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Do you know how to hit a slow-pitch strike, or throw a slow-pitch curve? Dude!

20th Anniverary of THE classic book on slow-pitch softball!
"Funny and informative." -- Booklist

Dr. Whacko's Guide
to Slow-Pitch Softball

by Bruce Brown

Available Editions

Dr. Whacko's Guide to Slow-Pitch Softball by Bruce Brown

Chapter Five

'A Few Minutes With U Jane'
- or -
Pitching as movement of the spheres
Cut the the chase -- I want to go straight to the tip...

IS THAT HOW men do it?" the tall woman with the gray eyes asked as she took the ball from me.

I had just spent ten minutes talking about pitching, pointing out as briskly as possible a few tricks to help recreational-league hurlers throw strikes. I talked about always striding the same, and otherwise keeping the delivery to the plate consistent.

Going through the basic parts of the pitcher's motion, I stressed the importance of being able to isolate each element, and understand how it affects the pitch. The reason, I said, is that every pitcher has streaks of wildness. The thing that distinguishes winners from losers is the ability to adjust; to see what's going wrong, and know what has to be done to correct it.

To illustrate my point, I stepped up on the rubber and proceeded to throw a couple of pitches which fell way outside to a right-handed batter. Turning back to the two dozen or so pitchers standing in a semicircle behind me, I said, "OK, the count is two balls and no strikes. I need to throw a strike. What do I do now?" After a respectful moment of silence, I told them an embarrassing story.

Early in my career as a slow-pitch hurler, I walked a batter on a couple of close pitches. The next batter walked a little quicker, and by the third batter I was in an absolute sweat. The strike zone seemed to have shrunk to the size of a contact lens, and my pitches were falling more and more wildly to the outside. I walked the bases full, and then walked the next batter (the fourth in a row) on four straight pitches to force in a run. Moments later I was heading off the field with my head hung down.

Before I got to the dugout, I heard the umpire say to our catcher, "All the pitches were coming off his thumb." Instantly, I knew he was right. I had noticed in practice before the game that if my thumb was the last thing that touched the ball, it would fly uncontrollably outside. Under the pressure of the game situation, however, I forgot. So when things started going bad, I didn't know how to do anything but hope the next pitch would be a strike. Next time, I promised myself, I was going to do something before it was too late. "The problem is in your hand," I told the assembled pitchers, "but the solution is in your head."

Now Jane Hastings, my coinstructor at the parks department seminar, took her turn on the mound. I had played with her -- and against her -- for years in coed slowpitch leagues, where she was known pretty universally by the name U Jane. She started off by stepping to the rubber and gathering her hands together in front of her, seemingly meditating on a tree behind the backstop. Then she threw a beautiful high-arc strike that nipped the black on the plate and scooted away to the left like a marmot that had just sighted a hawk.

After lofting a couple more strikes with equal ease, she turned and said, "I really don't have many rules or regulations for pitching. For me it is more a feeling --an internal attitude that I try to embody. I consciously try to ignore all the distractions of the game." It was true that U Jane had unusual powers of concentration, for I have seen her on the mound while her youngest daughter was crying on the sidelines, and she didn't even twitch.

If you spend time at softball diamonds around here, sooner or later you are bound to hear some kind of strange things about U Jane. And not just your garden variety strange, either. I've been told she worships a green flame inside her that is the spirit of a seven thousand-year-old saber-toothed tiger. I've also heard that the oddly shaped amber she wears on a thong around her neck is an oriental fetish. I personally don't put much stock in these kinds of stories, but it is true that she believes in some things that most people around here don't know how to pronounce.

I remember an evening several winters ago when we were playing volleyball at the local high-school gym. Rod jammed his middle finger blocking a spike. Crumpling to the floor, he grabbed his hand and howled with pain. Jane went to him immediately and made him show her the injured hand. Taking it in her hands, she sort of cocked her head. Then a small but astounding thing happened. The swelling in the finger diminished visibly, like a balloon losing air. After about a minute, Rod took his hand back, and flexed it. "Wow," he said. "There's no pain. How did you do that?"

Jane studied him for an instant, like an extraterrestrial in a late-night movie trying to decide how much truth the human could handle. With most people she would have laughed the question off, but the fact that Rod was an Indian made her say more than she otherwise would have. Rod really wasn't a very traditional Indian, but as a kid he had spent some time with an uncle on Vancouver Island who was well known as a medicine man. "It's called Reiki," Jane told Rod matter-of-factly. "It's a form of spiritual healing. I channeled the healing energy from my hands into your injured finger. You may notice a little stiffness, but by tomorrow your finger will feel like nothing happened."

Janie smiled disarmingly at the pitchers assembled around the mound, much as she had when she got through with Rod's finger. Although she did not say anything about pain paths or violet-green flames, she did present a different approach to slow-pitch softball pitching. If I had spoken for the head, she spoke for the heart; if I had spoken for calculated competition, she spoke for the power of personal peace. She said she never wanted to "get" or "hurt" the other team. Her goal, she said, wasn't to be better than someone else. She was just trying to be the best she herself could be.

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Available Editions
Dr. Whacko's Guide to
Slow-Pitch Softball
by Bruce Brown
Introduction
Chapter 1
Red Shoes Don't Make It Any More, or
Hitting the slow-pitch strike
Chapter 2
Revenge of the Mouth Breathers, or
D is for Defense
Chapter 3
Patented Weenie Elixer, or
How you can be a feared hitter
Chapter 4
The Best Are Boring, or

Why the best pitchers are invisible
Chapter 5
A Few Minutes With U Jane, or

Pitching as movement of the spheres
Chapter 6
Dr. Whacko, I Presume, or

It's about your stats, dude
Chapter 7
Scared Hairy by the Montana Terror, or

The Buddha of Missoula hits the Cutoff Man
Chapter 8
Cathcing Heck, or

Developing a winning squat
Chapter 9
The Key That Turns the Lock, or

Why the double is the most valuable hit in slow-pitch softball
Chapter 10
Land of 1,000 Pitches, or

Throwing an assortment of slow-pitch pitches, including the kuckleball
Chapter 11
How I Hit .000 In Havana, or

Coordinating pitching and defense
Chapter 12
Wrong Place, Right Time, or

Defensive alignments
Chapter 13
If You Can't Stand the Heat, or

Why women are more important than men in co-ed slow-pitch softball
Chapter 14
Both Ends of the Stick, or

Hitting for power
Chapter 15
Snow Ball, or

More fun than you'd think
The Lost Chapter
Basic Strokes for
Basic Two-handed Folks, or

You really only need one arm to hit it out of sight
Available Editions

Praise for
Dr. Whacko's Guide to
Slow-pitch Softball

"Funny and informative, and possibly the first of a new genre: the 'fictional' instructional."
-- Wes Lukowsky, Booklist

"An ingeniously funny work..."
-- Fred Moody, Seattle Weekly

"If the executive vice president also happens to be the captain of your company softball team, a quick course with Dr. Whacko may just put you on the fast track to a promotion."
-- Allen St. John, Trenton Times

"If you enjoy softball or just a fun story, you'll enjoy this book."
-- Jim Carberry, Bellingham Herald

"The pitch is slow, but the track is fast for Dr. Whacko's wit... If you are consumed with ambition to be a slow-pitch softball star, this book is your primer."
-- Emmett Watson, Seattle Times


Available Editions

NOTE: If you enjoyed this story of softball in Havana, you might also enjoy Bruce Brown's classic portrait of Cuban baseball from the Atlantic Monthly...

 

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I remember how Janie's attitudes about competition used to drive me crazy when we played on the same team. You could just about count on her getting a weirdly beatific look in her eyes at the crucial point in the game. While the infield tensed up on their toes, she trancedout. I used to think she made slow-pitch softball an isometric exercise in personal spirituality. In fact, my view of her went through a general period of darkness that was not helped by the fact that she was outpitching me by a considerable degree. At first I disparaged her rise as the team's number-one starter, but watching her week after week that summer, I came to appreciate her exceptional steadiness and grace.

I saw her throw works of art which fell right on the corner, punctuating the umpire's strike call with mute but undeniable marks in the dust. I also saw the nice things she did -- such as bringing food from the concession stands -- for the others on the team. Janie even got juice for Carla, our sometime third baseman, when she knew Carla was having an affair with her long-time housemate, John the abstract expressionist. The sight of Janie with her arm around Carla on the bench used to amaze me. But in the end I just took it as another example of her refusal to compete in a way that was intended to hurt others.

On the mound, U Jane presented a memorable picture with her dark wavy hair and riot of freckles splashed all over her strong thighs and shoulders. Although the color and style of the uniforms she wore over the years changed, she never wore a hat. Her windup was simple and direct, but she still could be a tremendously deceptive pitcher. Her secret was the break she got on the ball. I know that some noted slow-pitch coaches, like Oregon's George Perry, say "there is no way any amount of spin can affect a slow pitch." All I can say is they never saw U Jane, for she got great movement on the ball, and spin was her game.

I thought of her as a classic side-spin pitcher, which is to say she rolled the ball as she released it so that the ball corkscrewed along its path to the plate. She did not put a huge amount of spin on the ball, but the spin it had carried it along a complex arc. Her pitches often had two distinct trajectories, the first part up to the apogee, and then the latter part down to the ground. To hit her, the batter had to adjust to the fact that the angle and motion of the ball changed perceptibly during flight.

Depending on the angle, the wind, and the spin, her pitches could break wildly, yet she always seemed to have finger-tip control. She explained it all differently, of course. "The most important part of the pitch isn't something that happens way over there on the other side of the plate. It isn't separated from you by forty-three feet. The most important part of the pitch begins as soon as you release the ball from your hand. It is the flight of the ball in the air, and you're directly connected to it." U Jane paused to let this sink in, and then continued. "Another thing. I never try to sight in on the catcher's mitt. I really don't pay any attention to a target like that. In fact, I never watch to see where the ball falls. What I watch is its spin in flight. I know that if the pitch is right then, it will be right when it gets to the plate."

At that point, she called for a volunteer from the audience. Choosing a man in his thirties, she ushered him to the rubber and instructed him to concentrate on the arc of the ball in the air, not its destination. She also told him to aim at a tree standing in the distance, not at the plate. He wound up and threw a perfect strike. Jane tried to stop her talk then, saying she wanted to quit while she was ahead, but the crowd wouldn't let her. They surrounded her for a quarter hour afterward to ask questions one-on-one.

I stayed and listened, too. U Jane and I had a long and complex relationship. We blew cold and hot, and I guess it's no secret there was a time when I loved her wildly. I remember sitting on the bench watching her pitch in shorts and a T-shirt one afternoon when one of the other women on our team leaned over and said to me, "You ought to go home and put ice cubes on your eyes the way welders do."

Actually, we were never more than good friends. Maybe that's why I kept hanging around making a fool of myself. When I originally heard we were going to be on the pitching seminar together, I volunteered to drive U Jane back to her place afterward.

We were cruising down the River Road chatting about a couple of mutual friends who had gotten married when a sand-colored dove flew up even with the car. Almost as soon as we saw it, the bird dropped out of sight beneath the river bank.

Then it returned to fly alongside the car again, before dipping down below the bank like before. We both watched the bird, and when it did not appear the third time, U Jane said to me, "Someone is going to die."

Dr. Whacko's Notebook #5: Control Pitching

1. The first step toward control as a pitcher is standardizing your motion. Find a type of pitch and windup that is comfortable and seems to work, and stick with it until you know it inside out.

2. Every pitcher has streaks of wildness, but there is something you can do about it if you know your own tendencies, or weaknesses.

3. Become familiar with the basic parts of your delivery (stride, release, jump back, etc.) and how each affects your pitching so you can quickly diagnose the problem when things don't go quite right.

4. If you have trouble zeroing in on the strike zone, try using a tree or some other object behind the plate in the distance as your target. You may find that focusing on a target high above the plate also makes it easier to throw high-arc pitches.

"Dr. Whacko's Guide to Slow-Pitch Softball" © Copyright 1991 Bruce Brown
Original jacket cover illustration by Tim Curry.


cover thumbnail for "Dr. Whacko's Guide to Softball" by Bruce Brown

Do you know how to hit a slow-pitch strike, or throw a slow-pitch curve? Dude!

20th Anniverary of THE classic book on slow-pitch softball!
"Funny and informative." -- Booklist

Dr. Whacko's Guide
to Slow-Pitch Softball

by Bruce Brown

Available Editions

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