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Border Battle falls short for real softball fans

Saturday, July 18th, 2009

This is how the men’s fastpitch softball game is played with pitching, defense, and timely hitting. And no outlandish 30-23 scores.
Photos By Bob Otto / Freelance Writer & Photographer

YUCAIPA, CA – When I opened the sports page this morning my eyes opened wide and my anticipation soared. Until I realized what version of the men’s softball game would be showcased on TV today.

Under the heading of SOFTBALL were three listings: Women’s World Cup, Canada vs. U.S. at 10 a.m. followed by Men’s slow pitch, Canada vs. U.S. at 1 p.m., and finally Women’s World Cup, Japan vs. U.S. At 5 p.m.

All scheduled on ESPN.

I thought that surely the listing for the men’s game must be a programming error, that it should have read: Men’s International Softball Federation fast pitch, Canada vs. U.S.

So I logged on ESPN’s website to check, and sure enough the day’s featured softball game was indeed slow pitch and a game billed as, “The Border Battle; Men’s Slow Pitch Softball, Canada vs. U.S.”

Watching The Big Game
Although disappointed that an ISF game (strictly men’s fastpitch) wouldn’t be televised, I resolved to watch at least a few innings of the heralded contest between Canada and the U.S. I haven’t watched slow pitch played at the highest “elite” level – as the game announcers proclaimed – so I wanted to find out first hand how good these Border Battle teams actually were.

My impression? The players are huge, they hit the ball a long way, and lots of runs are scored. Probably no secret there.

But after seeing the U.S. hit 10 home runs, and I believe Canada whacked eight, in the, 30-23, slugfest won by the U.S. by virtue of a 17-run (no misprint) fourth inning, I grew bored.

Lots Of Runs
But I suppose there are fans who come to the ballpark and want to see the ball hit hard and lots of runs scored. However for those fans that relish the pitcher vs. batter duel, in slow pitch it simply doesn’t exist.

The slow pitch pitcher tosses the ball in an arc between six and 10 feet and then backs up to field his position, hoping the batter hits the ball hard (they all hit the ball hard) at a fielder.

In fastpitch the pitcher vs batter duel is one of the most exciting aspects of the sport – just as it is in baseball.

I mentioned big men? The players are all big, muscular, and strong. So where in the slow pitch game does the little guy fit in? He doesn’t. So that rules out the need for talented and speedy slappers. Unless of course they can slap the ball over the fence. And slow pitch has little need for slick fielding shortstops and second basemen who can turn the double play.

And in slow pitch, a team must strategically time its home runs. Hit over 10 and the rest are nothing but long outs. Solo home runs? Bad, oh so bad. Hitters want to avoid those because they’re considered wasted if the bases are empty.

Shameful Home Runs
I saw a couple of U.S. players who actually hung and shook their heads in disgust as they trotted around the bases after hitting solo home runs. Imagine feeling bad about hitting a home run.

And the hit and run? In fastpitch, a great strategy. But in slow pitch it has no place. The big guys just simply try to crush the ball.

The stolen base? In slow pitch, no. In fastpitch an exciting and again strategic play that often times wins ball games.

Near the end of the game the camera panned to a young girl in the stands holding a poster that read, “Team USA (I’m) a pitcher in training.” Sorry little girl, but you’re waving your sign at the wrong ball game.

Will I tune in for the next Border Battle? Not anytime soon, unless of course it’s a game featuring the U.S. and Canada’s very best men’s softball players.

As in men’s FASTPITCH softball.

Check out the International Softball Federation World Men’s Fastpitch Softball Championship

Follow Al Doran’s play-by-play reports of ISF games

Greatness measured in nanoseconds

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

WANAMINGO, MN – Oh, how I was jealous of him in my high school years. He had athletic ability, and he was smart. Oh so smart – especially on the ball diamond, football field, and basketball court.

I had little of the afore mentioned qualities that separate the good from the great. But blond haired, blue-eyed Grant Hoven had both.

Now 42 years later, I recently stumbled upon a picture of Grant while researching old Wanamingo area news from the now defunct Wanamingo Progress at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.

The pictured showed Grant ready to launch a jump shot. The year was 1967. The picture highlighted an article about Grant breaking the all-time Wananmingo High School basketball scoring record with 961 points.

So what separates an athlete – such as Grant – from the rest of the athletic pack? After all at about 5-foot-9 with good, but not blazing speed, and of modest jumping ability, Grant wasn’t showered with an over abundance of physical gifts.

What then made him special? Nanosecond thinking.

Grant and athletes like him have that special ability to make decisions very, very quickly. While the rest of us are still thinking about what to do, athletes such as Grant have already made the play.

During my fastpitch softball career, I’ve been privileged to have played with some very fine ball players – Teddy Dominguez, Ron Quinn, and Jeff Nessler will be remembered as three of the best in my book. They, like Grant, weren’t blessed with exceptional physical abilities such as foot or bat speed, size or physical strength.

But all three were exceptionally intelligent athletes. Exceptionally quick-thinking athletes.

Let’s start with Teddy. The stocky left-handed hitting outfielder played with the Lakewood Jets and Lancaster Chameleons during the heyday of the Western Softball Congress in Southern California.

Teddy had this uncanny ability to wait on the ball. Regardless of how fast the pitch, Teddy seemingly followed the ball almost into the catcher’s glove before deciding if the pitch was a ball or strike and whether or not to swing or keep the bat back. Even though he waited and waited, and waited some more, Teddy still had the lightning-quick thinking to judge the pitch a ball or strike, and the timing and power to drive the ball.

Ron Quinn was the best catcher that I’ve ever chucked a ball to. Ron was of average height, speed, and arm strength. But squatting behind the plate, Ron was a mastermind. He remembered every hitter’s weakness and strength. I never doubted his pitch selection when he flashed his fingers signaling he wanted either the rise, drop, or change up. And I never doubted the location where Ron set his glove.

I once asked him how he remembered so many hitters. How he decides what pitch and where to throw it to each and every batter we faced.

“I watch where they set up in the box, where their hands are, their body language, and how they swing the bat,” he said.

“But how do you do all that and still catch the ball?” I asked.

“It’s all done at once physically and mentally,” he said. Ron made it sound easy, but never have I had a catcher call and catch a game like Ron Quinn. He once said: “You just throw the ball and let me do the thinking.”

Jeff Nessler played shortstop for one of the finest ball clubs in the U.S. back in the 1970s and ‘80s when the great Mankato team was a frequent qualifier in ASA and ISC national tournaments.

Jeff had average foot speed, good bat speed, and a good glove. Although those skills can make for a very good ball player, it doesn’t constitute greatness.

But the ability to think and react in a split-second, Jeff – as with Grant, Teddy, and Ron – had that innate gift in abundance.

A gift that the some of us can only wish we had. With a bit of jealousy, I might add.

Lots of yakking at Uncle Ray’s donut shop

Sunday, July 12th, 2009

YUCAIPA, CA – Around mid-morning seven days a week anywhere from four to 10 coffee klatch yakers with little else to do gather at Uncle Ray’s donut shop on County Line Road.

This opinionated crew of paunchy, balding, and long-winded oldsters from ages 60 to 80s includes Motorcycle Paul, Truck Drivin’ Shorty, Big Hugh, Jim, Da’ Coach Jim, Rod, Pony Tail Andy, Dan the teacher man, and yours’ truly – known simply as the reporter, who never gets anyone’s name spelled right.

We’re all retired, nearing retirement, or desperately yearn for retirement. No subject is off limits. However, we tread lightly when it comes to religion and one’s political persuasion. And we try to clean up our language when women dare venture into our manly domain.

Once two women left in a huff when the subject of Sarah Palin came up. No, they weren’t upset about us mouthing off about her political views. But when we began surmising how the ex-governor of Alaska might look in a two-piece bathing suite totting a shotgun while hunting wild game that seemed to touch a nerve.

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Squirrel hunting with dad

Saturday, July 11th, 2009

WANAMINGO, MN – Dad aimed his rifle high up in to the leafy oak. He squinted his left eye, lined up the sights, and slowly squeezed the trigger. Crack went his .22 rifle. Down tumbled a fat, fluffy red squirrel.

“Good shot dad!” I said as I ran up to fetch the squirrel. Dad seldom missed.

I was about eight when dad started taking me along on his squirrel hunting trips. “If you want to go along hunting you’ll have to get up early tomorrow,” dad would say on a Friday or Saturday night.

Dad had a keen hunter’s eye. When his hand went up like a stop sign, it meant he had spotted a squirrel hidden somewhere in a thick jungle of fluttering leaves. He’d point with his finger and whisper, “right up there.”

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My two best abilities for hire: sitting and walking

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

YUCAIPA, CA – I met this older lady in the Phoenix airport while our connecting flight to Palm Springs was delayed on Sunday. She’s from Wisconsin on her way to Palm Springs for a three-week stay with her pregnant daughter.

So we started talking – her much more than I – about Wisconsin weather, Palm Springs’ deplorable heat, farm crops, kids, and dog walking and house sitting.

The last two items caught my interest. I’m recently unemployed. And despite being an energetic, handsome, talented, likeable, funny, and dedicated, 61, the bleak job market has thrown me as well as many of my fellow Boomers into the ditch.

It seems the older lady’s daughter started a dog walking and house sitting business a couple of years ago.

I perked up: “I could do that,” I thought. In fact, I’d be good at it.

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Town team baseball, the thing to do

Monday, July 6th, 2009

By Bob Otto / Freelance Writer & Photographer

CANNON FALLS, MN – 49 years ago before major league baseball took root in the twin cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, town team baseball thrived in Minnesota.

And it still does. At least in the Cannon Valley region. Just ask Bill Winchell. The friendly announcer with a smooth voice that major league announcers would envy has been broadcasting and scoring games for the Cannon Falls Bears for over 15 years.

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An aspiring Snowbird

Monday, July 6th, 2009

CANNON FALLS, MN – Summer vacations to my native land of Minnesota always end in a clash of colors and temperatures. My latest trip home to California was no different. From the runway at Minneapolis / St. Paul Airport, my US Airways airbus jettisoned quickly to 30,000 feet.

And as I gazed down at the gently rolling Minnesota landscape below me, the earth appeared as a geometric pattern of squares and rectangles. These patterns – signifying vast acres of farms and ranches – were covered with alfalfa, corn, soybeans and trees. Lots of trees. And all this lush vegetation, watered from a summer of plentiful rainfall, shone a dark, vibrant green.

That’s the green of my vacation. A green that vanished when I landed four hours later in Palm Springs. At this city known for its hellish summer heat, the view is uninspiring. For as far as the eye can see the landscape is covered with sickly looking shrubbery, dead grass and weeds, colored a pitifully dull yellowish-brown. It’s a most lifeless view for someone fresh from Minnesota.

Oh, Minnesota how I already miss your green and temperate beauty.

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Tractors on parade

Monday, July 6th, 2009

Photos By Bob Otto

CANNON FALLS, MN – The Cannon Falls 94th annual 4th of July parade drew about 7,000 spectators to the little town of 3,800 just 28 miles southeast of St. Paul.

I am one of those happy spectators who enjoys parades. My brother John not so much. At the crack of dawn he straddled his motorcycle and hightailed it out of town to escape the hoards of visitors who would soon overtake most of the streets and available parking spaces along the parade route. And the parade route passed too close to his otherwise quiet street for his comfort.

I on the other hand with camera and lawn chair in hand, walked the one block from John’s home to Minnesota Street to pick out the best spot to see and shoot the parade.

As a reporter and photographer, I’ve covered parades in Yucaipa, Fontana, Hemet, San Jacinto, Beaumont, and Banning, California over the past 10 years.

But none compares with little Cannon’s parade. Why? Tractors. I grew up on a farm. I learned to drive a tractor when my feet could barely reach the pedals at the age of nine. John Deere’s, Massey Harris, Allis-Chalmers, Farmalls, Minneapolis Moline, Case, Oliver, Ford – I love them all.

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Only Dr. Short Fingers will do

Friday, June 12th, 2009

YUCAIPA, CA – Doctors with a sense of humor. Ah, so hard to find and so very much appreciated. Luckily I have one. She’s a skilled physician, who also happens to have a funny side.

To protect her good name, lets just call her, “Dr. Short Fingers.”

Anyway, I went in for a long over do physical at the Loma Linda Veterans Hospital this morning. And the one thing that tightens me up a bit is the dreaded prostate exam.

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Road trippin’ with Harvey

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

YUCAIPA – The question went something like this: “Harvey, it’s Bob. I’ve got the day off and I’m heading to Huntington Beach for the Yucaipa playoff game. Wanna go along?”

I knew his answer before he uttered a word. And away we went 78 miles through stop and go traffic, and lots of nonstop talk – some important, some B.S., and some mixed with lots of good laughs.

About three-quarters the way there a spike of low blood sugar had me feeling a little light headed, so I handed the keys to Harvey and said “take us the rest of the way.”

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