Over-the-Line Championship : Simple Sport Turns Into a Hard One : It's Not Easy Being Good at This Game

Mariner's Point was quiet, if a bit more crowded than usual.

The sea gulls, joggers and walkers were there in force, enjoying the sunset. This time, though, they were joined by some 45 athletes, hitting, catching and throwing softballs on makeshift triangles drawn in the sand.

The markings were the tell-tale sign that people were playing San Diego's home-grown sport--over-the-line. In this case, the players were honing their skills for what is perhaps the county's largest annual amateur sports extravaganza, the 32nd annual Over-the-Line World Championships.

The tournament, sponsored by the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club, starts at 7 a.m. today on Fiesta Island. Seeded teams aren't required to play until the second weekend, July 20-21.

Over-the-line is a simple sport, involving three players to a side, a relatively small field, a ball, a bat and, occasionally, gloves. It is simple, that is, unless you want to be good enough to make it to the final day of the World Championships.

Robbie Cole, one of those practicing at Mariner's Point, put it this way: "It's easy to play. Anyone can play. But it's not easy to be good."

Being good at over-the-line requires superb bat control, accurate pitching and acrobatic defensive skills. And the women's game, according to Cole and several others from top-notch teams, is quite different from the men's in terms of skills and strategy.

"When the women play, there's more defensive strategy than in the men's game," Cole said. "The men hit the ball so far that the three defensive players are spread out all over the field. Women can crowd in more on defense."

Women also wear gloves, while men are required to play barehanded.

Cole should know a fair amount about strategy, having played on her first OMBAC tournament championship team in 1975. Last year, she teamed with Marieanne Perrault and Jackie Burton to win the Women's Century Division title. Their team, called Never Too Old, is back to defend its crown.

The Never Too Old players find the OMBAC tournament a trying, if ultimately rewarding experience. Several other tournaments on the circuit, which runs from March to September throughout Southern California, feature comparable competition and fewer distractions, they said.

"There's too much outside activity going on to do over-the-line justice," said Burton, referring to the throngs of fans and extra-curricular activities associated with the OMBAC event. "Every other tournament is very low-key, but the big tournament is a zoo. Still, it's all worthwhile because sometimes that's the only attention we get. I enjoy it."

Contrary to Burton's ambivalent feelings, the players from Cush's Tushes--Janet Hatch, Leanna Trejo and Julie Dossett--are very enthusiastic about the self-proclaimed World Championships.

"OMBAC's tournament is very prestigious," Trejo said. "When you tell somebody you won it, they say, 'Wow!' It's more fun when you have crowds watching. We're definitely not afraid of crowds."

Players from Never Too Old and Cush's Tushes agreed that there are certain, basic elements of success in over-the-line. Chief among them is adequate practice time before going to a tournament.

"You have to practice together long enough to know what the other people on your team are going to do," Cole said.

Practice sessions are when hitters and pitchers learn to work together. In over-the-line, the pitcher kneels next to the hitter and tosses the ball about six to 12 inches into the air. A "pitch" like that doesn't leave a lot of room for error. And the batter only gets two pitches, the second coming only if the first is hit foul.

"The secret of success in over-the-line is offense--you have to be able to hit," Hatch said. "And 90% of hitting is pitching. You have to have someone who is accurate and smooth, someone who isn't afraid of getting hit by the bat."

A ball hit past a line 55 feet from the batter and not caught by the defenders is a hit in over-the-line. One run is scored every time a team puts together three hits, and then each subsequent hit reaps another run. A fly ball hit past all three fielders is a home run. The teams play four or five innings, depending on the tournament.

Women's over-the-line games feature plenty of place-hitting--trying to drop low, line drives just past the line or into an uncovered corner. The batter plays a cat-and-mouse game with the fielders, trying to look in one direction while hitting the ball in another. It is truly the art of "hitting 'em where they ain't."

"It takes a while to learn how to place the ball," Burton said. "You learn a new shot one year, then next year you learn another new one. It's not as easy as it looks."

Trejo, who started playing two years ago after dropping out of fast-pitch softball, said it took a while to learn how to hit, over-the-line style.

"This is the first year I've gone to bat with confidence," she said. "My first year, I didn't have any confidence at all. I couldn't take my eye off the ball when I wanted to place it. This year I can, and it's amazing."

Likewise, fielders try to outguess the hitters.

"Sometimes you can pick out what the batter will do," Burton said. "You can pick out their patterns, figure out when they're going to take a pitch one way or the other."

During last year's Century Division final, Cole perceived a pattern that helped Never Too Old beat Ferdie's Fish Store and win the championship.

"Julie Reed, the best hitter on the other team, would never look where she was going to hit the ball," Cole said. "That helped us take away her hitting."

But don't let all this talk about strategy divert attention from over-the-line's inherent charm as a simple game that just about anyone can play, on one level or another. Such simplicity should allow the sport to continue to grow, the women said, and not just at the OMBAC tournament with its 900 players, 140,000 fans and extensive media coverage.

"I think the people who grew up playing it on the beach have spread out and convinced others to play," Cole said. "It's easy to find space to play and you don't need very much equipment."

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