Monday, September 26, 2005

Tournament - Andy's story

Our team has only been going for about a month, in which time we've attended three or four development sessions run by the Greater London Softball Mixed League. We hadn't played in a real match before yesterday. So this was to be the Loan Wolves' blooding. And not the "Lone Wolves", as we were listed in the tournament schedule. That would just have been a stupid name, rather than our clever library pun. The day started chill but bright, and soon warmed up to be surprisingly hot (certainly felt it on the outfield during our last match). I've been so lucky this year, in that all the outdoors weekend events I've been involved in over the Summer - the bicycle opera in Trafalgar Square, swordfighting display, the treasure hunt and now this tournament - have been blessed with sunny weather. Maybe next year, I'll get rained on from May to September...

We assembled at Finsbury Park cricket and softball pitch, some of us having had to get up very early (why couldn't they have picked a South London venue?). We soon realised that this "development tournament" was being played between teams who were mostly well-established and had been playing in Division Four all last year. The other "dev team" was peppered with experienced players to make up the numbers. We had our "uniform" on - red T shirts and tops. Alarmingly, everyone else seemed to have matching shirts with squad numbers, logos, and even their individual nicknames on the back. I had my grey "Wolves" baseball hat - Wolverhampton Wanderers that is, but the wolf's head logo still fitted. We had several supporters - family, and members of LIS - who turned out to see us play, which was really heartening. There were also a couple of friendly dogs about, baffled by seeing so many balls and sticks, but none being thrown for them. One large, amiable German Shepherd decided to wander onto the pitch for the All-Star game. We considered adopting him as the Wolves' mascot. Some of our players got in an extra game, as two of the other teams were short of women players. The rules are quite strict about having 50-50 male-female teams and field positions - I supose to create fairness in a mixed sport. I didn't play in our first match, as we had 11 players and wanted to give everyone a game. So I was checking the batting line-up and attempting to make sense of the score-sheets and scoring system. I deciphered how the scorecard works, but found it tricky keeping track not just of the current batter but also of up to three runners at once, with any one or more of them potentially getting out during any play. I have a feeling that baseball/softball scoring must appeal to the US sports statistician every bit as much as cricket scoring does to English stattoes.

We had some great moments in the first game against the other development team, scoring runs (including a home-run to captain Richard) and taking catches, but sadly we soon realised the gulf in our experience and that of the opposition. With only a few hours training and zero match experience, we were never going to win the tournament. The second game (and my first) was against the Panthers. I'm afraid that my contribution at 2nd base was pretty poor, certainly in our first fielding innings. However, in the course of this game, we started to come together much better as a team, and our final innings in the field resulted in 2 outs for no runs, two of them coming from improved teamwork between Jane at short stop and myself at second base. The Panthers were Division Four champions this year, and way out of our class. They definitely played for us, giving us chances (and a lot of tips and advice), but again we were not as victorious as we'd have liked.

Game three, against Glove Me Tender, saw us encountering some really big-hitting batters. I was in the outfield as rover, and saw a lot of balls soar over the players at left and centre field. The only time I was at bat, I managed not to get myself struck out, but didn't make it past second base. In this game, for the first time ever, I wore a baseball hat turned backwards - I noticed that I was out in the field with my back to the sun, and my neck was starting to get a bit warm. Is this the start of the slippery slope to Americanisation? We noticed the enthusiastic shouting and catchphrases form the teams playing (many of which had a fair few US players), and the obligatory high-fives and cheers. At the moment, we're still a bit British and reserved by most teams' standards. We couldn't even bring ourselves to do a team howl, despite being called the Wolves. We then had a few drinks and watched our batter Emily fill in again in the "Plate" final. She did well (with the other Wolves as her own personal cheering section), and the Dazzlers won. Don't think they even bought her a beer for her trouble, though.

We then watched the All-Star game between chosen players of the top two divisions, and were really impressed by the throwing and catching skills they brought to the game. Then on to a pub in Wood Green, where we had a bite to eat and another beer, then made our weary ways home (I was so weary, I fell asleep on the Tube - thanks for waking me up at Victoria, Peter). Injuries for the day included Richard's impressively-grazed knee, Alison's wrenched knee, my pulling something in my leg trying to reach third base, and Julian, who stopped a very fast-moving ball and hurt his hand. The first-aiders gave him a bag of ice for it, to stop it swelling. When this melted, he was left with a plastic bag of cold water - "where's the goldfish?" comments abounded. Overall, the day was a real learning experience for us. We saw the difference that practice and experience make, for one thing. We managed to improve throughout the day, but even though we have some very good players (I am most definitely not one of them) we need to train seriously and regularly if we are to be able to compete.

I must say, my team-mates played with real commitment and determination, and no little skill. I am impressed by the courage it must have taken to pitch against teams of seasoned batters, by the hitting which brought our runs, and the fielding which got some very good players out. I think the match experience was definitely worth having, as we now know what we should be aiming for over the WInter if we are to try joining the league in May. One thing that struck me was how much we've all learned about the game, which is quite complicated, already. We sounded quite knowledgeable as we explained it to our supporters. I wonder if, next time I see a baseball movie, it won't all sound like a foreign language.

Be interesting to see how the Loan Wolves have improved by next season, anyway.

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