The dainty, slow-pitch game of your ancestors is long gone.
Today’s girls’ softball games are competitive fast-pitch events, and in local communities such as St. Anthony, youth teams are growing quickly.
Head coach Rossi Cannon, vice president of the St. Anthony Boosters Softball Association (SABSA), said that the girls’ softball program has tripled in the last three years. This year, they expect to have seven fast-pitch teams (12 players to a team) of girls ages 10 to 14. In addition, there will be three 8-U (8 years old and younger) teams, and two introductory teams of 5- and 6-year-olds.
“January might seem early to be thinking about softball,” Rossi said. “But signups for the older girls started January 2 and will run until February 28. The younger kids can register into March.”
And while the program’s popularity is encouraging, many youth sports teams now face a growing problem: too few umpires.
Laurie Dinneen, a long-time umpire and scheduler in St. Paul, said, “There is a nationwide shortage of umpires. The older levels get the best umpires and if there are not enough, the 10U and 8U teams have to play without one. A parent ends up working the game.”
Cannon added that the shortage hurts the teams. “You want an umpire to lend legitimacy to the games.”
On Sunday, Feb. 4, Dinneen volunteered to lead an umpire training session at Wilshire Park Elementary School. The program included strike motions, “safe” calls, “out” calls and calling a dead ball and a foul ball. She said she talked about the rules because some, such as the “look back” and “infield fly” rules, are difficult to understand. The players did role-playing and learned to conduct a pre-game meeting with coaches. They worked on timing and calling strikes as if they were behind the plate.
When asked why she became an umpire, Dinneen joked, “I played softball. Enough said.” In addition to the mechanics of the game, she added, the other things she hoped to impart were empathy and encouragement.
“I love working with the kids. I frequently tell the catcher what a great job she is doing. Many of these girls don’t get that kind of praise.”
Dinneen said she once worked at a game where a fearful 10-year-old came up to bat in tears. “She wouldn’t get into the batter’s box. I had the coach come over to help. When the girl moved into the batter’s box, I told her how brave she was. After she struck out, I told her what a great job she did. She smiled and went into the dugout looking confident. At the 10U level, softball can really impact these young lives.”
At the Feb. 4 training session, Dinneen corrected players’ mistakes with diplomacy, saying, “Thanks for the training opportunity!”
Coach Cannon attended the umpire training with her 12-year old daughter. She said, “Laurie offered to train young umps for free, to help with the shortage and also to help employ our youth. Being an ump gives them leadership skills and gainful employment. A 16-year-old girl can make about $40 a game; it’s a good summer job. They have to be older than the age of girls they are umping, and they also need certification from USA umpires.
“We will not tolerate parents or coaches harassing an umpire, young or otherwise,” Cannon added. “Being an umpire is a leadership position. It looks good on a college or job application. I would think someone who has been an umpire has poise and a level of maturity. She has learned to be on time and how to negotiate a conflict.”
Cannon said SABSA board members approached neighboring communities Columbia Heights, Roseville, Spring Lake Park, and Mounds View to start a machine- pitch modified league for younger players in 2014-15. “Our rules are modified to support new players and learners. You don’t want to discourage kids by having it be too hard or to see too little action. They can’t steal or advance bases on overthrows. The 8U players can’t walk or strike out. After three strikes, they get a tee, like T-ball. That way they get a chance to hit and run every time they’re at bat and the defense gets a chance to make a play on every batter.
“Eight-year-olds have a hard time pitching,” she added. “Their hands are small and their motor skills are still developing. You want kids to come out understanding the game. The modified league has been great. They come out with real defensive skills.”
She said that the practice and playing season is April to August. There are one to two doubleheaders a week for 10 and up; the 8U players play one game a week. The St. Anthony Boosters Softball Association, which is under the umbrella of the St. Anthony Sports Boosters non-profit organization, is considered a community organization, Cannon added. “This is not connected to the school teams. We want to be their feeder program.”
She said the Boosters group differs from private sports clubs which take kids from multiple communities, have tryouts and make selections. “They might charge a kid $2,000 or more to play. We charge a little over $200 for fastpitch for the season. We’re pretty cheap. We don’t cut anybody. We work hard to be a mix of recreational and developmental. We also do our own fundraising.”
She said the teams teams travel all over central Minnesota and western Wisconsin, including towns such as Hudson and Baldwin. “Because of field pressure in St. Anthony we play less than 50 percent of our games there. The Boosters teams are looking for fields to rent in neighboring communities.”
Coaching and time commitment
“Most teams like to have three to five coaches,” Cannon said. “Last year there were four of us. I am the head coach; I coach third base, determine the lineup and ask the other coaches to fill in where they’re comfortable and where their strengths are. We are so small that we don’t have an in-house option; we don’t have enough numbers that we can play against other St. Anthony kids.
“Our philosophy is a growth mindset. We’re trying to develop resilient kids with some grit who are willing to take on challenges. We’re really good at that. We field competitive teams, with a list of first and second place tournament finishes across our teams. Our girls go home with hardware [medals]. My summer team took third place in 10U Tier 6 State, and another 10U team qualified and played at nationals.”
Rossi, who is married, works full time, and has three children, said, “You cannot coach alone. Our parent participation is strong. We have a board that includes parents of alumni.”
She enjoys coaching, she said, because “it is so rewarding to watch these kids, not just my own, struggle with something, find it hard, rise to challenge and succeed when they didn’t think they could. You see their expression of joy and pride. As a coach, when they make that big play, they turn to you with a smile on their face. It makes it all worth it. They need support. We want to make sure these kids grow up with that confidence and a strong work ethic. Also, I want to show them that a woman can be in charge. As a female, I feel it’s important that I role model that. We’re unique here; we have four-plus female head coaches.”
Al Bates, St. Anthony Boosters Softball Association president, said that the gender of coaches is changing. “We’re seeing our coaches starting to be moms, most of whom were good high school and college players. For a long time, softball coaches were dads who played baseball. Now we have as many, if not more, moms coaching as dads.”
He said that his own daughter, Becca, played softball for St. Anthony. “Her development with Boosters softball helped position her very well for nice success at the high school level. Her senior year, in 2012, the high school won their league and came in second in the state tournament. She was the senior pitcher. It was totally a team effort.” She went on, he added, to pitch for St. Thomas University.
Next generation umpires
Bates, who coaches a 6U girls’ introductory team, said, “A long time ago, softball for girls was a daintier slow pitch game. Now, through college, it is neither dainty nor slow. We’ve moved away from slow pitch and recreational ball. We’re trying to prepare our girls to play fastpitch. We believe we can be competitive and fun at the same time.”
He, too, acknowledged the need for umpires, saying he hopes the recent training program at Wilshire might encourage some players to become umpires. “As the sport has grown, there is a huge need for more umpires. A lot of the existing umpires do double duty for high school. In May, there is an overlap; summer ball for 12U and under starts and school isn’t out yet.
“Umps are aging out,” he added. “Many good umps we’ve had for years are retiring, and we’re looking to train their replacements. We’re hoping that by getting ump training, we’ll encourage today’s high school players to be our next generation umpires.”
Below: Potential umpires of all ages practiced how to move once the ball is in play. Take off the mask with the left hand so as to be seen and heard, step toward the base to be able to see as the runner crosses it. Next, Laurie Dinneen demonstrated the stances for working with right-handed batters and left-handed batters in an intense training introducing players and families to the art and science of being an umpire. St. Anthony coach Rossi Cannon is in the middle of the room.
At right “safe,” lining up behind the catcher. (Photos by Mark Peterson)