Third in a series by Australia’s Mark Long:
Mark Long is a former Australian softballer who pitched Australia’s first World Championship U/19 Gold medal win in 1997. He created and now manages Australia’s leading high school based health program Eat It Work It Move It.
“Girls play fast pitch, boys play baseball”.
A quote heard at a lot ball parks across the US when the issue of junior boys or lack thereof pops up. Another favourite is, “It’s not like Australia or New Zealand where boys play”.
Just focussing on Australia The plain and simple truth is that boys don’t play softball en masse.
In summer, many play cricket, Australia’s national summer pastime.
In winter it is often one of four of the versions of football.
Of course there are many other sports played by kids across the country, but boy’s fastpitch softball doesn’t break into the top 20.
In a country with 21 million people, compared to the USA’s 300+ million, Softball Australia reported that 2034 boys played T- ball (10 and under), 2283 played across a variety of age groups up to 19 and under and 4510 male adults took the to diamond in 2009.
A grand total of 8827 male fastpitch players from the country that has won the last four junior world titles (1997, 2001, 2005 and 2008) and last year, the Men’s ISF crown in Saskatoon, Canada.
No doubt about it, Australia’s success comes down to quality, not quantity.
There is no question, in the age of sporting superstars that sign huge contracts with US pro teams and endorsement deals spinning out to seven or eight figure sums, it is easy to think “who would want to play fastpitch?”
Fastpitch practice: Jacob Lewis batting in the US last summer
Junior boys in action: Craig Lewis pitching in the US last summer.
Loving the sport: A young player at the NYSP camp in Quincy, Illinios 2002. This player was among those coached by Mark Long.
Thankfully, kids are pretty straight forward when it comes down to their interests.
Firstly, they will play what their mates play.
They want to be good enough to compete and not embarrassed and, like any human being, they will go where they feel like they belong.
And it is belonging, which is the core value of Generation Y.
Gazing into the future of USA fastpitch, a focus, and a serious focus on juniors is needed.
Tim Lyon, current Team USA junior boys head coach, has been heading up the USA softball junior program since the 2001 junior ISF.
He isn’t alone, but he is among a rare breed.
The problem for Lyon and his team is that resuscitating a junior program from the top down is impossible.
It has to start in the local communities, likely small town USA but certainly not limited to the traditional base of the US game.
At least with Lyon and co-investing their expertise, the ISF thankfully doesn’t face the ignominy of having the USA unrepresented at the now biennial junior World Championships.
Can the problem be fixed, the numbers increased?
Of course they can.
For many, one of the best updates published on the preeminent online hubs for fastpitch, Al’s Fastball, Ottoinfocus.com or Fastpitchwest.com are the stories about the high school softball conference in Missouri or the continued work in South Dakota.
While those programs, among a handful of others continue, there is hope and a living and breathing example that boys will play fastpitch in the USA.
I spent a summer in 2002 coaching for Tim Hatten as he ran the now defunct National Youth Sport Program in Quincy, Illinois.
It was a litmus test to see whether boys’ interest in the sport could be lit.
After years of coaching boy’s softball at home, there was little doubt in my mind it would work.
In Quincy, we took a touch of the Aussie approach and had the boys and girls play together.
With necessity ,or lack of kids being the mother of invention, we mixed.
The kids of course loved the game. What was missing was a seeding grant to kick off a league.
There are very few local leagues where Aussie kids grow up playing in single sex competitions.
As they get older and the physical differences occur, the natural split happens.
In most situations though, girls and boys play at the same venue for tournaments and leagues.
Naturally, players grow up together and brothers, sisters and families grow up at the ball park.
What does the US do to fix the problem?
Out of respect to the current administrators, there is no easy or single answer.
Obviously any problem requires a plan and then investment.
With a limited investment capacity available it needs to be targeted measurable with a delicate balance between short term goals, to sustain interest and long term, systemic orientated goals to deliver sustainability.
A 10-point, achievable plan
The ASA and ISC have already joined to deliver a pitching program. Add NAFA to the mix and agree to collectively invest- fiscally and with resources in developing new programs/leagues within close geographic vicinity to existing junior programs which would foster interleague play, in future years.
Commit for three years to annually awarding five x $2000 grants (2011-2013) with published targets for 12 and under and 14 and under, six-inning leagues for a minimum of four to six coed teams. Alternate innings pitched and caught by boys and girls. Innings one, three and five pitched by boys. Two, four and six pitched by girls. Five boys on the field at any one time. Minimum league length six to eight weeks. At a time of economic challenges in the US, reduced park and recreation budgets, these grants can facilitate start up in potential markets looking for physical activity opportunities within their community.
Select a girls all-star team from each of the new leagues and waive the entry fee for the local ASA tournament, creating a reason for communities not familiar with co-ed junior leagues to embrace boys participating in fastpitch. Endorsement from the national body will help allay any concerns of being “different”.
Eliminate ISC Out of Region (OOR) player fees for those players, in particular from overseas who coach and administer grant funded leagues. The novelty of a team coached by an Australian, Kiwi or other nationals provides a unique experience for the kids involved.
Permit one additional PRAWN player in ISC play with any OOR fee waived for every two players coaching in a junior league for boys whose team plays at an ASA, NAFA or ISC national championship.
Create a youth targeted web presence to track results, celebrate success stories, link the emerging boys junior fastpitch communities and track current men’s fastpitch players’ involvement.
Ideally amalgamate or at least link through an online presence, possibly social media like Facebook, the current ASA, ISC and NAFA 16 and under, 19 and under and 23 and under national championships while fostering participating club teams, not just players from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South America. Thus adding, the overseas based touring team dimension.
Select USA Softball 16 and under, 19 and under and 23 and under development teams biennially (The alternate years to ISF World Championships) from the combined (ASA, ISC and NAFA) National Championships.
Negotiate with Softball Canada for the USA development teams to play in their respective Canadian National Championships against the Canadian provinces. Australia has had in place a similar arrangement with Softball NZ in some age groups at different times including the current arrangement that sees the NZ White Sox play in the Australian Women’s championship.
And: Follow the Canadian nationals with a USA v Canada five-game series at the conclusion of the Canadian Nationals. This completes a basic player pathway in the USA from grassroots to the national team that would develop a density of engaged coaches, officials, potential benefactors and other supporters of a reinvigorated boys USA Softball program while developing another element to the Softball Canada national team program.
Disappointingly, there will be people that stopped reading this article just after the beginning uninterested in the topic, deeming it too hard.
Others will say that the 10-point plan is pie in the sky and lacks relevance for the US context.
Some will personally criticise the plan it will either go too far, is too complex or doesn’t go far enough. I’m not fazed, but every single aspect of the plan is doable within 12 months.
What US men’s fastpitch still has is, 100 times more financial capacity than the Australian game.
There are still sponsors collectively spending an undefined, yet relatively large amount of money on the game.
There are then of course, sponsors previously involved in the game that weren’t seeing the dividend on their investment.
They may just have their interest sparked by a well administered plan, “for the love of the game”.
Structurally, there are three governing bodies of American men’s fastpitch.
They vary in size and capacity but they can collaboratively develop and deliver improved outcomes for the game. Here’s hoping.
A final thought from 7000 miles away, Australia conducted its first National Under 19 Championship in 1989.
They played their first ISF Under 19 World Championship in NZ in 1993. In 1997, dropping two games, one notably to the USA (4-3) and the round robin game against NZ (6-1).
They won their first world title two days later.
In 2001, 2005 and 2008, Australia dominated the event, each time winning gold.
Twenty-one years after creating the national player pathway the Aussies have five ISF Gold medals including last summers Men’s ISF title in the bag.
The USA already has a rich history for the sake of the game, here’s hoping there are people out there, including the key leadership groups within the three governing bodies who are prepared to start the process of creating a rich future.
Mark Long can be contacted at marklong.advertiser (at) gmail.com.