Softball players lace-up to the next level

BY SEAN MORGAN | JULY 01, 2009 7:21 AM

Brittany Weil left the Iowa softball program as one of the greatest pitchers in school history. The All-American racked up 339 strikeouts and sported an ERA of only 1.10.

But that was college. Now she laces up for the Akron Racers of the National Pro Fastpitch League.
“At this level, everyone can hit the ball over the fence,” said Weil. “Even people on the bench can contribute. I’m looking to get more starts.”

Internationally known gold medalist and fellow pitcher Jennie Finch has seen the best the world has to offer and described the level of competition facing Weil in the league.

“It’s an all-star league,” said Finch, who was a highly decorated collegiate pitcher at Arizona. “Each country has its own style, but this is consistent. You can have a five-game series. You could pitch back-to-back-to-back.”

Weil is the newest Iowa alum on an league roster this summer, but she isn’t the only one. While she dominated the mound at Iowa, the top Hawkeye at this level is Stacy May, the leadoff hitter for the 2008 league champion Chicago Bandits and the league’s reigning Player of the Year.

A 2006 Iowa graduate, May batted .361 while hitting 13 home runs and finishing with a league-high 61 hits and .686 slugging percentage. May, who is a teammate of Finch in Chicago, agrees the league is the pinnacle of softball competition, and she understands the reality of playing for a struggling organization.

“The U.S. teams would beat [international teams] by 10 runs, killing the teams. We [the Chicago Bandits] are on par talent-wise with the Cubs,” May said. “But we aren’t able to outdraw the Schaumburg Flyers or the Kane County Cougars. Triple A, Double A, Single A — they all outdraw us.”

The league, in which each team plays 50 games a year, is suffering financially, forcing the six-team league to be cut to five when the New England Riptide went under. The lack of stability and the inability to sign long-term deals (save for big-name stars such as Finch) leads to many softball careers to be more part-time diversion and less lifelong commitment.

“It’s not a full-time career. We have people who’ve been around since the league started, but many only play for a year or so,” May said. “At some venues, you feel like a professional, but at some that don’t draw, you don’t.”

May wouldn’t comment on her salary but did say her 2009 contract would reflect her success in 2008.

The shaky future of the league may have found some support in a juggernaut. Major League Baseball has made the league an “Official Development Partner” in continuation of its efforts to connect with female athletes and fans.

As far as Weil’s softball future is concerned, a better understanding of pitcher-batter psychology will be key to her experiencing sustained success.

“I have to pay attention to batters,” she said. “I have to understand batters, their tendencies. I have to learn to pitch to them.”

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