Review Fix chats with “Women’s College Softball Is on the Rise” author Mark Allister, who lets us know what makes the book- and sport, special.
About the Author:
Mark Allister teaches literature and writing at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.
About Women’s College Softball Is on the Rise:
Sidestepping the inflated egos and scandal that have infiltrated many men’s sports, college female softball players exhibit power and grace on the field as well as camaraderie, high achievement and vulnerability off the field. This balance not only makes the game compelling to watch, but it also elevates women’s softball as an aspirational model for other sports. Focusing on the 2018 season, this book explores gender performance and sexuality in softball, how the influx of money from the sport’s growth has reshaped expectations of success, and traditional media coverage of women’s sports.
Review Fix: What inspired this book?
Mark Allister: I grew up an athlete in Southern California playing sports year round, and I followed my local university and pro teams then and after college. Over the past two decades, I’ve become disillusioned by much of what’s transpiring in men’s sports: the academic scandals, the egotistic displays, the drug problems, the sexual assaults. Sport does not necessarily build character — witness the lack of it in so many of our athletes, coaches, and owners — but my belief remains that sport can be transformative because I now follow women’s sports. I see what the female athletes can do on the field. I’ve learned about their tremendous successes off the field: as students, as community members, and leaders in their professional lives. Over time I realized that I wanted to write a book that extolled the excellence of female athletes and women’s sports. My two favorite sports now are women’s volleyball and softball, and I decided to write a book about softball.
Review Fix: What was the writing and editing experience like for you?
Allister: I have written academic books before, where you make an argument and look for evidence to substantiate your claims. I knew that I didn’t want to write another such book. My last two (a memoir and a book about an indie rock band) had stories at their heart. I wanted to write a sports book with a narrative arc that I could then hang all my cultural and historical discussions onto, so I decided to cover one season (February to early June, 2018). Those four and a half months were intense, as I was writing a chapter every week or two, and then revising previous chapters as various events that transpired during the season made some things matter more than others.
The editing was likewise fast, as I knew that I wanted the book to be in print quickly. I worked pretty much every day for eight months. The year before (2017) I did considerable research and wrote small sections that I could then insert into the narrative — for example, before the 2018 season I had done my research on Title IX history and gender matters related to it, so I could focus on how the season was unfolding and not have to research.
Review Fix: What makes it different from other sports books?
Allister: There are tens of thousands of baseball books, and many more tens of thousands about other men’s sports. There are far fewer books about female athletes, and softball has had nothing quite like my book. There are “how-to” books for coaches and young players. There are a handful of inspirational biographies, and one history of the game back when women’s softball was played by city teams that toured.
I call this book my “professorial” book, and I do expect readers to learn about Title IX, media and sports, performance of gender, and so forth, in a way that doesn’t usually happen in a book with a narrative.
Review Fix: Did you learn anything you weren’t expecting?
Allister: I learned a great amount in the year or two before I began writing, when I was digging into various gender and sports issues, learning about the history of Title IX, getting to know some of the amazing coaches in the sport, and so forth. What I learned during the writing was that my hunches about the sport and about female athletes were pretty much correct.
Review Fix: What makes Women’s Softball so special to you?
Allister: It’s an amazing game. I’m bored now by baseball, because baseball is so slow, both in how long the games take but also because of what happens on the field. In women’s softball you have tremendous athletes playing on a Little League-sized field, and the speed of the game is hard to realize unless you go and watch. Here’s my favorite statistic to try to explain the speed of the game: to get a fast lefty hitter out in softball, you have to get the ball to the first-baseman in 2.6 seconds or so; the fastest run down to first base in Major League Baseball in 2015 was timed in 3.52 seconds, a drag bunt by Billy Hamilton, speedster for the Reds. To understand that in a different way, Hamilton would have been thrown out by 25 feet!
Review Fix: What would you say to those who don’t take the sport seriously?
Allister: 1. They’re missing out. 2. I’m guessing that they’ve never seen a college game live.
Review Fix: Who do you think will enjoy this book the most?
Allister: I’d like to think that the book appeals widely. I’ve had feminist friends of mine who know little about sports say that they loved the stories of players and coaches and were thrilled with my discussion of the superb athletes and what they were accomplishing; I’ve had sports friends say that they learned so much about historical and cultural matters around sports and gender.
Review Fix: What are your goals for this book?
Allister: That’s actually a difficult question. My main goal was to write it, just for myself. I’m hoping that I can give pleasure to those who involved in women’s sports who see themselves validated in these pages. I’d love to think that some people who don’t follow women’s sports or softball in particular might get interested.
Review Fix: What’s next for you?
Allister: I’m covering DIII softball for FloSoftball this year (I’m on sabbatical from my teaching job at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota). DIII has gotten far less coverage, of course, than DI, just as women’s sports get far less coverage than men’s sports. I can’t imagine writing another book at this point, but I did say that back in 2014 when my previous one was published.