What it’s like to play slow pitch softball against a bunch of Division I athletes

Zoë Petersen, Deseret News
Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

“Life is never more fun than when you’re the underdog competing against the giants,” former presidential candidate Ross Perot once quipped.

No disrespect to Mr. Perot, but in my experience that statement holds the same amount of truth as the number of states he won across two elections: zero.

Underdog stories are fantastic. Who doesn’t love hearing about patriots defeating red coats, Ewoks annihilating imperial stormtroopers or guys under six feet getting girlfriends? Such tales are good for the soul.

We all admire underdogs because we rarely choose to remember the times when what should happen to them does happen. What about those lovable longshots who get mauled, manhandled and embarrassed? Well, I’ve been there.

Just a few weeks ago, my BYU intramural slow pitch softball team faced off against a squad of literal giants — Cougar football players, to be exact. As we lined up before our gargantuan opponents for the pregame meeting, I remember thinking, “Hey, it’s softball. Anything can happen. We can win this.”

Boy, how dumb am I?

The umpires asked if there were any questions before we began. One of the football starters raised his hand. “What’s the mercy rule?” he asked with a sly smile, drawing loud snickers from his teammates.

I wish I could share the inspiring story of how this comment motivated my team to band together, play harder than ever before and overcome the odds to stun them in dramatic fashion. I really do. But alas, my life is no Disney movie, and I didn’t get into journalism just to start bending the truth.

In a series of events that should surprise absolutely no one, these football players thrashed, smashed and bashed us like it was a demolition derby, stomping our spirits, snatching our souls and hurling us into the loss column. If we were the foe, they flat out vanquished us in true BYU fashion.

The whole ordeal felt zany like a Looney Tunes cartoon. Against their Goliath, we were much more Daffy than David.

I love softball. I’ve played baseball my whole life and try to get on as many slow pitch teams as possible each spring and summer.

While I’m no athlete (with the shape I’m in, you could donate my body to science fiction), I like to think I’m a pretty decent player, as the game has never seemed to discriminate against dad bods or the skillfully challenged. Softball’s built-in quirks and entropy should help equalize the playing field, right?

Maybe for humans like you and me, but these football players are a whole different species. They were softball aliens. The sound of the ball leaving their bats was like a rowdy, howling laugh. Their defensive range in the field spanned for miles. Their speed on the base paths was straight up silly.

Center Connor Pay played the role of hulking, left-handed slugging first baseman akin to Adam Dunn or Chris Davis, softly flicking his bat to launch pitches several football fields away.

Quarterback Jake Retzlaff effortlessly gobbled up ground balls at shortstop and showed his dual-threat capabilities in dashing around the bases as an inside-the-park home run machine.

Defenders Micah Harper and Isaiah Glasker roamed the outfield with backup QB Cade Fennegan, robbing us of extra-base hits along with our dignity.

I play first base (because I’m slow), where I always enjoy chatting up base runners throughout the game. The football players, however, were never on first base, always sprinting for second on what would normally be a single for anyone else. Perhaps this was their attempt to avoid me, thinking I might try to interview them on the base path. Classic sportswriter problems.

Aside from the aforementioned gridiron warriors, their roster was filled with a few token ringers and a gray-haired religion professor to handle pitching duties.

Forget about D-I athletes — if you know anything about slow pitch softball, you’re aware that having a guy on the mound old enough to have played in the 1970s is the advantage of all advantages. Older pitchers are insane. It’s essentially the equivalent to having a Dodge Ram for a running back: unstoppable.

He put a nasty, sizzling spin on every pitch, befuddling us all game long at the plate after we’d scored 17 runs in our previous outing.

Even when we thought we’d found good fortune, such hope was always killed off quickly.

Late in the game, one of my teammates smacked a base hit to left field, leading our lone baserunner to believe he could score from second base. He was probably six feet away from home plate when the relay throw made it to shortstop, where Retzlaff quickly fired a perfect laser to the catcher to tag our stunned runner with steps to spare. It was a jaw-dropping defensive effort, one never before seen in our intramural realm.

“How on earth did he make that throw?” someone loudly asked.

“Dude, he’s literally on scholarship here for throwing,” another answered.

We ended up losing 15-5, proving the pregame “mercy rule” comment prophetic. I still think only giving up 15 runs is a miracle, as I’ve heard rumors that some of their more recent final scores have had a few more touchdowns added on.

Still, all of the guys we played against were incredibly cool and friendly to us, avoiding any sort of postgame smack talk and laughing when I jokingly claimed we’d beat them in a rematch.

“I hope today was an indication of how BYU football will play this fall,” one of my teammates said as we left the field.

Personally, if I somehow got to vote for preseason All-Big 12 football awards this year, that game would definitely factor into my decision-making. There’s no way such softball dominance can’t translate to the football field, right?

At our latest game, one of the umpires informed me that our squad is the only one to have kept the score so close against the football players. I told him we’d lost by 10 runs; he had to have been mistaken. He wasn’t. Apparently they’ve kept adding more Cougar stars to the roster, cutting through the league like a buzzsaw and heading straight for the championship.

Since I just graduated, this will be my last season of intramural sports at BYU. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a Hollywood ending in store where we topple the footballers in the playoffs, capture the title and I ride off into the sunset with a snazzy new intramural champion T-shirt.

I’m not betting on it, but hey, if it happens it’ll make for a WILD follow-up column here.

Legendary baseball writer Tim Kurkjian once said he learned more about Baltimore Orioles star shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. from playing pickup basketball with him than he ever did from watching him play baseball.

While I don’t think I gained any crazy specific knowledge from my softball battle with these football players, it was a jarring reminder of how physically gifted college athletes are. Like I said before, these guys were softball aliens. The gap between our abilities and their own is wider than you can even imagine.

Maybe the moral of the story here is to be less critical of college athletes when we think they’re underperforming on the field, as their worst is still so much better than our best. What they do is remarkably difficult, especially with juggling school, social lives and more. Their efforts should be lauded, not maligned.

Plus, they’re all real people with real feelings ... and a real certainty that they’d destroy you in softball.