The word denotes crime, but in softball, it’s really more of an art.
Like most anything, there’s no one way to do it. But when done well, it can add a pivotal fourth dimension to a team’s core tenets of hitting, pitching and defense.
And like a good artist, a successful base stealer has honed her craft over many years.
“I learned it a long time ago and have been working on it ever since,” Glendale Deer Valley senior Lizzy Cartwright said. “I take a lot of pride in it.”
Once a speedster like Cartwright – Deer Valley’s leadoff hitter and top stolen-base threat – gets on and decides she wants to go, the simple process of stealing becomes complicated by a multitude of factors.
The pitcher’s windup, the catcher’s arm strength, the batter at the plate – all are things a runner must keep in mind as she prepares to take off.
Footwork also becomes an issue. Some runners like to start as close to the next base as possible, beginning with their back foot planted on the current bag and their front foot extended forward.
Others keep their front foot on or adjacent to the front of the base with their back foot in foul territory (when on first base) until the pitch, then rocking forward to gather momentum before the pitcher releases the ball.
Some teams lay down specific guidelines, but for the most part, players are free to position themselves as they see fit.
“I like for the girls to be comfortable,” Phoenix Sandra Day O’Connor coach Melissa Hobson said. “What I’m looking for is, are they getting a good jump off the pitcher’s motion? If they can get a good jump, I don’t care if the foot’s on the bag, if it’s beside the bag. … Those are tiny things that I don’t feel make a huge difference as far as their timing.”
Timing is especially crucial with players not allowed to lead off before the pitch, as in baseball.
Of course, unlike in baseball, softball players also don’t have to worry about being picked off. However, leave the base too quickly (i.e., before the pitcher releases the ball toward the plate) and the penalty is the same: an out.
That doesn’t prevent most runners from straddling the line and testing an umpire once in awhile.
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“I think if you don’t get called out for leaving early sometimes, you’re not leaving early enough,” Deer Valley senior Kaylie Morgan said, putting a twist on a familiar sports aphorism.
“If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’, right?” Mesa Red Mountain coach Rich Hamilton said. “We’ve all heard that before. But we don’t try to push that envelope too much, because I don’t want to give away outs, either. We want to be as close as we can, but we want to be on time.”
One player who has nearly perfected that balancing act is Sandra Day O’Connor senior outfielder Justyce McClain, who is among the state’s leaders with 18 steals in 25 games.
There’s no doubt that McClain has influenced an outcome or two with her speed, helping Sandra Day O’Connor bolt to a 22-5 record through Wednesday.
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“It really does make an impact,” McClain said. “It makes me more confident, too, knowing I can do that to help my team.”
Many times, the reward for a successful steal attempt is nothing more than a dirty uniform and a shortage of breath.
But it can also be the turning point in a game, having more impact than any pitch, hit or play in the field.
So, though the term suggests otherwise, players know better: A stolen base really isn’t stolen.