Interview with James O’Farrell

James O'Farrell

James O'Farrell

V pořadí čtvrtou osobností v seriálu rozhovorů je James O` Farrell – mezinárodní slowpitchový rozhodčí ESF. Rozhovor je v původním znění. Ti z vás, kdo si nechtějí vychutnat irskou angličtinu se samozřejmě už teď mohou těšit na překlad.

James O` Farrell
Lead Umpire Trainer in Ireland, Slowpitch UiC for ESF, runs SP umpiring Courses in Europe and a member of the TC
James has been an umpire in Ireland since 1995. He qualified for ESF umpiring in 2004 and achieved his “A” license in 2010. He also has the Canadian level 4 umpiring qualification.
James has also trained in Circus school, and can make balloon animals, juggle and has been known to sing a song or two but he never dances. James is married, with two sons (Jamie and Vincent).

If I am correct, there is no sign of playing fastpitch in Ireland. Do you know why?

Softball in Ireland started back in the mid 1980’s and was a mix of irish people and ex-pat americans who were working and living in Dublin. It started off as slow pitch and despite there being moves to try a put together fast pitch teams over the years it has never really taken hold. One of the biggest barriers in recent years I would say would be costs versus other sports. In order to set up a softball team, either fast pitch or slow pitch there is the costs of bases, balls, bats and other equipment. Fast pitch has an increased cost due to the necessity of the safety equipment on top of that, helmets and body protection for catchers for example. In Ireland we compete against a number of other sports for members and recently our biggest competitor in the co-ed area has been tag rugby. This sport requires far less costs for equipment, uniforms and other materials as well as far less space. It also has great support from sponsors and a very strong national and international governing body.

If I take the map of Europe into account, it becomes clear that the preferences of slowpitch/fastpitch could be divided by the English Channel. The continent prefers fastpitch, and beyond the Channel there is the slowpitch preference. Isn’t that a shame that the island teams have so little of equal competitors?

Happily this is less and less the case. The UK has a strong fast pitch component but it’s true that they have dominated the European slow pitch circuit pretty much since the ESF started hosting competitions. This domination is fading rapidly as more and more mainland countries see the possibilities of slow pitch softball. Ireland has also been a top three finisher over the last decade but in the most recent ESF tournament, hosted in Pardubice, we saw the Slovenians step up to the challenge and in a fantastic final they beat the Chromies team from the UK. Also the German team came with a new approach to slow pitch softball and their scouting of their opponents meant that they, of all of the teams, were the best prepared to play and with a few more years of experience I am sure they will also be challengers for the top spots. In the early years it was generally accepted that when we get down to the page playoffs it would be GB in the number 1 spot and either the Czech or Irish team in 2nd and 3rd and then it would be Austria or Slovenia in the 4th spot. Nowadays that is clearly not the case and any country that is willing to invest in three or four years of truly competitive play can put on a serious challenge to win.

What is the difference between the island and continental slowpitch?

One of the easiest differences to see between the UK and Ireland versus the continental teams was attitude. As many of the mainland eurpoeans came at slow pitch softball in the adversarial manner associated with baseball and fast pitch. Slow pitch softball, while competitive on the field, is far more recreational off the field. Also, slow pitch softball in the UK and Ireland has more secondary action play compared to Europe. By this I mean that runners will squeeze and push for the infielders to throw a little more than in fast pitch and it would be common to see play in the infield stop when the short stop has the ball in fast pitch. Not so in slow pitch and this is a challenge to the fast pitch players switching to slow pitch, as well as the umpires. Happily this is changing as the Europeans adapt to slow pitch and this is a great thing to see. I have been going to ESF slow pitch competitions for more than 10 years and in all that time I have seen only 1 ejection, that cannot be said for fast pitch 

How are the competitons played in Ireland?

Here in Ireland there are a few different levels of competition so it would be hard to describe. There are a series of National competitions and these take on the form of Blitzes. Generally 1-2 days of softball squeezed into as tight a format as possible. Games would be timed and take no more than an hour. Of these blitzes some are competitive in nature and some are recreational. In the recreational side of the competitions it is not uncommon for teams to wear fancy dress or themed outfits and over the years I have seen super-heroes, pirates, playboy bunnies, cow boys, soldiers and sailors. One recreational tournament is done for charity and breast cancer awareness and for this everyone is in pink, even the umpires! These recreational tournaments have proved to be so popular we have teams travelling from around the world to take part.
The competitive competitions are very much that, competitive. The Brian Walshe Cup and the Softball Ireland National Club champioships see the best there is in irish Softball.
All of that pales in comparison to the leagues. For 17-20 weeks our teams play in competive leagues and there are 3 league levels in Dublin, with the premier league producing the top tier of Irish softball.

In our slowpitch league most of the players have been recruited from the fastpitch. We even have some baseball players. How do the Irish players start with the slowpitch?

One primary way is word of mouth. Friends invite friends to join them and play. We also host business tournaments where we approach comapny social clubs to put together teams for 5-7 weeks. For the first 2 weeks each team goes through basic training from teams of volunteer coaches and then for the remaining weeks the teams compete for the league title. This promotes awareness of the sport, raises some funds and generally results in a new team joining the local leagues the following year as well as a few players from the rest of the people that attend.
Our regional councils also promote the sport within their regions and also we have our intervarsity competitions. These are teams from all of the colleges in ireland and they play in the winter months. The college players generally fall in love with the sport and join summer leagues.

In Czech there is almost no practice of slowpitch. What is it like in Ireland?

That’s a very difficult question to answer as it depends on the level of play. The lower divisions generally play for social reasons and as such there is little or no real training or practice and when there is it is a bit hap hazzard. As you go up in the experience and ability levels of the teams and players then coaching and training improves. Softball Ireland is now trying to train up new coaches to improve the standards of play and training.
When it comes to the numbers of people playing then that has been in decline but has levelled off in recent years. In the early 1990’s there were more than 80 teams playing in Ireland, sadly now there are around 40 teams, with most of these concentrated in Dublin, our capital city. We do have an almost national foot print though and work is ongoing to grow that. This year, in all of Ireland I think we have around 500+ players.

Because of a small height of batting cages constructed for fastpitch, and therefore useless for slowpitch, we have to practise hitting directly in the pitch, which I think is not very effective. Is there any particular tip how to practise hitting effectively?

It is true that there are very few cages capable of allowing slow pitch hitting practice. There are a number of ways to overcome this and also a number of pieces of equipment. Any coach or serious hitter of a ball will tell you that you have to hit as often as you can. If you have a team of players at a training session it’s impossible to let everyone hit more than 10-20 times in a session. To overcome this you can use hitting sticks, or get players to break into pairs and do soft toss hitting into fences or nets. I have seen up to 6 pairs of these soft toss hitting drills being done into the sides of a fast pitch batting cage at tournaments. The ESF has a development officer who can organise trainers to visit federations or clubs to spend time teaching the drills, rules and strategy of slow pitch softball.
You can also use the soft incredibal and train indoors. This means that you only need to use the space of a basketball court and we have a growing fan club of indoor softball players and teams in the UK and Ireland. As it’s indoors we don’t have to wait for the rain to stop before we can play.

As an umpire you watch European slowpitch games. Is it me, or is it true that within last years the gap between England, Ireland and rest of the Europe has been getting smaller?

Smaller is not a good enough word to describe how the sport has developed. Like I said before it used to be GB, then Czech Republic or Ireland, then a big distance between them and the next country. That used to be Austria and then Slovenia (I don’t count Jersey or Guernsey in these as I feel they would be more under the GB heading than stand alone federations). The gap now is so miniscule as to not be noticeable to many. While I don’t doubt the ability for the GB teams to maintain a tight grip to the top of the table for a year or two more I also think that they, as well as Ireland and the Czech republic, will be able to look at any game on their competition schedule as being an easy win. The Austrians were among the first to embrace slow pitch, followed by Slovenia and now Germany and Belgium. As more and more fast pitch players reach the end of their fast pitch careers they now have an opportunity to extend their playing life by coming over to slow pitch. With them comes a drive and passion for the sport that overcomes the years of practice that the other, more dominant teams, have had.

There are probably not many things that would surprise you in the pitch. But still, have you seen lately any new fake, tactics, simply anything tricky?

I have been umpiring for 15+ years and much of that has been here in Ireland. I have also had the great opportunity to travel with softball and have umpired in Holland, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Italy, Bulgaria (Who are also a growing force in slow pitch and I cannot believe it’s taken until now to mention them!), England, Canada and the USA. With all those games under my belt you would think that I had seen every possibility but not even close. I subscribe to a number of umpire discussion groups and almost every day we hear about something new. If you are asking for hints or tips on how to be tricky on the field then, as an Umpire, I couldn’t possibly give you any ideas and most certainly not in writing, but next year when I am back in Pardubice I might be convinced to tell a tale or two at the end of the tournament 😉 . One area of weakness I have seen with the mainland teams, when it comes to slow pitch softball, is the base coaching and the strategy associated. In a couple of games this year in Pardubice I saw coaches make decisions that, if made differently, could have changed the outcome of the game. Use your coaches more to apply strategy and tactics, and make sure that they know the role and are not there simply to advise runner when to run, slide or stay.

What types of pitch is it played on in Ireland and England?

In Ireland there is currently only 1 dedicated softball field. It was only started this year and has a long way to go before it could be considered a proper softball field. In all other circumstances we either play in open park land or soccer / rugby pitches. In the UK they have more resources and have some fields already built and I know that this year they started work on their first, dedicated multi diamond project. No doubt they will look to hosting a competition once completed.

In summer you were an Umpire in Chief at ECCS in Pardubice. How did you like the town of „half horse“ and how did you like the tournament?

Looking at things from a purely umpire perspective I though the welcome, facilities and support provided for the umpire crew was better than most. Unfortunately as UIC I was there for the first game to the last game each day and so I was afforded very little freedom to experience the town as much as I would have liked. The umpires did escape a couple of times and went into town and we felt very welcome and comfortable. I must admit I did make the mistake of ordering a large pizza in one of the restaurants and couldn’t finish the wagon wheel sized pizza that was presented to me. The other umpires, who had a better opportunity to tour, were very positive about the welcome they received and with what they saw. I also felt that providing the travel tags for all of the visitors was an outstanding aheivement and a very good idea.

Now something about tactics. Czech hitters ususally believe that pitch is slow to make sure it gets hit. They take BB as that the hitter is being a coward. How to take the start at bat?

I am not sure I understand what you mean but I think you mean that the ball is pitched slowly so a good batter should just hit it. If that’s the case then you are right. Slow pitch softball is not the same as baseball or fast pitch. It’s not a battle between the pitcher and the batter, it’s a battle between the batter and the field. There is not a lot that can be done on a slow pitch (But the pitchers are getting better and better at clipping the corners of the stike zone and putting the batter under pressure) and so taking a walk rather than hitting the ball and running can be seen as the weaker option. Many coaches will say that slow pitch softball is a hitting game and that’s true. Hit the ball where the fielders aren’t and go for it! But…….sometimes it’s worth waiting for the walk just to pressure the pitcher.

There were some times when I pitched against island teams. If the hitter shots directly at me, he came to apologize after the match, which I found surprising. Some teams on the other hand prefer shooting at the pitcher. What it is like in mature slowpitche with the role of shoting at the pitcher?

Shooting the middle is considered bad form in Ireland and the UK. When I was in Canada last year if a batter shot the middle (At the pitcher) then it would be expected for a batter on the other team to do the same and then the benches would clear. Like I said in my previous response, hit the ball where the fielders aren’t. Hitting at the pitcher is dangerous for the pitcher but also for the batter as the infield is a small space and keeping the ball in there is likely going to result in an out anyway. It’s also a respect issue and part of the camaraderie of slow pitch softball. No one wants to hurt anyone and every one wants to win but win or lose everyone wants to be social afterwards.

Do you have any personal vision in what direction should the european slowpitch go?

Most definitely. I am very happy at the growth in interest and awareness of co-ed slow pitch softball. Softball can be played from aged 4-5 (Bee-Ball from the Netherlands is a great new development for the growth of the sport) all the way into the 50’s, 60’s and older. As an inclusive, recreational, competitive, interactive and interesting sport I feel it has great appeal to more people than baseball or fast pitch and it can be played by more people. Recent executives in the ESF have been far more pro-active in developing slow pitch softball and this is seen at the Federation level with places like Bulgaria, Turkey, Germany and Belgium all looking to get involved and developing their programmes. In Europe I would like to see developments in Umpiring, with the ESF giving a career path for umpires to grow through local, national and on to international development. Currently the ESF get involved only when the umpires get to the international level of readyness. This is also true for players. This year I travelled to Bulgaria and Austria as a coach to teach / convert fast pitch and baseball players to slow pitch and this should happen more and more. Federations need to know that these resources are available through the ESF and should take advantage of them.

So, what is the difference between slowpitch and fastpitch?

One of the biggest differences is the blood alcohol level of players after a tournament. Also, as slow pitch is co-ed it’s far more likely for romance to blossom on and off the field. I met my wife through softball, and in one year 5 couples from my team were married.
In seriousness fast pitch softball, in a similar style to baseball, ice hockey, american football and basketball is more about short term gratification. Play is stopped and the pitcher pitches against the batter or the ball is snapped to the quarterback and within seconds play comes to a stop again. In slow pitch softball there can be a lot more action as the ball is hit more often and runners run more often. You only need to look at the average scores in games. It’s not uncommon for a softball game to have more than 40 runs scored between the two teams in only 7 innings. That generally doesn’t happen in fast pitch. More hits = more running = more action = more fun.
Bottom line is PLAY BALL!

Thank you for your interview.

You are more than welcome and I am looking forward to coming back next year.