IT'S the Dragons vs. the Rockets, seventh inning: The Rockets are down 12 to 8, and their coach, John Lamberg, yells encouragement: "We can hold 'em, guys! We can hold 'em!"
Well, maybe not all guys. Half the squad is women.
Coed teams like these two - there are about 200 of them in the Boston area alone - are part of the fastest-growing softball group in the United States, according to the Amateur Softball Association (ASA), based in Oklahoma City.
Coed teams, officially organized by the ASA in 1981, numbered 33,262 last year - 13 percent of all softball teams registered with the ASA nationwide. That's still behind men's teams (55 percent of all teams) and girls' teams (21 percent), but ahead of women's (10 percent) and boys' teams (1.1 percent).
"It has grown tremendously in a decade," says ASA spokesman Ron Babb, "and there are no signs of it tapering off."
Why the surge? Women are switching to coed teams, says Ray McCone, the Metro Boston ASA commissioner.
"There aren't as many women's teams, so they merge with the men," McCone says. Also, "there are a lot of companies that have company teams and everybody participates."
The rise in coed softball is even more evident on the West Coast, where the number of coed teams has doubled in the past few years, according to Southern California's ASA Commissioner Bobbi Jordan. One reason the trend took hold faster there is the weather, she says.
"There is more time to play, and they play almost all year round," McCone says, while the season in the East is April to September. Like many trends, "Most of this new type of playing starts in the West and comes to the East," the commissioner says. Informal coed teams have been playing in the West longer.
"I was looking for something more interesting and more challenging," says Pam Regan, who switched from a women's slow-pitch team to a coed one. She wasn't disappointed: "The ball gets to me a lot quicker now when a man hits the ball. You can play shallow with women, but with men you are going to play deep."
Slow-pitch softball uses a high-arc pitch: That is, the pitcher throws the ball underhand with a minimum arc of 3 feet from the ground and a maximum of 12 feet. Men's and women's fast-pitch and modified fast-pitch leagues throw underhand, too, but with a windmilling delivery that can zip the 12-inch-diameter ball over the plate at up to 80 miles per hour. (By comparison, a fastball in baseball may travel 90 m.p.h.)
Coed leagues are slow-pitch. To qualify for championship play, according to the ASA rulebook, teams must have five men and five women per side, with two men and two women in both infield and outfield, and a mixed pitcher-catcher combination. Batters must alternate, male and female, in the lineup.
This year, the Major Coed Championships will be held in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, Sept. 15-19. Class A (a notch below) will have its tournament in Bismarck, N.D., over Labor Day weekend.
"We have quite a few teams in California that compete regionally and nationally," Commissioner Jordan says. Some teams in the South and Midwest are also very competitive, she adds. District and regional competitions feed into the national playoffs.
But James Breau, Junior Olympic Commissioner in Malden, Mass., says a lot of coed teams don't take the game too seriously. In the greater Boston area, for example, no coed team competes nationally.
"This is just a good time for a lot of people," Breau says. "It's a delightful social event."
Neal Sevieri of the Rockets, who has played on several coed teams, observes that there is more competition and more arguing on all-men teams.
"If you have a weak hitter," he says, "you're more prone to having someone on them, like `Why don't you have a hit?' Men are more discriminatory toward those who are weak."
"On some leagues, if you have a weak girl, they say `Hey, it's a girl - what do you expect?' " Then again, Sevieri adds, the Rockets have a woman player who's "a better first baseman than any guy I have ever seen."
Commissioner McCone offers a different viewpoint: "Women are generally more competitive than men. They listen more to the coaches, and they seem to take it more seriously.... I would rather see an all-women's game over a men's game any day."
The Dragons' Kevin Magennis says everyone on his team plays to win, "but I do it for fun more than anything." This evening, they win: The Rockets pull within two, but the Dragons prevail, 12 to 10.
The game that began as "indoor baseball" (later, "mush ball" and "kitten ball") in the 1890s has been given "a tremendous boost" by women's fast-pitch softball being included as a medal sport in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics - a first, says Commissioner McCone. That was the fruition of a 20-year effort.
Will Olympic coed softball follow?
"We would like to see men's slow-pitch," McCone says of the next priority, "and we just started trying to get men's and women's modified fast-pitch into the Olympics for the year 2000."
But, he says, "there is so much politics involved in the Olympics. You have all these countries playing many different sports, and they all want their sport to be in the Olympics."