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THE SOFTBALL CRAZE : County Fields Are Filled With 15,000 Players of All Types

Times Staff Writer

Lindsay Stewart, 9, wants to be the first woman in the major leagues. She wants to be a power-hitter with either the Yankees or the Padres; she isn’t sure which.

Or she thinks she might like to be a sportswriter so she could talk to her favorite players.

But maybe she should consider being a softball coach.

Teetering on her roller skates, hanging onto the athletic field fence at Carlsbad High School, Lindsay shouts instructions to the struggling pitcher.

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“Mom, you’ve got to back up third base,” Lindsay yells, then turns to a spectator. “They need more defense, that’s what Dad says.”

Dad is Woody Stewart, the coach and shortstop for Suns and Beaches, one of 18 teams in Carlsbad’s co-ed softball league. Mom is Sandy Stewart, the team’s pitcher. The catcher is Kathy Spring, Sandy’s sister. Bob Spring, Kathy’s husband, shares time at first base.

Diagramming relationships on this team is tougher than following the relationships on most soap operas.

Not all of the 18 players on the roster for Suns and Beaches are related. Some know each other through work. But five pairs of players are either married or involved in relationships. Many became friends when they lived in the same Carlsbad condominium complex.

From Chula Vista to Oceanside, the softball fields of San Diego County are filled with family members, friends and co-workers. This summer, more than 15,000 county residents are playing softball in slo-pitch, fast-pitch and three-pitch municipal leagues, on men’s, women’s and co-ed teams. Hundreds more are playing in recreation center leagues, with church groups and in impromptu Sunday afternoon games.

“It’s primarily a social thing,” said Woody Stewart, the catalyst behind the organization of Suns and Beaches. He also plays on an all-men’s team and a team for his employer, Pacific Bell.

“This team is much more fun,” he said. “The other teams are pretty serious.”

Said Jim Bradshaw, organizer of the Carlsbad Parks and Recreation League: “People like the camaraderie involved in softball. They get an hour and a half of fun, they get a workout and they satisfy that competitive fire that still exists.”

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The competition level in the San Diego area varies widely. Some players are searching for a serious game. Others are looking for recreation. But many, as Suns and Beaches, are just looking for an excuse for a good time.

“We were looking for something we could all do together on a regular basis,” Woody said. “We needed an excuse to get together.”

One thing the players had not done together before last spring was play softball. The level of expertise ranges from Woody, a softball fanatic and rabid baseball fan, to outfielder Teri Beasley, who had never played before and paid little attention to baseball.

Woody named the team, completed the necessary paper work for Carlsbad Parks and Recreation, and assigned positions to players based on ability.

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Why was his wife pitching?

“I couldn’t do anything else,” Sandy said. “I couldn’t catch the ball.”

Beasley, an artist, designed hats with a palm tree logo. Sandy acquired a team trophy, which she found in a neighbor’s garbage can one day. In April, five weeks before the season began, the team started practicing twice a week. After two classification games held in May, Suns and Beaches was assigned to the Carlsbad B league (A is the top competitive level and C is the novice level).

In the first half of the season the team was 1-4. The only win was a 24-14 victory over U.S. Computers.

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“But we were competitive in every game,” Woody said.

During a three-week “All-Star break,” the team didn’t practice. Last Sunday, the players returned to Carlsbad High School to start the second half of the season against the Semi-softballers.

And so Suns and Beaches were back in action. Children, parents and siblings made up their rooting section. Jeff Harcq, 4, yelled “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy” at his mother, Jennifer, while she played outfield and ran up to her for a hug after her turn in the batting order. Kathy and Sandy’s parents, Eleanor and Harry King, shouted encouragement and advice. Kathy and Sandy’s brother, David, rolled his eyes, exasperated at the level of play.

“I’d go crazy out there,” said the former shortstop for Clairemont High School.

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Suns and Beaches appeared to be headed for another disappointment, falling behind, 7-0, early in the game. The players failed to move over baserunners, dropped fly balls, overthrew cutoff players and lost balls between their feet. Even Lindsay Stewart disappeared for a while.

“I like it when they’re winning,” she said. “My dad gets real mad when he doesn’t catch the ball.”

Woody did drop a few balls, but at the end of the fourth inning turned a beautiful double play, preventing another run from scoring and earning a kiss from the catcher.

“I think it’s great that couples play together,” Eleanor said. “They learn tolerance.”

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In the fifth inning, Suns and Beaches mounted a comeback. Woody led off the inning with a double to center.

“All right,” yelled his mother-in-law. “Now we’re going to feed you.”

The team scored four runs in the fifth. In the top of the sixth, Lindsay took it upon herself to psych out the other team, yelling, “Hey batter, batter, swing.”

“In one game I got three people out that way,” she said.

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The noise from the stands seemed to work. In the sixth inning, the Semi-softballers’ pitching fell apart and Suns and Beaches tied the score. Suddenly, everyone had a hot bat, the team’s confidence level was high and Suns and Beaches won the game, 15-10.

Their manager beamed with pride.

“When we first started, we just thought we’d be kidding around,” Woody said. “But we’ve improved so much from the first week.”

Bradshaw, at Carlsbad Parks and Recreation, thinks the ability for improvement is part of the game’s appeal.

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“Anyone can be competitive,” he said. “Just about anyone can play softball.”

After the game, Suns and Beaches gathered at the Spring’s house, located across the street from the field. The postgame ritual includes game analysis and food.

The team is contemplating playing in the fall league. But it wasn’t just the thrill of victory that prompted the future plans.

“We even have fun when we lose,” Sandy said.

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