Pitching Softball in Vienna

This summer’s championship was Vienna’s biggest tournament ever; despite storms and setbacks, the event was a home run

The Italian celebrate after a 9 – 2 victory | Photo: ABF Joe Yun

The European Junior Girls Softball Championship was hosted in Vienna this year. As an American, who grew up with baseball, I always dismissed softball as an inferior version of the game. In researching this article however, I have discovered the truth. Fast-pitch is actually highly competitive. It was even shown on TWIB (This Week In Baseball) as a special segment, with the famous female fast pitch pitcher, Jennie Finch, embarrassing Major League Baseball players on a weekly basis.

On the show,  you saw top batters either striking out or trying to figure out a way not to have to “face” her.  One of the players compares it to facing a pitch of over 190 km/h (120 m/h) – the top speeds they’re used to seeing are about 160 km/h (100 m/h).

It is said that 0.42 seconds is what a professional hitter has for reaction time with a pitch coming at 140 km/h (90 m/h) and that only gets smaller as the speed increses. To give that some perspective, the speed of an average human blink is between 0.3 and 0.4 seconds, giving a batter a little more than a blink of an eye to decide to swing or not.

This summer’s Championship was the city’s biggest softball tournament to date, with 15 participating teams from across Europe. The top three teams at the end of the tournament will be representing their countries in South Africa at the ISF World Championship in 2011. Holland was the defending champion but, as this was a Junior group with an age restriction, they lost a few of their stars to the Senior team. Insiders predicted that the Russian, Italian, German, and Czech teams would gain a lot of ground this year. Italy ended up winning the tournament, with the Germans and Russians placing second and third, respectively.

While out of the running, Austria made steady progress, promoted in 2005 to the higher league in Europe. This has led to a few finishes lower than they would have liked, but the level of competition is higher and this has certainly been good for team spirit. The goal for this tournament was to advance to the final eight.

But let’s take a step back; if you’re unfamiliar with the sport, we need to establish the basics: Softball is a game with two teams of 9 players each; one team is in the field and pitches, while the other is at bat, trying to score runs. The field is smaller than a baseball field, which concentrates the action a little more. And except for the underarm pitching and the smaller amount of innings, the general baseball rules apply. Both require three outs per inning for the teams to change from fielding to batting. Outs are made in three main ways; striking a player out, catching one of the hit balls before it hits the floor or throwing the ball to the base before the hitter/runner makes it to the base.  There are seven innings and in each inning both teams have the chance to bat and play in the field.  There are chances for multiple substitutions, and you can make as many as you want as long as you have enough players.

The pitcher is the most important player on the field. If the pitcher doesn’t perform well, the team faces an upward battle.

At the Vienna tournament, the atmosphere was building – painted faces and flags everywhere, the scent of hot dogs wafting through the air, the teams and fans chanting to motivate their players. The atmosphere was perfect, even if the weather decided not to cooperate at times. Some of the games had to be postponed as thunderstorms plagued Thursday afternoon and most of Friday.  This left a tight schedule for the final day, which put the players at risk of fatigue.

The third place playoff between the Czech Republic and Russia was a close game; the prospect of going to South Africa giving it some added tension. The Czechs had a bevy of support that far outnumbered the Russians, which gave the Czechs a quasi-home field advantage.

The Czechs took an early lead and held it until late in the game when fatigue and bad descision-making set in. The Russians took advantage of the miscues and won the game 7-3.

The final didn’t live up to the Russo-Czech match-up, but turned into a showcase for the Italian team.  They put on a hitting clinic, with one base knock after another. The Germans frantically replaced pitcher after pitcher, but the Italians’ hits seemed unstoppable, no matter who was on the mound. The game ended with a 9-2 victory for the Italians. Still, the Germans didn’t seem to mind all that much; there was a sense that they had already done what they had set out to do, and that was somewhat evident in the attitudes of the girls after the game.  They were relaxed and smiling, interacting with the fans, talking with their family and friends, without a tear in sight. There are a lot of professional athletes that could learn from the way the German team conducted themselves in the face of defeat.

As for the host nation, the tournament was not quite what they had hoped; Austria finished dead last. There had been a few injuries, and one of their top players had been unable to obtain her passport in time. But this tournament has hopefully opened a few eyes for potential players in Austria to represent their country next time around.

The crowds at the European Junior Girls Softball Championship 2010 were treated to some fantastic sportsmanship, astounding plays and atmosphere that any event host could be proud of.

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