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WHARTON

Common Ground in Battle of Sexes

July 24, 1999|DAVID WHARTON

The center fielder crept in, taking a few steps toward the infield, then a few steps more, when Jenn Street came to bat in the fifth inning.

That's what happens when men and women play softball--the men assume the women can't hit.

"When they do that, I know I can smack it over their heads," Street said. "No problem."

Just another Friday night for the tall, lithe woman and her teammates on the Top Ten softball team, which plays in one of numerous co-recreational leagues in the San Fernando Valley.

Co-recreational softball--in which teams must field five men and five women--has seen an increase in popularity over the last decade. There are 20 such leagues of all levels in the Valley this summer. That amounts to about 100 teams and more than 1,000 players.

"Ten years ago, co-recreational was 9% of our leagues," said Ron Dugar, a municipal sports administrator. "Now it's 25% and it continues to grow."

The games look and sound pretty much like any city league game. Players laugh and cheer. They kick the dirt in disgust. They argue over close calls.

But there are subtle differences, such as male outfielders playing shallow against female hitters. Or a rule that requires an alternating male-female batting order.

Perhaps the biggest difference, players say, is that co-recreational softball offers a good dose of competition with less of the attendant stress.

Just listen to the men who play for Top Ten. They believe having women on the field keeps the game in perspective.

"It's a little more relaxed," Frank Sampo said. "A little more laid-back."

The women say the same thing, but from the opposite perspective.

"I really prefer coed ball," said Marcia Martinez, who used to be in a women's league and has played off and on with Top Ten. "My experience has been, there is a lot less bickering."

Top Ten formed sometime in the mid-1970s--no one can recall exactly--when bowling league partners Sampo, his sister Jeanne Williams and Dave Reizman decided to try another sport. The lineup has changed some over the years, but most of the players have come for similar reasons: They were looking for a change after playing on exclusively male or female teams.

"We're out to have a good time," Reizman said.

This atmosphere might result from a blending of the different ways men and women approach athletics, said Jack Foley, a professor of leisure studies and recreation at Cal State Northridge.

"Men play it hard and silent," Foley said. "Women tend to be freer with their emotions."

The professor has witnessed this dynamic while watching the men's baseball and women's softball teams at Northridge. The men are relatively reserved in their dugout chatter, he said. The women are downright boisterous.

"Literally, they'll be chanting," Foley said. "It's like they're running a cheering section."

Foley believes men are more strictly focused on individual performance while women put more of their energy into teamwork. Combining these approaches creates a well-rounded atmosphere.

"It's more appropriate for a recreational league," he said. "You still have great competition, but I think it's more cooperative."

Or, as Reizman puts it: "Some players are more serious than others. Mostly, we try to pump each other up."

That's why, as manager, Reizman has insisted the players go out for pizza and beer after almost every game for the last two decades.

"Except for one time," Reizman said. "We all drove out to the beach to go grunion hunting."

The social aspects of the game are unavoidable with a lineup that has always included plenty of relatives, friends and co-workers. Reizman's first wife was on the squad until they separated, then her new boyfriend played for Top Ten.

Meanwhile, first baseman Joe Sweeney joined in 1979 for a slightly different reason.

"There are lots of single women in this thing," Sweeney said. "That was the main reason in the beginning, when I was young. Now that I'm divorced, it's even better."

And the team has hung together long enough to welcome a second generation. Reizman's 14-year-old daughter plans to play next season, joining Sampo's 17-year-old daughter, Jamie, who already starts at second base.

"I promised myself I would stick around until we could be on the same field together," the elder Sampo said.

But the players say it is competition that keeps them coming back.

Their game on a not-too-distant Friday night was spirited and hard-played. The men tended to hit the ball farther and run faster, but plenty of stereotypes fell by the wayside.

For every woman who dropped a lazy fly or put the wrong foot forward when she threw the ball, there was a man who went down swinging or stumbled coming around third and got tagged out.

For every man who hit a home run, there was a woman who could spray line drives to all fields.

A woman such as Street. When the center fielder crept in on her with the bases loaded and two out in the fifth inning, she made him pay.

"When I saw him all tucked in, I said, 'Oh, OK,' " she recalled. "There's no problem with chauvinism."

She hit a double over his head.

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