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THE GREAT OUTDOORS: A GUIDE TO ORANGE COUNTY RECREATION
| ON THE BEACH

Over the Line Softball More Than Beach Party

May 28, 1999|ARA NAJARIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's been said the real competition begins when the gloves come off.

In that case, Over the Line is as competitive as it gets.

Often maligned as softball's stepchild, there is no doubt that OTL can be over the top for softball purists.

But take a closer look at the beach version and the sport will show you why it's a little tough and a little tease.

The tease:

* It looks like anyone can be good at it.

* Your own team pitches to you so you can hit the ball where you want.

* That softball is pretty big.

* The fielders don't have gloves.

Put all that on the beach with a few bikinis and beverages and you have one heck of a growth sport.

There is no governing body for OTL, so numbers are not easy to track, but the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club tournament--now going on its 46th year in San Diego--attracts more than 1,000 teams. Teams are sponsored and some tournaments offer prize money into the tens of thousands.

The OMBAC tournament, often noted for its odd (and often profane) team names, is the Holy Grail of OTL. For some, it's the Holy Grail of beach parties too.

Some past tournament programs look like fraternity-sorority beach party scrapbooks with large strip-club advertisements. One of the tournament highlights for many is a beauty contest. Local newspaper editors often fret that they can't afford to not cover such a large event, but worry about what they will do if a team with a vulgar or profane name wins the tournament or becomes an essential element of the story.

On the surface, it seems as if OTL tournaments are fronts for huge parties.

"It's not [just a reason to party]" says Russ Johnson, a Bellflower resident who organizes about 40 tournaments a year--mostly on the beach. "It always has been a family thing. It's good clean fun.

"For one thing, most beaches don't allow alcohol and have restrictions on space and people."

Besides, if the party becomes the primary part of a tournament, then your team will surely bow out early.

The tough:

* That big softball is not so easy to hit with power in the beach sand.

* Sure, the other team's fielders don't have gloves, but neither do you.

* Ever try chasing a projectile three inches in diameter through beach sand?

No doubt, you have to get yourself in shape to play this game. The beach is the great equalizer and great softball players or baseball players lose their advantage quickly.

"For one thing, you have to use a golf swing," says Robert Fishburn of Huntington Beach, who plays regularly with his team Quality Power. "You start as a softball swing but you transition to a golf swing, and it's not an easy transition."

Fishburn knows a little something about that, having played minor league baseball in the Angels' system and having coached baseball. It was while playing softball that a friend suggested he play OTL.

He hasn't looked back.

While organized leagues of softball and baseball for all ages have the benefit of tradition and structure, OTL has the benefit of being, ironically enough, outside those lines.

"I found that not as much anger developed," Fishburn says of the positive atmosphere surrounding OTL. "I mean, I've played on softball teams where people decked the umpire. That's just a little out of hand."

For one thing, teams are smaller (usually three to six players), self-umpired in most cases and players often change teams from one tournament to the next. Then there's the relaxed and party-going atmosphere of beach OTL. It makes it hard to build up a good anger.

But it is worthwhile to build up a little muscle and a little endurance.

Running at the water's edge on the beach will not prepare you. Running in the deep sand will. Quick, strong feet are essential or you will sink as if you were playing water polo wearing ankle weights.

Tough leathery hands from playing hours of barehanded catch will help, but not as much as quick hands that give with the force of the ball.

It may seem obvious, but drink lots of water and use plenty of sun-screen products.

As tough as it sounds, teach yourself not to blink and flinch when that round thing comes screaming at you like in the Bugs Bunny cartoon.

"If you close your eyes, you have a chance of getting hurt. If you keep them on the ball, you'll know how to react," says Fishburn.

But for the most part injuries are fairly avoidable.

"Not only is the beach more fun and convenient to a lot of people," Johnson says, "but you really don't get hurt in sand because it gives."

That's an important facet of the game for older players. Johnson says his tournaments attract players from their teens to their 50s. But at 50, hitting the ground seems to make for a lot more impact on your body; the sand is more forgiving.

That's why, at 47, Fishburn isn't thinking about giving up the sport any time soon. Although he is not what you would call a recruiter, he admits to talking up OTL to help the sport grow. His Quality Power teammate Rob Evans of Pomona helps set up tournaments in the Southland.

Mostly it helps keep them in shape for the big tournament in San Diego. And if the party in San Diego goes one step over the line . . . well isn't that the point?

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