Softball is a team sport for two teams in which the object is to score runs by advancing around a circuit of four bases, known as a "diamond". It is a direct descendant of baseball, (sometimes referred to as "hardball" to differentiate the two) but differs from it in several ways, of which the chief four are:
- the ball is always pitched (thrown to the batter) underarm – that is, it is released when the hand is below the hip and no further from the body than the elbow – while in baseball the ball may be released in any position and is usually thrown overarm or sidearm
- the ball is larger and less dense than a baseball
- the playing field is normally smaller
- the game is seven innings long, as opposed to nine in baseball
Softball is the most popular participant sport in the United States. An estimated 56 million Americans will play at least one game of softball during a year.
It is played by both genders socially as well as competitively, and is an Olympic sport for women. The International Softball Federation holds world championships in several categories. The championships are held every four years, but in different years for each category.
Types of softball
There are two general forms of softball–slowpitch and fastpitch.
Fastpitch is a very defensive, pitcher-oriented game; the aim of slowpitch softball is to give batters more dominance by making it easier for them to hit the ball. In slowpitch softball, a pitched ball must describe an arc with an apogee at least above the batter's head. In order for a strike to be called, the ball still must cross the plate between the batter's shoulder and knees, or land in a small area directly behind home plate. The strike zone can vary from league to league and umpire to umpire. Because of the requirement for an arc, the pitcher must throw the ball relatively slowly. There is no such restriction in fastpitch softball.
A regulation game of slow pitch softball requires one more player than a game of fast pitch – usually an additional outfielder.
The playing field is divided into fair territory and foul territory. Fair territory is further divided into the infield, the outfield, and the territory beyond the outfield fence.
The field is similar to a baseball field, but smaller. It is defined by two baselines or foul lines which meet at a right angle at home plate. The minimum length of the baselines ranges from 220 to 300 feet (67 to 91 m), depending on the classification of play. A fence running between the baselines defines the limits of the field; this fence is equidistant from home plate at all points, unlike the outfield fence in baseball, which is usually farther from home plate in centre field, and which may be at different distances from home plate at the right and left field foul lines.
Home plate is made of rubber. It is a five-sided figure, a combination of a rectangle and triangle, 17 in (43 cm) wide. The sides are 8.5 in (22 cm) long. The triangle fits into the right angle formed by the baselines.
Home plate is one corner of a 60 foot square (65 foot for slowpitch) or diamond with bases at each corner. The bases other than home plate are 15 in (38 cm) square, of canvas or a similar material, and not more than 5 in (13 cm) thick. The bases are usually securely fastened in position. The bases are numbered counterclockwise as first base, second base, and third base. Outside first base (that is, in foul territory) is a safety base; to prevent collisions between the first baseman and the runner. The runner runs for the safety base after hitting the ball while the fielding team tries to throw the ball to the regular first base before the runner reaches the safety base. However, not all softball diamonds have these safety bases.
The infield consists of the diamond and the adjacent space in which the infielders (see below) normally play. The outfield is the remaining space between the baselines and between the outfield fence and the infield. The infield is usually skinned (dirt), while the outfield has grass in regulation competitions.
In fastpitch softball the fielding team fields nine players – the left, centre, and right fielder play in the outfield, while the pitcher, catcher, first baseman, second baseman, third baseman, and shortstop play in the infield. The basemen play in the vicinity of their bases, while the shortstop plays between the second and third baseman (normally the second baseman plays on the first base side of second base and the shortstop on the second base side). The pitcher stands at the pitching point in the centre of the diamond; for men the pitching point is 46 ft (14 m) from home plate, while for women it is 40 ft (12 m) from home plate (43 ft at elite level). There is no pitcher's mound as in baseball, but the pitching area is denoted by a circle surrounding the pitching plate 8 ft in diameter. The catcher plays behind home plate, squatting to receive the pitch.
In slowpitch, a team fields an additional outfielder; the centre fielder is replaced by a left centre fielder and a right centre fielder. Another form of slowpitch instead adds a rover who plays between the centre fielder and second base. The rover is also called a shortfielder.
The batting team sends one batter at a time to home plate to try to hit a ball thrown by the pitcher forward into fair territory. Once the ball is hit into fair territory the runner may try to advance to first base or beyond (see below). Once on base the batter becomes a baserunner.
The size of the ball varies according to the classification of play; the permitted circumferences in international play are 12 in (30 cm) and 11 in ( 28 cm). The ball is most often covered in white leather in two pieces roughly the shape of a figure 8 and sewn together with red thread, although other coverings are permitted. The core of the ball may be made of long fibre kapok, or a mixture of cork and rubber, or a polyurethane mixture, or another approved material. In 2002, high-visibility yellow "optic" softballs were introduced as well.
All players may wear fielding gloves, made of leather or similar material, but only the catcher and first baseman may wear mitts; mitts are distinguished from gloves in that they have extra padding, and no fingers. Gloves have webbing between the thumb and forefinger.
The bat used by the batter is made of hardwood, metal, or any of several other approved materials. It may be no more than 34 in (86 cm) long, 2.25 in (6 cm) in diameter, or 38 oz. (1kg) in weight
Each team wears distinctive uniforms. The uniform varies more than baseball uniforms, in that short pants are allowed as well as britches. It includes a peaked cap, a shirt, an undershirt, and pants; these are the components for which standards are set.
The players' shoes may have cleats or spikes. Many recreational leagues prohibit the use of metal cleats or spikes in order to reduce the possible severity of injuries when a runner slides feet-first into a fielder.
The catcher wears protective equipment, consisting of at least a mask with a grille protecting the face, a throat protector, and a hard safety helmet.
The teams take turns batting. Each team bats until three players have been put out, as described below. An inning consists of a turn at bat by each team, with the home team batting second. Seven innings constitute a game, unless extra innings are required to break a tie.
Play begins with the pitcher attempting to throw the ball to the catcher past the batter at home plate. The throw, or pitch, must be made with an underarm motion– the ball must be released below the hip when the hand is no farther from the hip than the elbow.
A strike is called if the pitch crosses home plate between the batters' armpits and the top of his or her knees without being hit by the batter. A strike is also called if the batter hits the pitch but it falls to the ground anywhere in foul territory (unless two strikes have already been called) or if the batter swings at any pitch and misses. A batted ball hit into foul territory is called a foul ball.
A pitch which is not a strike and which the batter does not swing at is a ball (an uncaught foul ball with two strikes on the batter is neither a strike nor a ball). The number of balls and strikes is called the count. The number of balls is always given first, as 2 and 1, 2 and 2, and so on. A count of 3 and 2 is a full count, since the next ball or strike will end the batter's turn at the plate (see next). If the catcher drops the ball on the 3rd strike, the batter may try to advance to 1st base.
If four balls are called the batter advances to first base. The batter may also advance after hitting the ball into fair territory without being put out.
After hitting the ball into fair territory, the batter must run to first base.
The batter is out if: • three strikes are called • a ball hit by the batter is caught before touching the ground • the batter is touched by the ball or by a glove holding the ball while the batter is away from a base (off base) • a fielder holding the ball touches a base which is the only base towards which the batter may run before the batter arrives there (a force out or force play) • in certain other circumstances.
The most common type of force play is made at first base. A batter that drives a ball forward into fair territory must run to first base. If the ball is thrown to first base (that is, to a fielder standing on first base) before the batter can reach it, the batter is out. If the batter reaches first base without being put out, then that player can then be forced to run towards second base the next time a ball is driven into fair territory. That is because the player must vacate first base to allow the next batter to reach it, and consequently can only go to second base, where a force out may be recorded.
If the player hits the ball and advances to a base without a fielding error or an out being recorded, then that is called a 'base hit'. The bases must be reached in order counterclockwise, starting with first base. After hitting the ball the batter may advance as many bases as possible. An advance to first base on the one hit is a single, to second base is a double, to third base is a triple, and to home plate is a home run. Home runs are usually scored by hitting the ball over the outfield fence, but may be scored on a hit which does not go over the fence.
The batter stands facing the pitcher inside a batter's box (there is one on each side of the plate). The bat is held with both hands, over the shoulder away from the pitcher. The ball is usually hit with a full swinging motion in which the bat may move through more than 360 degrees. The batter usually steps forward with the front foot and swings the bat. However, a bunt is made by holding the bat stationary over the plate and stabbing at the ball so it strikes the ground in front of home plate. Bunting is not allowed in slow-pitch.
A batted ball hit high in the air is a fly ball. A fly ball hit upward at an angle greater than 45 degrees is a pop fly. A batted ball driven in the air through the infield at a height at which an infielder could play it if in the right position is a line drive. A batted ball which hits the ground within the diamond is a ground ball.
A player on base is called a runner. When on first, second, or third base the runner may be retired by being forced out, by being touched with the ball while away from a base, and in certain other circumstances (being hit by a batted ball, for example).
A run is scored when a player has touched all four bases in order, proceeding counterclockwise around them. They need not be touched on the same play; a batter may remain safely on a base while play proceeds and attempt to advance. The runner must be on base until the pitcher releases the ball. The runner may advance as many bases as possible.
A runner may advance:
- on a hit by another player
- automatically, when a base on balls advances another player to the runner's current base
- by stealing a base (running to the next base on the pitch and reaching it before being tagged with the ball)
- after a fly ball has been caught, provided the player was touching a base at the time the ball was caught or after
- automatically, when a pitch is delivered illegally
- on an error by a fielder
Base-stealing is not allowed in slow-pitch.
The team with the most runs after seven innings wins the game. The last (bottom) half of the seventh inning or any remaining part of the seventh inning is not played if the home team is leading. If the game is tied, play continues until a decision is reached. In games where one team leads by a large margin, the "mercy rule" may come into play. A lead of 10 runs after five innings, 15 after four, or 20 after three is sufficient for a win to be declared early to avoid embarrassing weaker teams. In elite games, the required margin after five innings is 7 runs.
Decisions about play are made by umpires. The number of umpires on a given game can range from a minimum of one to a maximum of seven. There is never more than one "plate umpire"; there can be up to three "base umpires", and up to a further three umpires positioned in the outfield. Official umpires are often nicknamed "blues", because of their uniforms: navy slacks, a powder blue shirt and a navy baseball cap. Decisions are indicated by use of hand signals.
Softball games typically take between ninety minutes and two hours to complete.
The International Softball Federation holds world championship tournaments in several categories. The tournament in each category is held every four years.
The current world champion of men's slow-pitch softball is the United States, while the mixed champion is Great Britain.
Origins and development
The first version of softball was invented in Chicago in 1887 by Censored page, a reporter for the Chicago Board of Trade, as a winter version of baseball. The game, known as indoor baseball, was first played at the Farragut Boat Club. Hancock took a boxing glove and tied it into a ball. A broom handle was used as a bat. The ball, being soft, was fielded barehanded rather than with gloves like those which had been introduced to baseball in 1882. The Farragut Club soon set rules for the game, which spread quickly to outsiders.
In 1895 Lewis Rober, Sr. of Minneapolis organized outdoor games as exercise for firefighters; this game was known as kitten ball (after the first team to play it) or diamond ball. Rober's version of the game used a twelve-inch (305 mm) ball rather than the sixteen-inch (406 mm) ball used by the Farragut club, and eventually the Minneapolis ball prevailed (although the dimensions of the Minneapolis diamond were passed over in favour of the dimensions of the Chicago one). Rober may not have been familiar with the Farragut Club rules. The first softball league outside the United States was organized in Toronto in 1897.
The softball name dates from 1926 (in addition to indoor baseball, kitten ball, and diamond ball, names for the game included mush ball, and pumpkin ball). Standard rules were agreed on only after the formation of the Amateur Softball Association in 1933.
Sixteen inch (406 mm) softball, also sometimes referred to as "Mush Ball" is a direct descendant of Hancock's original game. Defensive players are not allowed to wear fielding gloves, and thus must catch the ball with their bare hands. Sixteen inch softball is played extensively in Chicago, Illinois.
After World War II, Canadian soldiers introduced softball to The Netherlands.
Women's fast-pitch debuted at the 1996 Summer Olympics.
- Amateur Softball Association
- International Softball Federation
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