Skill, Speed And Power -- Nothing Slow About Slo-Pitch News Team
Bill Dunlap, 6-foot-9 shortstop for Slo-Pitch News, slammed two home runs in a recent league softball game in Federal Way.
Both counted as outs.
Not a good thing for a team that spots its opponents six runs before each league game.
Such rules try to put Washington's best Class AA slow-pitch team on a level with its A and B brethren, because only one other team in the state plays at its level.
Slo-Pitch, crowned champion last weekend in the state A/AA tournament in Bellingham, is the Northwest's top entry in the U.S. Slo-pitch Softball World Championships Labor Day weekend in Irvine, Calif.
The team completed its season last Thursday in the South King County Slowpitch League with a 23-5 record, finishing five games ahead of the second-place team.
Playing in a league with lower-caliber teams hurts its chances, team officials say, but each week, Slo-Pitch News learns how to come from behind to win.
Entering the 28-game season, the club essentially started 168 runs in the hole. It ended up outscoring the competition, with the six-runs-per-game handicap, usually by three.
"They beat you with their hitting and they don't make a lot of errors," said Mike Stevens, who plays for Peoples Church, the top Class A Church team in the state.
In the equalizer league at Steel Lake County Park, all teams are limited to six homers per game. But each squad isn't packed with power and can't send the ball over the 285-foot fences as frequently as the 13-man Slo-Pitch team.
Said Gene Anderson, manager of Miller Genuine Draft, a Snoqualmie-based team: "There isn't anyone on their team that can't take it out. But we've only got six guys who can."
In tournaments, Slo-Pitch spots each team three runs and follows a four-home-run-hitter rule.
That means four team members can hit as many home runs as they like. Some teams designate the homer-run hitters; Slo-Pitch allows the first players to hit them to be the role players.
Don't expect to see each batter stepping to the plate wielding a go-for-the-fences stroke, however.
Said Ozzie Boyle, Slo-Pitch manager: "We tell the guys there has to be men on base before they hit away."
Discipline is a trait of the team, which has an average age of about 32.
"We've got a good mix of youngsters in their mid-20s, and some guys about 40," said coach Dick Calvo, 51. "They've got confidence in the team. They'll be down 10-11 runs, and they know they can come back."
Other teams know Slo-Pitch can be beat, and in the league, other teams set out to prove it. The state tournament included six A teams and one other AA club, the Pacific Blues, which plays in a Tukwila league. Only the finale was a blowout.
Utility infielder Dan Lowry was named tournament most valuable player. He batted .786 and had what Boyle labeled "clutch RBIs."
Gene Moser, a second baseman who once played in the New York Yankees minor-league system, hit a three-run homer to win a game. With his .600 batting average, he was named an all-star, as were teammates Joe Webb (first base/right field, .706), third baseman Nate Lawson (.615) and pitcher Liner Flaten (.615).
In this game of big bats and big scores, pitcher is a key position. The pitcher will never have a single-digit earned-run average, but his placement and delivery are vitally important.
A strong pitcher, such as Flaten, toes the rubber and sometimes uses his allotted five-second time to deliver the ball. In a pro game, the pitcher would be called for a balk. In slow pitch, the strategy sometimes is to shake and fake, trying to throw off the batter's timing.
Pitching skill, speed on the basepaths, ability to mix power hitting with strings of singles and sure-handed fielding make Slo-Pitch a good team.
Most players on the team love the game so much it's as if they were born wearing stirrup socks, spitting sunflower seeds and sharing high-fives. However, their cohesiveness may be the biggest factor.
Boyle and Calvo know the local talent, their players living from Arlington to Port Orchard.
"In recruiting our responsibility is to find the kind of individual who'll mesh over the summer," Calvo said. "We've got good athletes. Over and above that we've got a chemistry that works. With a small roster, we can play everyone. And the desire to be one of the better teams also helps."
The team clicks for three reasons, said Dunlap, a former basketball star at Mark Morris High and Gonzaga University. "We get along well. We're well organized, and we've got talented players."
Most of the players consider the team a family, one that relishes ribbing each other.
"If you get along like a family," Flaten, 42, said, "you get more hits."
Left fielder Kent Johnson, 26, graduated from Fife High School and played baseball for Green River Community College. He joined the team last season with two Miller teammates.
"This is a bunch of classy guys . . . good athletes with good heads on their shoulders," Johnson said.
They refer to Slo-Pitch as an organization, much like a major-league team. They travel extensively, flying to out-of-state tournaments and staying in hotels several rungs above those endured by most teams with less sponsor support.
Boyle owned a restaurant for 27 years, and he sponsored a team for many years. Four years ago, Boyle started Varsity Publications Inc., a Seattle company that produces sports association publications, including Slo-Pitch News, a national newspaper. The name changed two seasons ago.
Having his team's name listed in national rankings (No. 13 for July) is great advertising, he admits. But he basically is a softball sentimentalist.
Boyle said he set out to build "a quality team of athletes who could perform in a professional level and elevate the image of softball. I felt the sport was not given enough credibility," he said.
STATE SLOW-PITCH CHAMPS MANY STATE SLOW-PITCH TITLES STILL ON THE LINE THIS WEEKEND
Many of the state champions have been crowned after a long summer of playing slow-pitch softball. This weekend, however, titles will be determined in many classifications.
Among them: co-ed divisions at Russell Road Park in Kent; men's industrial A-B-C-D at Fort Dent, Tukwila; men's armed forces varsity and intramural, and three women's categories at Game Farm in Auburn; four divisions of men's masters and three of women's masters at Sprinker Recreation Center, Tacoma.
Over Labor Day weekend, the church world and regional tournaments will take place at Sprinker and S.E.R.A. fields.
Most state champions will advance to world or regional tournaments.
The men's champions:. -- AA/A: Slo-Pitch News, Seattle.. -- B: Shoes Unlimited, Ellensburg.. -- C: J.K. Athletics, Olympia.. -- D: Meridian Athletics, Kent.. -- E: Dassos Renegades, Yakima.. -- Church A/B: Peoples Church/NGS, Tacoma.. -- Church C: Everett LDS Saints.
The women's champions:. -- A: Seattle Express, a nationally ranked team, earns berth to women's world series in Lexington, S.C., Labor Day weekend, though no official state champion is declared because of so few teams.. -- B: Seattle Unlimited.. -- C: South Sound Merchants, Lacey.. -- D: Spurs.. -- E: Pac-Asian, Seattle..
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