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Tom Oravec has poison ivy. It’s a softball injury.
About 25 years ago, Oravec gave up playing the game to take up coaching. But as the skipper of Worth/SEG, among the best slo-pitch squads in the country, Oravec faces hazards that his counterparts on lesser squads don’t.
See, everybody on Worth/SEG hits home runs. There isn’t a yard at Braddock Park, the massive softball complex in western Fairfax County where the team plays on Wednesday nights, that Oravec’s boys can’t leave. On this night, left-fielder Blaine Lee has just gone deep for the second time—and it’s still the first inning. His first was a line drive that sizzled like bacon on its way out. This one’s a moonshot, hit so hard and high and far that the opposing outfielders don’t bother moving as the ball passes overhead; they know it’s gone. Oravec, however, follows the path of the ball until it vanishes into the woods. Lee won’t bother retrieving his yardwork. Softballs retail for $5 apiece, so even though Worth/SEG is so good that the team gets all the free balls it needs, by game’s end Oravec, a sporting goods dealer by trade, will be trudging through the underbrush beyond the outfield fence—way, way beyond the outfield fence if he’s going to get Lee’s last tater—in search of all those crushed orbs.
And that’s fine with the coach. Even if it means he’ll be smearing more calamine lotion over his shins and thighs next week, he still loves watching his team make balls disappear.
“It’s very nice to have the best team,” Oravec, a spry 64-year-old Alexandrian, tells me on his way into the forest.
And when it comes to D.C. area softball, the best is what he’s got. Worth/SEG plays a game that has little in common with the happy-hour gatherings of interns and lobbyists and lawyers on makeshift diamonds on the mall. This is a team that brings its own bat rack to the park. It has sponsors (the bat maker Worth and Systems Evaluation Group, a consulting outfit) that provide tournament fees, travel expenses, the best balls and bats, multiple uniforms, and matching oversized carry bags, which are hung together on the backstop before each game to let the opponents know who’s kicking their ass. Nobody here is paid a salary to play, however. (Pay-for-play slo-pitch once had a fairly bustling national circuit, but of the handful of professional teams that still exist in the U.S., none are based in the mid-Atlantic region.)
In return for the trinkets and patronage, the players pledge their talent and time. A whole lot of each. Along with the league games, Worth/SEG will play in at least 21 tournaments this year. Most of those are out-of-town, two- to four-day competitions. Considering that softball players generally peak in their late 20s to mid-30s, it would seem that getting players to make such a commitment and stick to it would be tough.
Not for Oravec.
“Players come to me now,” he says.
And not just any players. For more than a decade, the sluggingest players in the region have been coming to him. They’ve all figured out how to hit a lobbed ball long before putting on the Worth/SEG colors, so Oravec, who didn’t get enshrined in two different softball halls of fame for nothing, leaves their strokes alone.
“The key to hitting home runs is hitting the ball as hard as you can hit it,” he says. “That’s about the only thing I tell them.”
Under his watch, Worth/SEG has attained near-mythic status in local softball circles. His teams have won seven Virginia state championships and countless regional tournaments and league championships. Last year, Worth/SEG became the first team in the history of Division 1 of Fairfax Adult Softball, the biggest league in the area, to go undefeated for an entire season.
Though its roster is virtually unchanged, things aren’t going quite so smoothly for Worth/SEG in league play this year. The players are all still going deep and cheap as frequently as ever, but rules changes have effectively neutered the team. In the last off-season, the powers that be in Fairfax Adult Softball all of a sudden capped the number of home runs a team can hit at three per game. Anything else over the fence would henceforth be ruled a single.
Innovations in bat technology, mainly the introduction of so-called double-walled sticks, which are essentially corked aluminum bats, inspired that ruling. Anybody with warning-track power can now be an occasional home run hitter just by spending $300 on a bat. Oravec’s boys could go yard with uncorked wood if they had to, so the newfangled bats that are now prevalent at all levels of softball haven’t changed Worth/SEG’s game nearly as much as they have the coed and church-league contests. Oravec pleaded for a reconsideration, arguing that the low ceiling was appropriate for the lesser divisions, but unfairly cramped his squad’s style. Top-flite softball is all about round-trippers. Three home runs? That’s an inning, not a game, for Worth/SEG. But, alas, his pleas were drowned out by the whines of jealous masters of the Texas Leaguer and pop-out artists. The limit stuck.
Now, with just two weeks left in the first season under the cap, Worth/SEG is a full game out of first place, on the verge of losing its stranglehold on the league championship. Oravec won’t blame the home run ceiling on his team’s relative woes, but he does say that the Wednesday night league games are treated as “practice” in preparation for a loftier goal.
“I want to win a national championship,” he says. “That’s really the only thing left for me.”
Earlier this spring, Worth/SEG earned a berth in the 1999 USSSA World Series, set for Panama City, Fla., in September. Fairfax’s three-home-run limit won’t apply come the big tournament, so Oravec likes his team’s chances as much as anybody’s.
If Worth/SEG wins the World Series, Oravec says, “I’ll quit the game.”
There are already signs that he’s planning his exit. A few weeks ago, Oravec gave away all the trophies his teams had won over the years. Because softball leagues hand out statuettes the way free clinics do penicillin, you can imagine the size of that haul. He says he needed to make room in his house. But as plain as the rash on his legs, you can see that Oravec never got into the game for its trophies. He’s in it for the long ball.—Dave McKenna