By Ross Atkin, Sports writer of The Christian Science Monitor — Some 30 million people play softball in the United States, mostly in slow-pitch games that make every hitter look like Pete Rose. Only about 15 percent compete in the sport's elite fast-pitch ranks, a radically different game in which pitchers are the big stars. Currently, fast-pitch has no bigger star -- both figuratively and perhaps literally, when discussing the women, at least -- than 6 ft. 2 in. Kathy Arendsen.
"By the time she releases the ball she's right on top of you," says Sue Lewis , who batted .800 in this year's national collegiate tournament but couldn't get much aluminum on the ball against Arendsen during the recent National Sports Festival.
Arendsen's deliveries often are untouchable. Playing for the renowned Raybestos Brakettes, a Connecticut-based club that has won two world and 16 national championships, she averages between 16 and 17 strikeouts per seven-inning game.
"Twenty-one strikeouts is my dream game," says the curly-headed native of Holland, Mich. Considering her record, the goal is not so far-fetched.
She once struck out 19 batters in seven innings, a feat not to be overshadowed by her three consecutive perfect games and five straight no-hitters.
Though it would be hard to improve on these achievements, Kathy genuinely expects her pitching to get better.So does Bill Plummer, communications coordinator of the Amateur Softball Association and a former scout for the Kansas City Royals. "Most women pitchers don't reach their peak until their late 20s and early 30s," he says. "So she's ahead of the normal pace."
Arendsen graduated from Chico State in California in 1980 after a spectacular collegiate career. Since 1978, she's spent her summers mowing 'em down for the Brakettes, who own a 31-0 record with Kathy in the pitching circle this year (softball doesn't utilized a mound).
To the batters she challenges, it doesn't help that Arendsen begins her windmill delivery only 40 feet from home plat. The pitching distance in the men's game is 46 feet, in baseball 60 feet, 6 inches.
Proximity to the plate, however, only partially explains her dominance. Speed and a wicked assortment of pitches, including curves, drops, and change-ups, also have a lot to do with it.
Arendsen's fastball has been clocked at 95. m.p.h., which is as fast as men generally throw in either softball or baseball. Her bread-and-butter pitch, a rise ball, makes hitting a real guessing game. When catcher Doreen Denmon signals for Kathy's best riser, the ball appears to jump 14 or 15 inches before reaching the batter.
When it strarts out, the pitch looks like a strike, but seldom really is. "Most of my pitches are actually balls.I don't throw that many strikes," she explains.
Throwing a steep riser is an art few pitchers master. "It's the toughest pitch to throw," Arendsen says. "It's all wrist snap.You put backspin on the ball to create air currents that catch the seams."
Kathy is quick to acknowledge the work of her batterymate. "My catcher deserves a big pat on the back," she remarks. "She catches everything I throw and she's not completely sure where it's going."
Though a pitch's exact destination may remain a mystery, hitters arrive at the plate helmetless, telling you something about Arendsen's control.
Control, as it turns out, was Kathy's greatest concern upon taking up pitching in high school. Not wanting to hit batters, give up walks, or sail the ball over the backstop, she hesitated to throw hard. After her coach convinced her to ignore these worries, she gradually developed into a complete pitcher.
"In my junior year in high school," she remembers, "I threw pretty hard and had no control. In my senior year I threw hard and had some control. Not until my sophomore year in college did things start coming together for me."
That was when she transferred from Grand Valley State College in Michigan to Texas woman's University, a school which plays 100 games a year. Though she led her team to the 1979 national title, the heavy playing schedule began to erode her enjoyment of the sport prompting another transfer, this time to chico State.
The articulate three-time All-American now coaches at the University of connecticut, a job that allows her to play softball from May to September, plus give clinics, make camp appearances, and fulfill speaking engagements.
Her incredible record and high-speed pitches have begun to attract attention to the women's fast-pitch game. At the 1979 Pan American Games, she carried the US flag in the opening ceremonies. During the National Sports Festival in Syracuse, N.Y., and then at the World Games in Santa Clara, Calif., many reporters saw her pitch and went away impressed.
This week at the national championships in Houston, TV's "60 minutes" is taping footage of Harry Reasoner batting against Kathy. In Syracuse, she threw to Yankee slugger Reggie Jackson, who struggled to make contact on an ABC-Sports spot.
This latter segment was reminiscent of a confrontation between Brakette hurler Joan Joyce and Ted Williams, which took place years earlier. Joyce, now a pro golfer, handcuffed Williams, who was in the twilight of his career.
Such square-offs, Arendsen says, are titles in the pitcher's favor, because "a baseball hitter looks for a ball going down or out and isn't used to seeing a riser."
A hurler of Kathy's ability could easily take her "act" on the road, performing in the style of an Eddie Feigner, the famed touring pitcher. But this route doesn't really appeal to her. "I play softball because I enjoy it," she says. "I'm not in it for the entertainment or show business part or to make a living in any way. I just want to become the best I can, to some day be on the same level as a Joan Joyce or Bertha Tickey [a Hall of Famer]."
She may already be on that level, but greatness is sometimes a factor of longevity, and Arendsen may have to prove herself for several more years to be considered the best ever.
Because softball pitching utilizes a natural motion of the arm, she seldom needs the rest required by baseball pitcher. She pitches about four games a week and once worked five in a single day. Not infrequently the women's low-scoring games go into extra innings, where a special tiebreaker format is used to increase run-producing opportunities.
Kathy feels the tiebreaker rule, which puts the last batter from the preceding inning at second base to start the next inning, is ruining the game. Of course, she helped inspire it -- by keeping runners off the basepaths.