or B) a scorer's daughter error.
But you never hear of a double, a triple or a home run on the field. The point is that a bullet between the players before, or just above their heads, does little damage. A ball between outside players, or just above their heads, often results in extra goals.
You also have the fact that a ball going through an infielder can and should be supported by an outfielder, at least in most cases. A ball that goes through an outfielder is usually supported by a fence - or more grass on an unfenced pitch.
Then there is the fact that the off-screen have a much larger area of responsibility in terms of area. An infielder is responsible for about three feet on each side for the most part, five to about 60 feet forward, and maybe 20 feet back. In most cases, this looks more like a 3ft x 5ft box.
Outer fields, on the other hand, have their areas of responsibility measured in square meters. They might have a good 80-100 feet from the fence (real or imagined) to the edge of the indoor grass, and about 1/3 of the total area of the outfield. More so if you are going to back away from other outfielders and balls that just land and roll to the far corners of the field.
That's a lot of open space to cover. Oh, and no one comes out and cleans the outfield before or between games. You're in luck if someone picks up the poop left behind when the ball field was used as a dog park or as a rest area for the local goose population.
You see where I'm going. While infield players may get more action throughout a game, that doesn't mean they're more important. In fact, I'd say just as many if not more games are probably running on a bad outdoor game than an indoor game.
I can think of a special case. I remember watching the Olympics all those years ago when softball was still there. The American and Japanese team were playing in the gold medal game, and it was a tight competition.
Late in the game, with runners on goal, an American team player threw a lazy ball into left field. The Japanese left-wing defender - who in all honesty probably played the shortstop normally on the other team she played for - began to back up, tripped over her feet and fell, allowing what would be the winning point to score. If there had been a real outfielder, the result could have been different.
I also remember one of my students, who was playing at a D3 college in the Midwest, complaining about her team's lack of outside play. She would induce an easy-to-fly ball that a semi-competent 14U outfielder could have caught and she would end up falling for a double. She couldn't believe a varsity softball player couldn't handle a flying ball hit directly at her, but there you are.
The point of all this is that, aside from the 10U travel and probably most of the hobby league balls, the outfield isn't just the equivalent of the reject couch in the first scene of Animal House.
It's a valuable position that requires speed, agility, mental acuity, mental toughness, and a willingness to show up when the game is on the game.
Being sidelined doesn't mean you are bad. It actually means, as Liam Neeson would say, that you have a particular set of skills.
Any coach who has ever suffered a major, heart-wrenching loss from poor off-field play, which pretty much every top coach is, knows how important this position is. Instead of lamenting that you're not in the infield, accept your role in the outfield and give it all you have.
You may find that you like it. And even if you don't, it could become your portal to where you want to go.
Goldfish photo by Chait Goli on Pexels.com
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