Austria 2004

The European Slowpitch Championship played in August 2004 in the pleasant provincial town of Linz in Austria had less melodrama than there had been in Mlade Buky in 2002. But if anything the softball was even more compelling, as two mature, confident and well-coached teams – the British and the Irish – met five times in all during the week. Sadly, the tournament was back down to only four countries – GB, Ireland, the Czech Republic and Austria. But all four teams were competitive, the tournament was very well staged by the host club Askoe Linz and a great spirit of respect and friendship prevailed among the teams. GB Head Coach Gary Crock (Dave Owens had gone back to the States) marshalled a group of international veterans and novices – and got the best out of absolutely everyone. After three straight one-run games between GB and Ireland during the double round robin and the first playoff semi-final, the teams met again, inevitably, in the Grand Final. And while Britain came from behind to defeat the Irish by a score of 6-2, don’t let that score mislead you. This game was almost as close and every bit as tense as the ones that had gone before it. And the tournament was tense all the way through – especially after GB lost their first two games before coming back to win seven straight. In the little mini-tournament between Britain and Ireland that was at the heart of this European Championship, GB won three times and Ireland twice, and the total difference between the teams over five games was just nine runs. The scores of those GB-Ireland games — 9-7 and 4-3 to Ireland, and then 5-4, 5-4 and 6-2 to Britain — will tell you that this was not the Slowpitch Softball seen week in and week out in British domestic tournaments. This was Slowpitch where every play mattered, where every pitch was considered and where every run and every out was worth its weight in gold. This was a European Championship utterly different from the three that had gone before it. The field, the wind, the fence distances and the dead fastpitch balls the ESF chose to use removed power from everyone’s game, but most of all from Britain’s. Not a single home run was hit over the outfield fence during the tournament by any team. In the Czech Republic, in 2002, more than 20 home runs had flown over fences, and in Ireland in 2000 it was well over 30. So this was Softball totally about defence, pitching, base hitting, baserunning and keeping your head together. In the end, and especially in the Grand Final, the GB team kept their heads a little better than the Irish and won the game that mattered most. The result was a fourth straight Championship for GB and another long, dark night of the soul for Ireland. And GB had a hero — Lazarus risen from the dead — in the person of Brett Gibbens. On Wednesday night, Brett was in shock and in the hospital after a fierce throw from Austria’s shortstop had hit him directly on the elbow. On Thursday, he couldn’t move or bend his right arm. On Friday, the sling came off, but swelling from a massive blood bruise was still a terrifying sight. But on Saturday, to the consternation of the Irish, Brett was back in the line-up. In a must-win game against the Czechs on Saturday morning to decide who would play Ireland in the Grand Final, Brett went two-for-three, with a double, a triple and three RBIs. And in the Grand Final itself, he went four-for-four, with two doubles, a single and a solo inside-the-park home run in the top of the seventh inning that drove the final psychological nail in the Irish coffin as Brett dived headfirst into home, heavily strapped arm notwithstanding. For the second straight European Championship, the Irish had come expecting to win, certain they had the better team before the tournament started — and still believing it after the tournament ended. After the first day’s play, they were relishing the fact that GB home run power would not be able to batter them into submission as it had in Dublin and Mlade Buky. On a more level playing field, they were sure they would prevail. But they didn’t. “Once again,” said Irish coach Pat Reddy, afterwards, and sadly, “the better team didn’t win.” But the GB players and coaches were happy to take the gold medals and the first place trophy and leave that judgment to others.

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