Hard times for softball despite the national team's success in Europe
It will surprise many Danes to learn that their countrymen won the European title in 2010, a year after finishing eleventh in the world
In September, the Gladsaxe under-12s softball team won the National Championship. The 6-3 victory in the final against the Stenløse Bulls capped an undefeated season for head coach Kurt Vom Scheidt – the first in the history of the club at that level. But sadly, few Danes know about the achievement despite the fact that half the players on the team are Danish.
“Softball is an obscure sport here,” lamented Vom Scheidt. “It’s just not very popular.” Lars Nielsen, the president of Gladsaxe Softball Club, agrees. “It’s not the second or the third most popular sport in Denmark – not even the tenth,” he mused. “It’s unknown.”
Batting up since 1972
Softball is a relatively new sport compared to many. Up until 1952, it was only played in the US, but following the establishment of the International Softball Federation, the number of participating nations began to grow. Denmark became a member, and in 1972, the Danish Softball Federation (DSF) was established. In 1987, the DSF combined with the Danish Baseball Federation (DBaF) to create one entity, the Danish Softball and Baseball Federation (DSBF), which oversaw the procedures of all baseball and baseball-related sports clubs in Denmark.
Then, in 2008, under pressure from the European Baseball Federation (EBF) and the European Softball Federation (ESF) – both of which were vying for a place at the 2016 Olympics – the DSBF disbanded to reform the DSF and the DBaF in order to, according to the DSF, “better promote the sports individually”. Since then, softball clubs have fallen under the jurisdiction of the DSF. Recently, however, the leaders of the World Baseball and Softball Confederation (WBSC) discussed reunifying baseball and softball for inclusion in the IOC’s Olympic Programme Commission for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo – a games that according to IOC president Thomas Bach, speaking just last week, might still include the sports.
Among the best in Europe
Despite softball’s unpopularity in Denmark, the Danes are no strangers to competitive softball. The men’s national softball team have been competing internationally since 1985, and in 2010, they finally won the ESF Men’s Championship in Havlickuv Brod in the Czech Republic after finishing runners-up six times (1993, 1995, 1997, 2005, 2007 and 2008). In 2008, Denmark actually hosted the championship in Copenhagen, but lost to the Czech Republic in the final, only to turn the tables by defeating the Czechs on their own turf two years later.
In 2009, the Danish national team competed in the Softball World Championship against teams from the US, Canada, Colombia, New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. They unfortunately did not make it to the quarter-finals, though they did beat New Zealand – an event that Nielsen described as “quite an upset”.
Offers something different
In a country dedicated to football and handball, where games and rivalries are taken seriously and training regimens are tough regardless of the division, softball would appear to attract those who either don’t fit into the football mould or simply yearn for something different from their sport.
“We offer a sport that requires a completely different set of skills,” said Nielsen. “I think it’s a shame because I think that more athletic kids aren’t getting the chance to play softball, but that’s the situation in Denmark.”
Perhaps Denmark will never become a softball-loving country (much less if it won’t become a baseball-loving country), but the game’s unpopularity is as much a blessing as it is a curse upon its players. Although there is less competition in general, it is no less dedicated or enthusiastic.
“I think it’s good to do something different,” said Adriaan Bol, a team leader with the Gladsaxe U-12 team. “I think it’s good to not do exactly what 90 percent of Danish kids out there are doing. That’s already a healthy thing because it means that you get out of your normal group of friends.”
But the competition of football and handball, and tradition, concedes Bol, is against softball. “It is difficult for new clubs to get new people because people in Denmark tend to do what they’ve always done, and that’s play football and handball,” he said. “They’re not really into new things, and I think that’s the problem for softball and other small sports right now. They have problems getting enough people.”
Recruitment a problem
Nielsen contends that the name is partly to blame. “It doesn’t explain the sport,” he complains. “Most people think: ‘Softballs must be soft inside,’ but then you have to explain to them ‘no, no, it’s like a baseball.’ The name is almost like a burden. Playing-wise there’s more action in the infield than in baseball. There’s more things to do. You have to react faster in the infield because the field itself is two thirds the size of a regular baseball field. It requires quick thinking. It’s a strategic game.”
Vom Scheidt has no doubts that the game is appealing … once people give it a chance. “For me, it’s the perfect combination of a sport that gives you the chance for individual attention – a chance to shine on your own – and a chance to support a team,” he enthused. “You excel individually, but you contribute to the team. I’d encourage people to come out and give it a try.”
The Gladsaxe U-12, U-15, and U-19 teams are training every week this winter in preparation for the National Indoor Championships in March. Newcomers are welcome to come and try the sport out three times before committing to playing a season. Find out more at www.gsk-softball.dk.
Gladsaxe Softball and Baseball Club: A field of young dreams
Formed 25 years ago, the club has expanded from its original 15-member size to the 75 members it has today. Seven years ago, there were no junior division teams at Gladsaxe, only senior teams. Today, there are 40 junior members, 20 seniors, and 15 who play slow-pitch.
“In Denmark there are about eight to 12 softball clubs: one in Aarhus, three clubs on Funen, and the rest in Zealand around the Copenhagen area – Lyngby, Amager, Stensløse and Gladsaxe. But it varies depending on the year and not all the clubs h
ave three junior teams,” explained the club president, Lars Nielsen.
Gladsaxe has won the U-19 National Championship for the past two years. They won the under-15s in 2012, but lost it earlier this year. And now, for the first time since the club began its under-12s programme three years ago, they’ve taken home the national title.
That team included players from Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, England, Japan, the US and the Dominican Republic, and according to Nielsen, it is the most important age-group recruitment-wise.
“More clubs are now realising that they have to do more – especially for the U-12 age group,” said Nielsen. “That’s how you get senior players and coaches at some point. If you don’t bring up new kids, then you’ll run out of players someday.”
It is a problem the team’s management is acutely aware of. Adriaan Bol, a team leader for the Gladsaxe U-12 team, is uncertain whether the club will retain their U-12 title next year. “Every year you have a lot of people changing from U-12 to U-15,” he explained. “We had a lot of players who were 12 this year, so they were quite experienced, but they’ll be leaving after the indoor championship in March.”
Sebastian, Bol’s son and the team’s first baseman, is one of the players that will be moving up a level after the indoor championship. Mitch, coach Kurt Vom Scheidt’s son and the team’s pitcher, will also be leaving. Tiny, the team’s shortstop, whom Vom Scheidt described as the “best kid in the league”, is 11 – which is lucky for the current U-12 line-up. Team coach Kurt Vom Scheidt hopes the U-12 championship title might compel more kids to join the Gladsaxe club.
“Hopefully we’ll get more kids to join,” Vom Scheidt said. “That’s the real goal here. The great thing about softball is you don’t have to be a superstar – people with all athletic abilities can come out. You don’t have to be the best and fastest kid to play.”