“This slowpitch – it is very competitive, but at the same time it seems so friendly! We are not
used to this in fastpitch in Europe!”
The words came from ESF Secretary General Patrice Bienfait, who was seeing competitive
slowpitch for the first time as a member of the ESF Technical Commission at the first-ever
European Slowpitch Championship, played at Brunel University in Uxbridge, outside
London, from August 18-22, 1998.
Although only a four-team affair played on a grass field, the tournament was attended by
then-ESF President Jos Gieskens, who had championed the idea of the competition, and by
International Softball Federation President Don Porter. Speaking to teams at the Closing
Ceremony, Don Porter said, “You have started something here this week that will certainly
expand into a World Slowpitch Championship in the very near future.”
That World Slowpitch Championship still hasn’t happened – but the ISF did hold a Slowpitch
World Cup in Plant City, Florida in 2002 (won by one of two GB teams that took part) and
re-staged the event in 2005, won this time by a pick-up team from Britain, The Clan.
But back to Uxbridge…. The BSF ran the tournament on as much of a shoestring as possible
(though it still cost around £15,000), and there was a distinct lack of both volunteers and
spectators, with Bob Fromer and Mike Jennings doing most of the planning and organising.
Except on the final Saturday, a band of lively Irish supporters from Dublin outnumbered
spectators from the British softball community. The big breakthrough in paying for the
tournament was a £5,000 grant from The Economist Group, where then GB-player Harriet
Hughes worked, while the ISF donated £1500, Major League Baseball £500 and slowpitch
teams around the country pledged £1700 in voluntary £25 donations (not all of which were
paid). The London Indoor League donated £365 and T-shirt sales at the tournament raised
£400. Gate income on the Saturday was £170 – and the BSF covered the rest.
There was no recognition of the tournament or GB’s success in winning it from Sport
England or UK Sport, both of whom were given notice and invitations. But Bernie Cotton
from the BOA was there for the whole of the final day and the team received warm letters of
congratulations from BOA Chief Executive Simon Clegg and then-Chairman Craig Reedie.
Some things never change!
On the field, with GB, Ireland Guernsey and the Czech Republic the competing teams, GB
strolled through a double round-robin with a 5-1 record, losing only to Ireland 12-10 in a
game in which GB Head Coach Micha Verhagen played mostly a second team (earlier in the
week, GB had beaten Ireland 16-0). The Czechs finished pool play at 4-2, Ireland were 3-3
and Guernsey lost every game.
GB’s round-robin wins against the Czech Republic were close affairs (14-10 and 16-11) and
were a harbinger of things to come when the two teams met in a best-of three Final. The
Czech team was full of players from their national fastpitch and baseball squads, plus two
British-based exiles including Milada Zolobova, and those earlier games had shown the
Czechs to be excellent technical players – though the British thought they could always outhit them.
They almost didn’t!
Unexpectedly, the Czechs took the first playoff game 8-6, when a British rally in the bottom
of the seventh ended in confusion over an umpire’s delayed dead ball call. GB runners, who
thought they had been told to advance to the next base, found themselves tagged out instead.
Suddenly, GB’s backs were against the wall.
Head Coach Micha Verhagen made just one key change for Game 2, replacing Game 1
starting pitcher Mike Ashley with the left-handed Colin Hamilton. This was a stroke of genius
as Colin held the Czechs to just five hits and a single consolation run in the seventh inning as
GB cruised to a 14-1 win to set up the deciding game.
Initially, things looked bad in the decider, as the Czechs scored seven runs in the second
inning on four hits and five GB errors(!) and held a 9-3 lead after three innings. But the
Czechs never scored again, GB fought back, and a clutch two-out hit by Gail Inkpen in the
sixth inning tied the score at 9-9. GB then broke the game open in the top of the seventh on
hits by Paul Bullock, Shaun Findlay, Clare Butler and Steve Quickfall and took a 13-9 lead.
The Czechs went down in order in the bottom of the seventh and the GB Slowpitch Team had
its first European title. But it certainly hadn’t been easy!
GB dominated the individual awards, as Colin Hamilton was Best Pitcher, Danny Price was
Best Male Batter (he hit an astounding .786) and Gail Inkpen was the Female MVP. Best
Female Batter was Milada Zolobova, and she also made the catch of the tournament, diving
full length in foul territory in left field to snare a curving line drive and in the same motion
managed to flip herself over the construction fence that marked the dead ball line.