Challenge accepted: 1 photographer in his 40s vs. a high school softball pitcher

Published 9:30 pm Wednesday, July 19, 2017

If you have a challenge for Rocky or I, drop us a line through email or Twitter. While we won’t be able to say yes to everything, we do hope to make this a regular series.

All challenges should be on the high school level of competition and be a serious attempt at those sports.

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Challenges are meant to be tough and even somewhat revealing. And as I stepped into the batter’s box against Austin High School and U16 softball pitcher Tori Gardner late last month, two things became clear:

That I could hit a fast pitch softball pitcher — albeit awkwardly — or I would be made a fool of — somewhat easily.

As it turned out, I can get a hit, but that really was secondary. What I actually found out was that hitting fast-pitch is not easy against a skilled pitcher.

Some backstory

Before we get ahead of ourselves, a couple years ago, during one of several trips to the Twin Cities for some state event, I bragged to sportswriter Rocky Hulne that I could hit a fast pitch pitcher. He, of course, doubted that.

I continued pushing the point, replying to his “nuh-uh” with a firm “yeah-huh.” A number of years ago I recorded at least one hit that I can remember off a friend who pitched in college.

I suspected I didn’t see her best stuff, but at the time, it didn’t take anybody’s best stuff to keep me hitless. Regardless, that one moment gave me the bravado of being able to repeat it. I took it one step further by boldly claiming that I could do this against Shelbi Swenson.

That claim caused Rocky to laugh outright, only because it came not long after Swenson pitched BP to a Class A state title. Still, I was all for it and as the years moved on I continued to claim I could hit high school pitching, which he continued to scoff at.

And so, we devised this project. The goal had shifted past my own glory to the idea that this method of challenge was perfect to show off what high school athletes could do.

Believe me, this is more serious than the headware would suggest. Tori lays down some pointers before my at-bat. Later Jenna would talk me through slap-hitting.

Stepping in

When we put this plan into motion, we quickly settled on Tori Gardner, paired with catcher Jenna Braaten, who, with the help of U16 coach Dan King, agreed to meet at Todd Park on June 30.

To be honest, I haven’t know these girls very long. Only over the last couple of years have I gotten to know them, and I can say they are fantastic young ladies for putting up with an aging photographer with delusions of grandeur.

The main goal was simple. Face Tori for roughly an at-bat, maybe two, all the while treating it like a regular game experience. This was supposed to be fun, but to totally get to the heart of the experience, it also had to be a serious effort.

Jenna called the pitches, while taking on the part-time job of coach — with a pinch of heckling mixed in.

I do have baseball experience. I played through my youth, through high school and then I played amateur baseball after graduating.

I know “that” game. Softball, though looking similar, is wildly different. Swings are shorter, more truncated and the ball gets there a heck of a lot quicker. Nevermind the addition of rise balls and a regular screw ball.

I should say in that regard, both Jenna and Tori were great coaches and it told me something. When they were giving me pointers, they were legit pointers, not just general ideas. We laughed — a lot — but in the end I was getting the seriousness I wanted.

When it was all said and done, I collected three hits that I know of; though in the video accompanying this story has Jenna claiming four. Great kid that Jenna.

One of these was a slap hit, another all-together complicated form of hitting for someone who hasn’t swung a bat in years.

What I learned

Tori and Jenna gave me what I ultimately wanted — an at-bat that gave me the legitimate experience. The hits didn’t matter.

These are my observations. Coaches and players may well disagree with my assessment, but in the end, these are the conclusions I drew:

First, Tori is a quality pitcher. I know the world of rise balls, change-ups, curves, screwballs, etc, but standing at that plate and seeing a ball starting near your waste, end up near your shoulders is eye-opening or at least I think they were. Early on, the pitches were on me before I had a chance to really see what she was throwing.

I meant to get a list of the pitches Tori threw, but became distracted with just the task of picking up the ball.

In baseball, you are taught to see the ball come out of the pitcher’s hand. In softball, I tried to do the same, but suddenly it’s coming from off of Tori’s hip. I tried to concentrate on the movement — the windmill of her arm — but as it comes around you lose the ball, not the mention that once she starts rolling, it goes fast. It seemed to disappear in that moment only to reappear in Jenna’s.

Finding the timing is quite possibly the most difficult thing I had to get down. And really, it could be attributed to why change-ups in softball look so effective. A fastball gets to you quick, the short distance making it seem even quicker, but just as you get the timing down, the change-up comes in. The adage of “pull the string,” is so adequate.

And now try to slap hit.

It seems to me a prime slap-hitter should be a left-hander. Again, I could be wrong, but as I started forward — you can’t step out of the box before making contact — I already felt like I had momentum taking me that much closer to first.

At that point, the batter can make the choice to push it or slap it toward third base making it that much more difficult to get the out, or drag it down the first baseline in an effort to yank it over the first baseman’s head, or involve her directly to make open up first a little more.

I had to do it from the right side — mostly because I’m a righty with absolutely no training, ever, as a left-hander. It doesn’t seem like it’s that much different, but the momentum the bat takes along with the direction I took, made it hard to go anywhere but first or the pitcher, which makes getting the out easier for the defense.

Had there been a full array of fielders I would have been out — easily. Not to mention there was absolutely no grace whatsoever to my attempt.

What I also realized and what so many people know is how fast and short the game is. The field is more confining and it seems that things are stacked against the hitter. The holes between third and short, short and second, second and first are so much smaller and yet softball hitters are trying to do so much more.

To watch a short-game filled with bunting, slapping and base-stealing is a thing of beauty.

So here’s my final thought. Yeah, I got some hits, so in my mind this was a success.

And yet, I have no problems admitting that a lot of it could well have been luck. Seeing Tori’s rise was something I will remember for a long time, partly because I haven’t seen it that much, but mostly because she is very gifted.

Softball on any level is not easy. It didn’t take much to show me and really the four hits are misleading. When you watch our video, you’ll see that Tori and Jenna had me on the defensive for most of it. The first hit was well-hit, granted, but after that, there was a lot of just barely getting bat on ball.

While I got my serious at-bat and my challenge, I also realize that had these two have faced me in an absolute game experience, this probably does not end the same.

And then I have to determine if life shooting Austin High School softball from the dugout would ever be heckle free.

This is the form of a man who should not be playing softball — ever — and I think Katelyn Murphy knows this as well.