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by Bob Fromer

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: July 23 -- All week at the 6th World Cup of Softball, they've been promoting Border Battle III, the supposed showdown between the top male slowpitch players from the United States and Canada. Since the series began in 2009, each team has won once, so this was meant to be something of a decider, or maybe a grudge match.

The men from the US and Canadian teams have been here for the past few days, practising and playing scrimmage games against local teams and impressing everyone with their huge arms and 400 foot-plus shots hit way out of the Hall of Fame Stadium and adjoining practice grounds. One of the US players is Johnny McCraw, who was one of the three Combat coaches who came to Ireland and England in May.

In fact, promotion is what this event is all about. Each of the players is here representing a bat manufacturer such as Worth, Combat, Easton etc, and when their names, photos and home towns are put up on the big screen, the other information you get is what kind of bat they're swinging. Essentially, these guys are hired guns for the equipment manufacturers, paid to hit mammoth home runs with bats juiced to the limits of the law, and the Border Battle brings them all together in one place for softball's equivalent of the Home Run Derby that precedes the MLB All-Star game. Except that this exhibition pretends to be a game as well.

The day dawns

Today was finally the day, and after the GB Women had beaten the Czech Republic 3-2 this morning and Canada had upset Team USA 4-3 at lunchtime in the World Cup, the grounds crew removed the 220-foot women's fastpitch fence and the men came out to play in a stadium whose dimensions were now 300 feet to left field and about 350 feet to right. But that wasn't nearly enough room ("300 feet is way too short," said Johnny McCraw), so signs indicating 400, 450 and 500 feet were hung on various buildings and fences beyond the stadium.

By the time the game started, about half an hour late, the temperature was over 100 degrees in the exposed sections of stands, and more than that on the field, but quite a respectable crowd had gathered. What they saw was not softball as we know it in the UK.

A different game

As the Combat coaches, Coop, Johnny and Cristan, explained when they were in the UK, the softball they play here in the US of A is designed to encourage hitting. So pitchers are confined to a 7-to-10 foot arc, which kind of makes them sitting ducks, especially in a fearsome assembly like this one.

Because of this, the pitchers don't just move back a couple of steps into a fielding position while the pitch is in the air -- instead, they scamper back as fast as they can in the general direction of second base, as if they were being chased by a bear.

Today's game was played with just three outfielders in the conventional left, centre and right field positions. The tenth player wasn't designated as an outfielder or even a "rover" -- he was called a "middle infielder" and that's where he played -- up the middle, just behind and to the left or right of second base depending on the hitter.

There are home run limits -- 10 per team -- so the idea is to use them strategically. As Johnny McCraw explained before the game, "You want to save them for when the bases are loaded or maybe when you have runners on first and second. You don't really want to waste one with runners on second and third, because a single will get you two runs anyway. And you don't want to hit them too early in the game."

US domination

So what actually happened? Well, Canada batted first and went up and down in order on hard ground balls in the top of the first. No early home runs there, but no production either. It was clear, too, that while these guys are mainly here to hit, some of them are terrific fielders as well, especially the US third baseman, who grabbed a hard-hit chopper with his bare hand and fired a strike to first from behind the third base bag.

Then the US came up and scored ten runs without much apparent effort. There were four or five home runs that soared into the baking afternoon air and disappeared over fences. One hit a light-tower way behind the fence, another hit the big Diamondvision screen and another shaved the 450-foot sign on the hill behind left field. A couple of the home runs were solo shots -- so much for using home runs strategically.

When they weren't hitting home runs, the US hitters were slapping line drives precisely through the holes on the left and right sides of the infield or up the middle, too hard for the "middle infielder" to have a chance, and some of these drives went all the way to the wall. When outs occurred, as they did at long intervals, they seemed like some kind of accident.

More of the same

The pattern continued through the next two innings. The US scored at will. Johnny McCraw hit solo home runs in both the second and third innings when it was clear he hadn't meant to. He gave a little skip of disappointment after each home run, a kind of visual "Damn!", as he jogged down the first base line. Line drives flew up the alleys, and the home run count surged up towards ten. The Canadian centre fielder had chased down so many balls that he began to look like a potential heat stroke victim.

The US scored five runs in the second inning and ten more in the third. The Canadian reply was a single three-homer. After the third inning, the US had 28 hits and the Canadians had four.

Last year, Canada won the Border Battle 38-37. It must have been exciting if you like that kind of thing. But how did they do it?

A quick end

So it came to the top of the fourth inning. The Canadians went up and down in order again, and suddenly it was over. The score was 25-3 for the United States and the mercy rule was applied: "20 after 4".

The crowd seemed stunned, the announcer sounded embarrassed and the Canadians slouched off the field after about an hour of play. This wasn't quite what all the hype had been about.

Do we need this?

There has been talk of maybe GB sending a men's team to the Border Battle in future, or maybe expanding the event to include a co-ed dimension.

But (and this is just a personal opinion), I'm not sure we want to know. The Border Battle is softball that has evolved to a weird extreme, like the stegosaurus or the peacock's tail. It's impressive, but does it have any real use?  A real sport has to have some degree of difficulty, but for these guys, smashing the ball to all corners of the park or over the fences is no more difficult than picking a low-hanging apple off a tree.

And it's a kind of softball that pretty much renders every other facet of the game except hitting redundant.

British slowpitch softball seems so much better balanced between pitching, offense and defense, and as a result so much more fun to play or watch.

But in these parts, I guess folks like home runs. And they'll probably turn out just as eagerly next year for Border Battle IV.