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Softball is a team sport strongly resembling baseball, from which it is descended, but from which it differs in a number of particulars, resulting in a game with its own unique style and flavor. The game is played in over a hundred countries internationally, but is most popular in the United States, Canada, Japan, China, Korea, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. Since 1996, it has been on the Olympic program, though the current Olympiad (Beijing 2008) will mark its last as an Olympic event unless it is re-instated in the future.

In the United States, where the game originated, it is played mainly as an amateur participant sport and, as such, is the most popular sport activity in the country with more than 40 million people playing the game annually. In addition, it has become a staple of the women's athletic program at high schools and colleges in the U.S.

The game itself exists in a variety of different forms all going under the same name. The two major versions are called fastpitch and slowpitch. Both, in contrast to baseball, require the pitcher to deliver the ball to the batter with an underarm motion, but in fastpitch there are no other special restrictions while in slowpitch, the ball must be "lobbed" in with a substantial arc, resulting in a slow (hence: slowpitch) delivery. The fastpitch version is the norm for highly competitive athletic play, such as in high schools and colleges, while the slowpitch version is the recreational favorite for all ages and genders, including mixed gender teams.

Internationally, the governing body for softball is the International Softball Federation. The ISF is recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as the governing body of the sport internationally, responsible for administering the sport including the adoption of uniform rules and procedures for the sport as well as for providing the auspices for the organization of competitions and championships.

Description of the game

Softball originated as a form of indoor baseball, by which name it was originally known, but today it is almost always played outdoors. Because of its strong derivation from and resemblance to baseball, it can be described in terms of its differences from baseball and the effects these differences have on the game. Indeed, a spectator who understands the nature of the game of baseball would, in general, have little or no trouble figuring out what is happening in a softball game.

The basics of a softball game

In both baseball and softball, the object of the game is to score more points, called runs, than the opponents are able to score, in a specified number of innings.

There are two teams of 9 players each (10 players for the slowpitch game). The teams alternate being on defense and offense. When one team is on defense, the other is on offense, and vice versa, with each alternation (each team having been on defense and offense once) being called an inning. The defense occupies positions on the field of play.

This field consists of a large, flat open area bounded by lines on two sides, intersecting at right angles, and a generally curving fence or other such demarcation along a third side. Where the two side lines intersect is located home plate which is the focal point of the game and upon which is built the infield, a equisided, diamond-shaped area with 4 bases which must be successfully touched in consecutive order for a team to score a run.

Play proceeds with the defensive team's pitcher, stationed in the middle of the infield diamond, delivering the ball to the batter (stationed near home plate) in the prescribed underarm delivery fashion. The batter attempts to put the ball in play in such a way that he/she is able to reach base without being put out, which can occur in a variety of ways as well, including exceeding the number of prescribed good pitches.

Once on the base, the player (now called a baserunner) attempts to circle the bases in order, and to safely cross home plate. If successful, a run (point) is scored for his/her team. The team on offense is allowed to proceed until the defensive team is able to retire or put out three opposing players, at which time the two teams switch positions with the team on offense taking to the field for defense and the team on defense retiring from the field and going on offense.

A game lasts the prescribed number of innings (offensive / defensive switches) and the team wins which has the most runs (points) at the end of this number of innings, though extra innings are allowed in the event of a tie score at the end of the regulation number of innings.

Main differences from baseball

As mentioned above, softball was derived from baseball, but there are a number of significant differences which can be considered, variously, as differences related to either the equipment, including the field of play, the rules of play, or the resulting strategy and tactics.

1. Size of playing field

Perhaps the most obvious difference a visitor familiar with baseball would notice, even before the start of play, is that the field on which the game takes place, while being almost identical in layout to that of a baseball field, is smaller in all dimensions. The outfield boundary area is closer, being around 200 feet or so compared with 300 to 400 feet in Major League Baseball, while the distance between bases in the infield is correspondingly shorter, being about 60 feet in softball (the exact dimensions being fixed by the rules governing the particular level of play) compared to 90 feet in MLB.

2. Pitching motion

The specified pitcher delivery technique in softball is another major distinguishing characteristic of softball by comparison to baseball. In softball, the pitcher is required to deliver the ball to the batter with an underarm motion. In spite of this restriction, pitch speeds in the fastpitch version of softball typically reach up to 60 mph at the high school level and sometimes higher. Speeds up to 70 mph at the college level are not unheard of. Given the shorter distance from home plate to the pitcher's rubber in softball, this means that the batter's reaction time in softball is comparable to that of a major league ballplayer's reaction time to a 90+ mph fastball.

The underarm delivery pitching motion, being a more natural motion of the arm, does not place as much stress on a pitcher's arm as does the overhand delivery technique of baseball. As a result, a softball pitcher, even at the top level of play, does not require a lengthy recovery period between starts. In almost all cases, overnight recovery is quite sufficient and it is not at all unusual for a softball pitcher to pitch 3 games in one day, or 2 per day for several days in a row.

3. Equipment (type and size of ball)

The softball used in the high school and college version of the fastpitch game (as well as the Olympics) is a regulation 12 inches in circumference, or about 30% larger in that dimension than the official ball used in major league baseball. As well, it is heavier than the MLB ball. However, one should not assume, on account of the name, that the official softball is, in any sense, soft. It is not. Rather, it has the same general feel (other than the size and weight) and hardness of a MLB baseball.

The larger size and greater weight of the softball results in greater air resistance and slower velocities generally. Even so, the softball game is, if anything, quicker paced than a baseball game due to the fact that the playing field, in all dimensions, is smaller.

4. Player re-entry

In most versions of softball (in particular, U.S. schools and colleges as well as the Olympics), when a player is removed from the game for a substitute or a pinch hitter, he/she is permitted to re-enter the game again at a later moment. In contrast, in major league baseball, such a player who has been substituted or pinch hit for, is no longer allowed to return to the game.

The re-entry capability applies not just to batters and fielders, but also to pitchers. Thus, in softball, a pitcher who is "pulled" for a reliever could re-enter the game, as a pitcher, at a later point in time.

This has a profound effect on managerial decision making since the manager, at least insofar as the first time a particular player is substituted, need no longer weigh in the balance the trade-off between the advantage gained by the contemplated substitution with the negative effects of permanent removal from the game of the player substituted for.

Origin and history

In contrast to baseball, the origins of the game of softball are known with relative precision, both as to the date, time, place, and person. It was in Chicago in 1887 (Thanksgiving Day, to be exact) that a group of young men, beginning with some good-natured horse play, evolved a structured game patterned after the rules of baseball, but designed for indoor play. In fact, the game was originally called indoor baseball.