Tell a hockey fan his or her sport is stupid, you might lose a few teeth. Try the same with a football fan, you might get tackled. As for the outdoor soccer fan, especially outside the United States, one can only shudder at the bloody prospect.
Then there is the aficionado of over-the-line.
"I've always said it's a stupid sport for stupid people," says Mike Curran, who founded the OTL "world championships" in 1954 at Old Mission Beach. "It's really a cross-section of chumps."
Hey, why get touchy about a sport played on the beach?
Over-the-line, known also as beach softball and as San Diego's version of stickball, can be called a way of life, provided you wink when you say that. It's a sport for holidays, for barbecues, for suntans, for laughter, for pretending you are Ron Swoboda in 1969, diving for that catch.
It's a sport for beer commercials, except that the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club, organizer of the world championship, refuses sponsors. "No way," says Curran, an OMBAC board member. "They'd change the sport. We don't want anybody putting up signs."
It can also be a sport for those who can't walk. Each year, folks in wheelchairs play in a tournament in San Diego, on asphalt instead of sand, with a one-hop catch constituting an out.
It is a sport for meeting people. Malcom Fitzurka, who has played OTL since 1971, met his girlfriend, Beth Mallia, at an OTL game. "Yeah, she tripped and fell on his head," quipped Willie Williams, Fitzurka's best friend and teammate.
It is a sport for zanies, such as those in Prince George, Canada, who play it in the snow, chasing an orange ball. They do wear baseball gloves, at least.
It is a sport for the slow, the fat, the short, the old, the young or the fair-to-middling. It is for those without money--equipment consists of a bat and a softball--or without land--a 40-yard chunk of beach will do--or without many friends--just get three people together to practice, six for a game.
Over-the-line does have its serious side. Some players actually practice , Curran says, as though he just got a fresh whiff of sewage. Folks in Phoenix were so serious, they trucked in sand and held a tournament this year. Last week in Los Angeles, $10,000 was awarded to top finishers.
Quantifying the sport's growth is difficult. But at this month's world championships, which conclude this weekend on Fiesta Island, 29 states, Mexico and Canada were represented. And the sport has been incorporated into the physical education curricula in the Grossmont and San Diego school districts and at UC San Diego and San Diego State.
Fitzurka and Williams have played in tournaments in Las Vegas, Mexico, Arizona and Los Angeles. Others are held in Hawaii, Puerto Vallarta, Virginia Beach, Palm Springs and Santa Rosa. A women's team played an exhibition game against three Padres a few years back (and won, handily).
As for the game itself, the spirit has never changed, Curran said. But today's players are better, the techniques more refined.
"The good players are in top-notch condition," he said. "The game today is a bit more intense. They hit the ball harder and move faster. The dink shots (whereby a player punches the ball softly over the line) are a thing of the past.
"Used to be the pitcher would be 10, 15 feet from the batter. Then they came up with this golf swing. These guys perfected that. You hit that, no way you're gonna catch it. They've been very good at it."
For Curran, 58, it has been like watching a kid grow.
As a teen-ager, he used to frequent Old Mission Beach, south of The Plunge roller coaster near Redondo Court. It was a meeting area because the zone line for buses and streetcars started there. "Any further, and it cost you 25 cents," Curran recalled.
Between matches of beach volleyball, youngsters would play over-the-line.
"We played down by the the water, on the hard sand," said Curran, who works as a land surveyor. "One sideline would be where the shiny sand was. The other would be where the high-water mark was--where the seaweed and stuff were. You would draw a line (over which the hitter would try to hit the ball). You wouldn't hit until you were sure the water was out."
Eventually, the game moved to Mariner's Point. It caught on.
"Now, 30 guys show up at Mariner's Point in the winter, in the rain, and draw for partners," Curran said. "They're full-on whacko. But the young players get to play with the really good players. We used to play there, but as far as practicing? You'd be hooted at."
What skills make for a good OTL player?
"Hand-eye coordination is the No. 1 thing," Curran said.
"The pitch is extremely important," said Fitzurka, 39, a real estate broker. "If my pitch to Willie is off, say three inches, he's in trouble. It's a game of finesse. You place the pitch and the hit . . . Anticipation is also very important. As a fielder, if you are standing still as the pitch is thrown, you'll get killed."
Williams, 39, a general manager of a party supplies concern, played tennis and basketball at Helix High; Fitzurka played football and baseball at Monte Vista. The two, who this year teamed with Jerry Cooper at the world championships, consistently finish in the top 24 in that tournament. "Over-the-line does not really push you like basketball does," Fitzurka said. "There is not really much cardiovascular work. It does help tone the legs."
To get bogged down in the finer points of this game would miss the point.
"There's an attitude about this game that is something special," Fitzurka said. "There's a real emphasis on sportsmanship."
Said Curran's girlfriend, Helen Duffy, an OTL player herself: "This is a game where the players control the game. Last year, some players from a losing team were very upset afterward. Mike said, 'No, no, no, you are missing the point. This is supposed to be fun.' That's what it's all about."
THE RULES OF THE GAME
As in softball, the goal in over-the line is to score more runs than your opponent. Each team has three players. The pitcher kneels about 4 to 6 feet from a teammate, the batter, and tosses the softball to about waist level. The batter, often using a golf-type swing, attempts to hit the ball into fair territory. If it lands safely, it is a hit. Two hits load the imaginary bases, and ensuing hits force in runs. Any ball that clears the last fielder counts as a home run. An 11-0 lead results in victory, known as a "skunk."
The batter is out if he hits two foul balls, swings and misses once or hits to a fielder who catches the ball. Fielders play bare-handed, though women may wear gloves. If the score is tied after five innings, play can continue through seven innings if necessary. If there is a tie then, the team with the most hits wins.
In a typical scenario, the pitcher flips the ball three feet off the ground. The batter, using a golf swing, strikes the ball at ankle height, driving a liner over the fair-foul boundary line and into the sand.