Great Britain wins 10th European Slowpitch Championship
By Bob Fromer
To no one’s great surprise, Great Britain won its 10th straight European Slowpitch Championship in Dupnitsa, Bulgaria in a rain-affected tournament played from July 28 through August 1.
GB’s title came on the basis of 10 straight round-robin mercy rule wins, without having to go through playoffs. After heavy rain on Friday cancelled five of the eight games remaining to be played in the tournament’s double round-robin, Chief Technical Commissioner Mike Jennings and Umpire-in-Chief James O’Farrell decided that these round-robin games would be played out on Saturday, playoff games would be cancelled, and most of the medals and placings would be decided on the round-robin results.
The one exception was a playoff game that took place on Saturday afternoon to determine third and fourth place.
That decision, made on Friday evening, meant that the GB Slowpitch Team had won the tournament, because even in the unlikely event that Great Britain lost their two remaining round-robin games on Saturday, no one would be able to catch them in the standings.
In the event, GB didn’t come close to losing either of those games on Saturday, beating Ireland 25-10 in six innings and Lithuania 22-0 in five innings to finish the tournament with a perfect 10-0 record.
Czech Republic, Ireland and Germany had quite close results, but Czechs came out as the best team from the counts and took silver.
The third place playoff game was won by Ireland, which beat Germany by a score of 12-7. So the final tournament standings, with round-robin results in brackets, were:
1. Great Britain (10-0)
2. Czech Republic (6-4)
3. Ireland (5-5)
4. Germany (5-5)
5. Bulgaria (4-6)
6. Lithuania (0-10)
The Czech Republic, Ireland, Germany and to a degree Bulgaria were fairly evenly matched during the tournament and enjoyed some close and exciting games with each other, while Lithuania, in their first-ever European Slowpitch Championship, spent the week learning some painful lessons. But the GB Slowpitch Team was simply in a different league.
Over the 10 round-robin games they played, GB scored 227 runs and conceded 40, for an average game score of almost 23-4. In the batting stats for players with more than 10 at-bats, the top six players were all British men, but there was also a British woman player, outfielder Areej Elmaazi, at number 10.
GB’s Dan Spinks led all tournament pitchers in ERA while Britain’s Steve Hazard led in batting average, hits, home runs, RBIs and total bases.
As a team, Great Britain led the tournament in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, runs scored, hits, RBIs, triples, home runs, total bases, walks, earned run average and fielding percentage.
Over the 10 European Slowpitch Championships that have been played since the tournament was first staged in 1998 in London, GB has sometimes had to struggle to win the event and at other times has cruised to the title, but their dominance has never been quite as complete as it was this year in Dupnitsa.
Explaining the gap
More than anything else, this dominance reflects the depth of talent in the GB Slowpitch National Team programme, a result of the fact that 95% of the softball played in the UK is co-ed slowpitch, while fastpitch struggles to maintain a foothold.
GB National Slowpitch Team players play in high-level slowpitch tournaments nearly every weekend from mid-May through mid-September, honing their skills against challenging opposition. It’s a bit like the kind of experience that Dutch and Italian women fastpitch players get in their country’s highest leagues.
Great Britain brought 18 players to Dupnitsa, nine men and nine women, and only one of those 18 players, all of whom made significant contributions, had a batting average under .300.
Unfortunately, some of the countries that might have provided more of a challenge to Great Britain did not compete this year, and the absence of Slovenia, who have been runners-up in the last two European Slowpitch Championships, was particularly keenly felt.
The fact that the Slowpitch Championships started only three days after the European Women’s Fastpitch Championships ended in the Netherlands was probably at least partly responsible for Slovenia and perhaps other countries such as Austria not competing in Dupnitsa.
Slowpitch is a different animal, with its own mind-set and skills, and even if you put top fastpitch players and baseball players together to make up a co-ed slowpitch team, as the Slovenians, Czechs, Austrians and Belgians have all done on occasion in the past, it doesn’t necessarily add up to a successful slowpitch team – or at least not one that can match Great Britain.
The key element that gives the GB Team its superiority is probably the ability of its female players to hit for a high average. In co-ed slowpitch, if women can hit, then rallies can be sustained and runs can be scored in bunches. If women are largely making outs, then it’s hard to score more than one or two runs at a time. Despite the eye-catching home run totals of British players like Steve Hazard, who hit 13 round-trippers in Dupnitsa, or Brett Gibbens before him, the ability and experience of Great Britain’s women is usually the key to their success.
GB looking ahead
The mind-set of many countries who take part in the European Slowpitch Championships is probably: “Ok, GB is going to win, but let’s fight for second place, and we’ll have some great games and a lot of fun along the way.”
Of course, GB dominance is not nearly so marked in what is now the European Slowpitch Super Cup, which has been won in recent years by club teams from Ireland, Slovenia and Germany.
But for national slowpitch teams from the European continent to pose a genuine challenge to Great Britain at the European Championships, those national federations that include slowpitch may need to take the discipline more seriously, rather than seeing it simply as an outlet for aging fastpitch or baseball players.
Slowpitch can bring more people to softball, and when played at a high level, the format has a lot to offer as a competitive sport.
Ten straight European Championship titles is a great thing for British softball, but what the GB National Slowpitch Team would really like to see at the 11th European Championships is more of a challenge!