The pitchers were as gods. They played a two-man, 100-mph game, pitcher-catcher, the swift and the brave. A batter stood by, but at times it was just a formality. A swing was an act of self-defense. A bunt single was a rally, a two-run lead a game in the win column, easily.
It was a big fat moon of a ball, floating up all tempting and slow, and it shot from the infield like a deflating balloon, but it died the same way, the way it almost always did. The left fielder moved in under it, and Dr. Carlucci's Bobcats were national champions for the fourth straight year.
The pitchers were resigned to suffering; someone had to do the job, odious though it surely was, but as ball after ball rose over the distant fences, to cheers that seemed to mock them, the pitchers grimaced toward the ground alone, living a bad dream.
Softball is the game, all three of them, but let it be said, once and finally, that neither the ball nor the game is soft, that softball is much more than office picnics and paunchy men silly with beer. Among other things, softball is September, and three kinds of national championships take place: fast pitch, at Dallas this year, a game of hopping, dropping, blurry-fast deliveries; 16-inch slow pitch, at St. Louis, a contest of oppressive defense and the place-hitting of a ball that anyone can hit, but never far; and just plain slow pitch with the 12-inch ball, at Jacksonville, a contest between devouring hitters and the melancholy men who deliver up their feast.
To begin with the last, plain slow pitch. The pitchers at Jacksonville were at their alltime saddest. One first baseman knocked in 33 runs in his seven games, and if that was not hitting a ton, then seven players had slugging averages over 2.000, and that certainly was. So was the 631 home runs in 64 games. After awhile the carnage began to pall. The teams might as well have hired pitching machines. It would have been more humane, but no machine delivers a ball in a three-foot-high arc. And that is a rule in slow-pitch softball. The one legal pitching weapon is—now don't give away the secret—the outside pitch. But in Florida the batters simply allowed those to ride and waited for one down the pipe.
Detroit's Little Caesar team, national champion in 1970 and runner-up last year, never recovered after scoring 20 runs in the fourth inning of one game, then losing 34-32. That was an average score; 51-11 was more impressive, and Louisville's Jiffy Club took that one on its way to winning the championship. Having the tourney's leading hitter did nothing to hurt Jiffy. Cobbie Harrison had 13 home runs in his five games and went 28 for 32, a cool .875. For the record, no slow pitcher has ever been known to develop arm trouble. There is, however, no place in the box scores to record suicides among pitchers.
At the tourney's end a decision was made to use a "restricted flight ball" in next year's nationals, one with 8% to 10% less bounce. A tournament official said, "Some guys want to hit away all the time, but we have to balance the game off." Many players object to the change. Theirs is an action game, they say. They sneer at their fast-pitch cousins, calling that game a two-man bore.
In Dallas, where the pitches were fast and the pitchers overwhelming, one of the fast game's best hitters said, "This is softball. Slow pitch is an atrocity." This year, at least, he had a point. The Raybestos Cardinals of Stratford, Conn. were the big winners, clinching the national title with a 1-0 win over the Bombers of Clearwater, Fla. The Cardinals had no slow-pitch bellies hanging over their belts; they had nine all-round athletes—just as most fast-pitch teams do—some of whom had played minor-league baseball. One Cardinal said, "You can be a defensive hitter in hardball. You can wait to the last second and slap at the ball. But try that in this game and you're dead."
He was right, and prophetic. For most of the game the Cardinals died, one by one. The Bombers' pitcher, Robert Quinn, all but knocked the bats from their hands. They lunged at changeups and missed, they swung late at everything else, all but helpless against 100-mph fastballs darting wildly in from 46 feet out. At the end of seven innings, the regulation game, there was no score and Stratford had but one hit. Then, an inning later, the Cardinals loaded the bases with a fast-pitch rally—a single, a hit batter, a sacrifice fly and an intentional pass. Up came Al Yaeger, who had played Triple A ball in the Red Sox farm system a decade ago. He worked the count to three and two, then bounced a very big single through the middle. And that won the fast-pitch championship.
"As far as I'm concerned there is only one softball game—16-inch slow pitch," Eddie Zolna said.
"Z," as Zolna is called, is Mr. 16-inch softball. Zolna pitches, and he claims to have won about 3,000 games, which makes him a very big hit in Chicago but does not do much for him anywhere else. There are somewhere between 10,000 and 11,000 16-inch teams in the United States today, and most of them call Chicago home. Eddie Zolna's team is Dr. Carlucci's Bobcats, named after its sponsor, a dentist from Fox Lake, Ill. Every year, Dr. Carlucci gets a letter from his local dental association. It includes a reprimand for advertising his dental practice through his team—and a note of congratulations for having won the national championship again. The Bobcats have won six times, counting their most recent victory this month in St. Louis, and Eddie Zolna has pitched every game of all six championships, winning 55 and losing seven.
Zolna says, "I've probably struck out two guys in 25 years," but he does not recall what kind of a pitch got either of them. Anyone can hit the 16-inch ball, and every new player wants to, so Eddie Zolna lets them and they hit it to his fielders. In the first game at St. Louis, Zolna's arm would come down and then at the moment of release the ball would stick in his hand—one count, two counts—and the batter never knew when to expect it. At other times Zolna leaped sideways from the rubber at the moment of release or hesitated in his motion. Each move affected the batter's timing. At the end of the game the head umpire took Zolna aside and told him of some rule changes. No more Eddie Zolna tricks, he said. No hesitations, no jumping, no crazy angles.
The Amateur Softball Association of America, it turned out, was taking steps to standardize the game, to give it broader appeal by bringing it closer to the far more widespread 12-inch game, a move that found no overwhelming popularity among the Chicago players. In the game they and Eddie Zolna like, the batter and pitcher are only 38 feet apart, enough to keep a ground ball from finding a hole. Still, enough balls do get through to drive scores up to 7-6 or thereabouts. Though curbed, Zolna pitched in all six of his team's wins in St. Louis. He knew the better batters, he kept the ball outside to the pull hitters and inside to the others. His earned run average for the tournament was under 3.00. Slow pitchers should do so well.
Many people at both Dallas and St. Louis were down on the 12-inch slow-pitch game, and it was easy to see why. The Zolnas were concerned that its growing popularity would dilute the unique qualities of their game. And the fast-pitch men were worried lest the "home run freaks," as some called the Jacksonville types, would swallow them up. They trotted out statistics: in 1965 60% of the country's Softball teams were fast pitch and 40% slow; now, only seven years later, the figures are 80% slow and 20% fast. The pitching at Dallas was weaker than in past years and an ASA official said, "A lot of fast-pitch teams have folded because many young players are going to slow pitch." As a Stratford player said, "Lots of guys play slow pitch because they'd have trouble being stars right away in fast pitch. That takes years. Anyone with a bat in his hand can be a star in slow pitch."
Someone mentioned Cobbie Harrison's feats at Jacksonville—his .875 batting average, 22 RBIs, 13 home runs and 2.125 slugging average. Now 25, Harrison played two years in the Minnesota Twins' farm system after high school. When asked about his hitting in the minors he said, "I wasn't a power hitter then." In Dallas and St. Louis, the case rested.