Softball in Boise is serious business. Spring softball leagues have been winding up since registration started in March and the first ball was thrown April 13, when games officially began. An incredible 350 teams have registered for play in the Parks and Recreation's most popular league sport. "Half of Boise is playing softball this year," says Bobbie Kay Downend, recreation program coordinator for Boise Parks and Recreation.
Softball, as a spectator sport, has a long tradition in America, and here in Boise, it can be caught at any one of four parks, including the Parks and Recreation-maintained fields at the Willow Lane Athletic Complex and Fort Boise Park, which are both lighted facilities, and at Ivywild and Cassia parks, which are non-lighted fields. Team fees aren't cheap, but team sponsorships soften the blow for many teams who display their sponsor names on their game T-shirts. Plus, fees go to maintaining the facilities where teams play, paying the umpires and the United States Softball Association (USSA), which sanctions play in Boise. Well over 4,000 people have registered for spring leagues.
Among those 4,000 is a motley crew of women meeting in Cassia Park in the gray of an April evening. They slouch at a picnic table and toss jokes around while they munch on pumpkin bread one of them brought. Ball gloves are scattered around the table, and they all wear sweat pants. Marika Clark, a strong young woman with strawberry blonde hair, looks like an athlete. She stands at the head of the picnic table and asks, "So, are any of you interested in playing in ..." she takes a breath, "Tournaments?" The ladies all chuckle, and the general consensus is no.
This is like the alter ego meeting for women who, by day, wear business clothes and file into offices early each weekday morning. The team's name, the Withheld Judgments, is a clue to the fact that many of them work at the Ada County Courthouse. This is their sixth team practice meeting, and when they hit the field, it's for 15 minutes of catch followed by a round of batting practice for everyone on the team. These women are no slouches. Carol Zborowski goes to bat and knocks three hard liners in a row past the shortstop, running to first base after she makes her third hit.
Two of Zborowski's children watch from a nearby picnic table, cheering their mother on. "My daughter says I'm 40 and sporty," Zborowski laughs. She joined the team to get a little exercise and have fun with her co-workers. Chris Meyers plays on the Keynetics company team and knows why businesses would be inclined to organize a company team. "A lot of companies use it as an employee bonding--get everybody out in a non-work environment," he says. Softball as work-bonding means a less intense level of play and a focus on the fun that can be had with league sports, which is exactly what many people are looking for.
Clark, who organized the Withheld Judgments, played girls fast-pitch softball in high school, and when word got out that she used to play, she was asked to be on one of the competitive women's teams. "I thought to myself, 'Eh. I just wanna drink beer,'" she says, smiling. But she also wanted to play a little ball, so she put together a crew for the co-ed program, which is more recreational than competitive.
"The beer leagues," says Matt Lindley, referring to the co-ed leagues. Lindley plays in two divisions: Men's D2 and D3. "We're out there to win. It's competitive level, if you know what I mean," he says, delineating competition and recreation. But even if they are playing to win, Lindley recognizes that they're not all supermen. "Sometimes someone gets too intense and we tell him, 'Hey, man, we all have to go to work tomorrow.'" Not to mention the fact that when their practice ends, they're barely off the field before they bust out the beer. His team takes pride in being a group that enjoys one another's company as much as they do the sport, leveling out between the roughly serious teams and the players who really do only want to drink beer. "We're 'tweeners!'" Lindley declares as he passes around the cold cans.
Lindley's team, the Shockers, have matching maroon uniforms and field the ball with ferocity, giving the distinct impression that they're not messing around, but these guys are only division two in their particular league. Division one gets even more serious. Among the five categories of the Parks and Recreation leagues, two of them are designated specifically for Men's United States Slo-pitch Softball Association (USSSA) upper-level play.
For some of the leagues, joining means traveling and spending a big part of summer out on the road. The professional major league teams play 162 games a year. Some of Boise's league teams can play upwards of 80 games if they also play tournaments, which is a considerable amount of time invested in a seasonal sport. As the Shockers' team leader Joe Haggarty explains, summer softball is a family affair. "My wife actually plays on one of the co-ed teams," he says.
Giving a good chunk of her summer to the sport isn't a sacrifice for Michelle Rolfe, who has been doing it for 20 years and plays on two league teams every year. She looks forward to softball season and has formed friendships through her years of play. "It's always nice to see everyone at the start of the season," she says. "It opened up new doors for friendships when I started. Some of the women I play with are my closest friends."
Playing on two teams, one co-ed and one women's, Rolfe makes note of the competitive spirit in each of her teams. "It's a totally different game between women's and co-ed's," she explains. "[On] my co-ed team, we like to play, we like to win, but if we lose, it's like, 'Oh, well.' But women's is more competitive. More competitive and more fashion-conscious." Rolfe said her women's team debates their uniform color every year.
Even with their highly competitive spirit, the women's teams are a minority in the summer leagues, with only 11 teams on one of the league schedules. The majority of teams are men's teams: There are 173 men's teams playing summer softball. Co-eds round out the total numbers with 142 teams.
With 80-degree temperatures already a topic of water cooler discussion, the hazy days of summer aren't far behind. Even if you don't play the game yourself, with 4,000 people signed up for teams, you're bound to see someone you know catching a perfect pop fly.: For more information on softball registration, call Boise Parks and Recreation at 208-384-4256 or visit www.cityofboise.org/Departments/Parks/Activities/SportsAndFitness/Softball/index.aspx.