For four years Allen Pitts, the captain of the Silver Bandits coed softball team, shouted directions to his second baseman about where she should position herself for certain batters and what to do when the ball was hit to her. Two years ago, he changed his tone and asked a question.
Would she like to go out one night? Now, Pitts' second baseman Joanie is his wife.
At a time when people are looking for new ways to meet people, the Pittses' experience is not an isolated incident. Slow-pitch softball, once the sport of aging, frustrated jocks, is rapidly becoming a game as social as going to a singles bar.
In fact, coed sports, and softball in particular, are the fastest growing activities in recreation departments throughout the area. Last year, 33 coed teams were part of the Fairfax Adult Softball Council's spring/summer program. This year, administrative director Dick Couture had to expand the coed leagues to 76 teams, and he turned down 10 other teams for lack of space.
"Coed softball is a game with a set of rules that equalize disparities in strengths between the sexes," said Couture. "And the social aspect is very important to its success."
The sport has grown for several reasons. In addition to the chance of singles meeting singles, coed softball is an inexpensive night out for married couples and an alternative to the happy hour for employes who want after-work togetherness. And for serious ballplayers, it is softball with more emphasis on participation and less on competition.
"Our office had men's and women's teams before, but the teams in men's and women's leagues are just too competitive much of the time," said Roger Stevenson, captain of Woodie's, a team of the retail outlet's management administrators. "We just wanted to have fun."
Each jurisdiction modifies a nationally accepted set of special rules for coed softball. The Fairfax Softball Council has rules requiring that at least 50 percent of the players on the field be female (a maximum of eight females can play at one time), that there never be more than two males in the outfield or infield at one time, and that the batting order alternate male-female whenever possible.
There is also the "no poaching" rule prohibiting male fielders from taking plays away from female teammates. If a male goes out of his way to catch a ball that a female player could have caught, the umpire awards the batter the base.
The atmosphere surrounding the formation of most coed teams is decidedly looser than that around the typical all-male or all-female team. But for the one hour from the first pitch to the end of the game, success matters, regardless of what importance teams place on winning and losing at postgame pizza sessions.
"We had a meeting before the season and decided one of the big things for us would be that anyone who showed up would play," said James Orville of Fairfax, whose All-State 18 office team won about half its games in Division VII. "It is not as competitive as an all-men's team would be because we realize everyone on this team goofs up one time or another, but once that game starts everyone wants to win."
Vinnell Corp. finished its first season with a disappointing 4-15 record in Division II, and discovered that varying degrees of competitiveness can exist on coed teams.
"We sometimes had trouble getting girls to show up," said Vinnell's Donna LeFlore. "One lady said, 'It's too hot to play,' but gee, when they sign up for softball, don't these people realize it is played in the summer, when it is hot out around here?"
Pitts says he enjoys coed more than all-men's softball because the differing degrees of skill on coed teams provide for much more strategy. He admits that winning is important to his team, which has captured four straight division titles, but said he can't downplay the other elements a coed team provides.
"It is something you can do with your wife or girlfriend," said Pitts. "My wife and I play things like racquetball, but this has another dimension because it also involves other people."
Stevenson said playing softball together has improved things in his office. "It has helped morale and has given us something to occasionally talk about other than work," he said. "I even made some friends from managers of other teams, which never happened in the men's leagues we played in."
Stevenson, however, said he realized that office social activities would have their pitfalls and took measures to avoid them.
"Previously, on the office's all-men's and all-women's teams, there were problems with employes unhappy the next morning because the supervisor in charge of the team did not play them enough in the game the night before," said Stevenson. "When we started the coed team, we decided to keep it strictly among management, and we have not had a problem at all."
While Stevenson had little trouble putting together his team, it took some effort at Vinnell.
"There was one girl who did not want to play, but we sat down and figured out how many guys would cross her path in the course of the season," said LeFlore. "She ended up playing catcher for us. She didn't get any dates from players on other teams, but now she is dating the friend of someone else on our team, and she would have never met that guy if it weren't for softball."