Sunday, December 20, 2009

No Squash Player Left Behind -- Hardball to Softball

I used to think it was a liability that I started out in hardball during the boom of the 70's. But I was fortunate that I ended up working with an MIT programmer who first turned me on to softball. This must have been 1980 and we played it on the narrow hardball courts at MIT. I can still remember the first time I hit that softball and exclaimed this is squash! I was much younger and the slower ball and the more demanding physical aspects of speed and endurance immediately appealed to me. I never picked up a hardball again. When I moved from Boston to New York in the early '80's, I played at the Manhattan Squash Club in the Grace building and learned the rudiments of the softball game from Gul Khan, the pro there. I continued to play sporadically into the late 1980's, but work was too demanding and starting a family, etc. all familiar stumbling blocks to dedicated squash players, prevailed. When I ballooned to 45 lbs over weight and burdened with so much stress from working long hours in technology in the Wall Street area, it was then that I found Park Place Squash, located in the dungeons of a basement opened and run by Lionel Hope (RIP) just off of Church street near the World Trade Center. It had one of the first international softball courts, Lionel would say, it was where the first softball court was constructed in the US. I have heard otherwise...

The best softball players in the city played there, there were 4 hardball courts and 1 1nternational court. I worked 3 blocks away so I was able to steal away at lunch and play on the international court. I'd played the hardball court if necessary, but I loved the international court. I worked like a demon, running and training to play the softball game. It took about 8 -10 months to really get fit again. I played 7 times a week, sometimes twice a day. I was now going through a messy divorce and coupled with demanding work, it was the only place on earth I felt whole and complete. I remember stopping in between points with my friend and partner in squash Stephen Aronoff (he stopped playing) and just thinking that other than holding my children in my arms or reading them to sleep at night, there was no place on earth where I'd rather have been than that squash court. I must have pinched myself (is this like heaven) as much as I cursed myself (is this like hell), but it all seemed to even out.

I can still hear the softball off the old British style court at Park Place come off the wall, like music, the sound was pure poetry. I can still see Anders Wahlstadt and Chris Stevens playing, simply awed by their level of play. The hardball courts remained mostly empty. I had started playing with a heavy wooden racquet and held out as long as I could with the wooden racquet, in fact I used to buy 20 of them at a time from a sporting goods place on Nassau Street. I went through them in a matter of months. Eventually I switched to the graphite ones, first Dunlop, then Black Knight, and eventually Head.

I played squash in the old style of the wooden racquet whereby you had to hold the butt of your racquet near your ear and come down and through the ball. I learned softball technique. Afterall, I never picked up a hardball again once I played softball. It was the only way to generate some racquet head speed and put some pace on the ball. But softball was the faster game in theory because the ball died and you needed to be faster and quicker to the ball. Hardball required not as much speed of foot because the court was smaller and the ball came out more to the middle. The stroke had to be more compact, more efficient and quicker to play the fast moving hardball.

The two games remained distinctly different until the racquet technology changed. Once the racquet became lighter and the sweet spot bigger, softballers really put some pace on the ball. Not only did the game require faster movement and footwork, but the pace of the ball was really fast. But then the hardball game became really troubled, because on the narrow court players could literally get to everything...the game became boring, the exciting winners and nicks or crushing the low hard cross for a winner wasn't a winner anymore. The ball stood up and the game wasn't that much different than a racquet ball flying all over the place. Imagine if a racquetball court had a tin and you couldn't hit the ceiling, it would essentially be hardball squash in the 90's.

Anyways, it wasn't until I read Frank Sautterwait's autobiography and his chapter on the softball game from a professional hardball player's perspective did I finally understand how hardball players were able to so convincingly switch to the softball game with the new racquet technology. I'm thinking of those great Canadians Power and Waite and maybe even Stevens too. When I met Jim Masland he had only been two years into his softball career when I met him in North Carolina, having played hardball most of his life. The hardball stroke was perfect for the new racquet and the faster speed and pace of the softball. The old softball stroke was inefficient for the new racquet technology and pace of the softball game...and those softball players who overlapped into the new racquet age and the leap in evolution in the softball game, changed their strokes...they needed to, and when the glass court was introduced along with new racquet technology, the softball player needed a quicker, hardball like stroke! To me that is when hardball died.

I don't expect I'm saying anything new, but this always interested me how a sport that was booming in the 70's and 80's just died. It's like a lot of things in America, new technology, replaces old technology and workers get displaced...new technology spawns new participants or compels those to convert to the new and reinvent themselves. Those that don't are left behind, this is America, always reinventing itself. I always read James Zug history of squash as a sort of eulogy for the hardball game in America.

The softball game grew to combine the quickness and fast paced ball with the athleticism and strategy and depth of the old softball game. It's like chess on the clock vs. chess off the clock. The game has changed, it is the best game in the world...and in all of this, I spent thousands of hours and dollars to convert my game into the newer game as it was starting to be played in the early to mid 90's. I am glad I did, and my body and god willing, I will continue to incorporate new techniques into my game like the open stance backhand (which took me two years to build into my muscle memory ) or the dying length rail or the drop with minimal slice. It is this innate fear that this ever evolving game will someday leave me behind that I push myself to the point of keeping up with whatever changes in technology, technique, or training -- lest I remain like those few hardballers that cling to the distant past of a game that has long since died.

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