Weekend leisure: Go out and have a ball

By Kirsten MacFarlane

This softball team of American expats and friends treat their game as a social event, on and off the field, writes Kirsten MacFarlane.

The American Eagles slow-pitch softball team start their new season in October. Photo / Steven McNicholl
The American Eagles slow-pitch softball team start their new season in October. Photo / Steven McNicholl

If only the Democrats and Republicans played by the rules of American slowpitch softball. They might never again teeter on the brink of economic catastrophe.

In all respects slowpitch is a team game, with no position superior to another. What's more, the pitcher must deliver a slow ball to ensure maximum strike rate. Sure, it's an underhand pitch but there's no filibustering in this game. It's a stretch to think a Tea Party fiscal hardliner would ever play ball.

"American politics is a brutal game - it's not a social thing like slowpitch," says Wayne Mills, who's seen enough egocentric behaviour in his native New York.

Yes indeedy, the game played by The American Club's Eagles team is refreshingly lacking in rivalry. Physically, there's no pressure to be anything but average. Mills' partner Keith Mandel happily admits to being somewhat of a slouch on the field. "I'm not a bad catcher and batter - but I'm no good at running or throwing."

It's the pros who play the intensive fastpitch version. Put the average player up against a fast pitcher - "and I would say around 85 per cent of people would never be able to hit the ball," says John Drucker, another Eagles player and vice-president of The American Club. In a game of slowpitch you can expect a "lot more action in the game, with more hits, runs, and catches".

The Eagles play in the mixed adult division of the Auckland Central Slowpitch league, and will begin a new season in October. Last season they came fourth in division two. Not bad for a team that likes to be "social on-and-off the field", says Drucker. Players bring their spouses and older children and after the Monday night game they usually head back to the clubrooms for a meal. Every year the Eagles play a (friendly, of course) match against the Canadian Club.

"That's what I love about New Zealand, you can do sports socially. In the United States, they may call it social but it's really very competitive," confesses Kim Daly, who has played for the Eagles for the past six years. "There is very little training required. Anyone can do it and the rules aren't too difficult either."

Proficient in track and field at university, New Jersey-born Daly hadn't picked up a bat for 25 years before she joined a fast pitch team in New Zealand. "Part of it was nostalgia to play the game again - and it was like riding a bike." Daly is responsible for recruiting many of the players.

A keen starter, Mills grew up with a semi-pro softball Mom. "I couldn't escape softball, there was always a bat in the backyard. Nearly every American workplace has a softball team." The couple, who arrived here in 2006, have been together for 27 years and work for the same footwear retailer - "talk about teamwork", says Mandel in his New York drawl. They're now mad-keen rugby fans.

"Oh we love the rugby. We've got tickets for the USA versus Ireland game on 9/11," says Mills.

Drucker, who played semi-pro fastpitch at university during the sixties and throughout his 20-year career in the US Navy, joined the Eagles last year after attending his first meet-and-greet session at the American Club.

"Kim asked me if I would like to play and I said 'sign me up'." Former Commander Drucker speaks proudly of his navy softball team who competed at the Pearl Harbour Championships. "The Takelma was the smallest ship in the league but we beat all the big guys."

America was at war with Vietnam when the American Club was founded in 1966, and the agenda, says past president Daly, has always been about "fostering better relations between Kiwis and Americans". Members from both countries hold regular get-togethers, celebrating events like Memorial Day and Thanksgiving. At a recent "mixer" at a Viaduct bar, I meet a newly-arrived couple from North Carolina and a New Zealander who met his American partner on a sailing trip. Others have found their way home, like the Maori businesswoman who was raised in Texas and is now living in Clevedon.

At the practice field, the team is limbering up. The seasoned Drucker is well versed in the rules. "A mixed team must have equal numbers on the field ... and pitch the ball slowly in a rainbow-like arc." As the politicians back in Washington face another brow-beating day at the office, Mills is looking forward to a new season of social softball. "I just feel great going out on to that field."

American life and times
As part of Auckland Museum's River Lives series, the American Club of Auckland has gathered talented Americans and New Zealanders to showcase some of the rich cultural history of the Mississippi River. Between 11am and 3:30pm, experience jazz, blues, country and Texas rock, modern and Irish clog dancing and readings from American literature. Softball enthusiasts should visit www.slowpitch.org.nz and www.americanclub.org.nz.

- NZ Herald

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