A Game I Understand

Pokemon goThis started out to be a column about Pokémon Go, the game that has taken the country by storm over the past few days. It evolved from the wildly popular 1990s Pokémon (short for “pocket monsters’) video and card games. The new version, not surprisingly, uses a cell phone. Those who want to play download an app that causes Pokémon to appear on the screen in real world locations. Players then try to catch them. The idea is to encourage people to travel about in their community, where they’re likely to encounter other real human beings, while trying to capture Pokémon. This, apparently, is known as “augmented reality.”


The more I read and heard, the more baffled I became, partly because I don’t really understand what Pokémon are. So I decided to change gears entirely and write about a game I do understand. Softball. Women’s fastpitch softball, to be more precise. I didn’t know much about it until I was hired at Gallatin High School back in the early 1980s. I had applied for a job teaching U.S. History. The first question the principal asked me during my interview—and, no, I’m not making this up—was “Can you coach?”

I told him I’d coached girls’ basketball down in Georgia for the past four years.

“What we need,” the principal said, “is an assistant softball coach.”

“No problem,” I answered. Which was true, or so I thought. I’d been playing ball since I was big enough to swing a bat. Coaching softball might even be more fun than coaching basketball, I told him.  Heck, it might even be more fun than teaching U.S. History. And so I got the job.

Imagine my surprise, at the team’s first practice, when I saw the pitcher go to work. She didn’t float the ball in a slow arc toward home plate. Nope. She whipped her arm in clockwise circle, in an action I would soon learn was called “windmilling,” and sent it whizzing straight over the plate with no arc at all. “She averages more than fifty miles an hour,” the head coach told me. “Some days, she throws harder than that.”

I learned that fastpitch softball allows bunting and base-stealing. The players know all about hit-and-run and suicide squeezes and breaking up the double play. A good outfielder can rifle the ball to the catcher without a bounce. It’s just like baseball, played with a bigger ball on a dirt infield. And it’s wonderful.

Last week, I was invited to watch a friend’s daughter—an extraordinary pitcher, as it turns out—play in a fastpitch tournament at Cane Creek Park. It was like old times, mostly. Girls these days can still hit and throw and catch and run and slide. In fact, they probably do those things better than girls did them 35 years ago. They still wear cleats and knee socks and sun visors. But many of them also wear something else, something we never would have dreamed of way back when.

Hair bows. That’s right. Almost all the girls who wear a ponytail adorn it with a big fancy bow, usually in the team colors. How cute, and unexpected, is that? And how wonderful that today’s female athletes can look like girly girls and play ball just like the big boys.

A game that I’m convinced is way more fun than Pokémon Go. Whatever that is.

(July 17, 2016)