Michele Smith Q&A
Sportswriter Mike May interviewed Michele in the spring of 2014 on the eve of the College World Series in Oklahoma City.
Q: When you watch an NCAA Division 1 women's softball game today, especially in Oklahoma City at the Women's College World Series, what has changed about the entire setting, now that you are watching from the broadcast booth as opposed to the perspective of a player in the dugout?
A: The first thing is that the ASA and USA Softball have done a fabulous job with the (softball) stadium here in Oklahoma City. The stadium has truly evolved over the last 25 years. When I played on it, it was basically just a stadium with a shell on the back. Now, it’s just amazing with the number of people it can seat and the number of people who come to this venue to watch this tournament is truly incredible. The ratings are fabulous for ESPN. So, that’s a big part of it. Next year, they are doing another renovation to put a second deck on top to make it even bigger. So, I think just the atmosphere and the stadium (expansion) have just been fabulous.
Q: You are an accomplished athlete who has played at the highest level for the sport of fast-pitch softball. When you examine the hard goods side of fast-pitch softball, what has changed the most about that side of the sport -- specifically, the bat, ball, batting helmet, cleats/spikes, and catcher's gear – in recent years?
A: I think the technology has really driven the sport. Mainly, the performance of the bats has been incredible over the last 10-15 years. Ever since composite bats have come in, it’s really changed the sport. Technology has also improved the softballs, too. Back in the day, they were made with cork and after they were hit a little bit, they kind of got egg-like. Nowadays, the balls are hard and they stay harder. They are light. It makes a difference to the younger kids and maybe to the athlete who is not quite as strong because they still have the ability to play this game with a lot of power and force, even though they may be smaller in stature. Also, I think the game (of fast-pitch softball) has become safer because of the helmets, the defensive facemasks, and stuff like that.
Q: When you examine the soft goods side and hard goods side of the fast-pitch game, everything is female specific. Are you stunned that the industry has finally recognized the female athlete as a legitimate consumer and needs to be catered to as much as the males?
A: It’s about time! I say that with a smile on my face. The female athlete is just as competitive and is just as concerned about the extension of their body and their gear and the way it performs. Obviously, men and women are made very differently. The fact that we now have goods that are made with the female body in mind is great. It helps us from a performance level. I was at the evolution of all that happening in the 1990s and to see where it has evolved to today is outstanding for the sport. For the girls to be able to go in (a sporting goods store) and buy a female specific glove or a batting glove is, I think, fabulous.
Q: Where is there is room for improvement? How can the sporting goods industry better cater to the needs of the female athlete, where it’s fast-pitch softball or other sports?
A: I think a lot of it is getting inside the sport – hiring more people that have actually played the sport. A lot of times, when it comes to design, I think we worry about colors and the prettiness factor instead of, number one, focusing on the performance factor. That needs to be biggest part of it. In women’s goods, we think more about the colors and the prettiness factor more than the performance factor. I think we really need to look at performance factors first. Is it needed? How relevant is it to the sport, to the athlete, and for the age group? I think a lot of it comes down to the sport itself and way our sport has evolved. (Fast-pitch) Softball is one of those sports that we can change a lot. We change our rules, different regulations, and what you have to wear and what you can’t wear. I wouldn’t mind seeing the sport, at some level, start to pull back on the exit speeds of balls off of bats. I think that a certain number of kids play in fear (of being struck by a batted ball). That’s never a good thing. Maybe there’s a way of figuring out a limit of exit velocity of balls off bats so that our corners are less exposed to the potential of injury. If you look at a college game these days, the corners are now playing behind their base (first and third base). That never would have happened years ago.
Q: Do you think that it’s fair to say that the female athlete has become far more serious, toned, stronger, and fitter? Has the overall quality of the female athlete improved at a faster rate than the industry has been able to ‘downgrade’ the quality of the equipment, so to speak?
A: Yes, absolutely. Nowadays, I also think that there is a greater number of elite, well-trained athletes. Back when I played, I don’t think the numbers were there as they are today. Nowadays, I think there is a lot better education on nutrition and training, but there are also more distractions that kids have to deal with. They need to put the phone down and go get in the weight room! They need to put the phone down and go get on the (stationary) bike! It’s more than just being good enough inside the white lines. You have to take care of yourself physically (off the field). So, I think today’s kids have a harder time finding the time to do all those things off the field. But, I think all the stuff on the field such as technology and education have driven the sport.
Q: On a personal note, do you play any form of softball these days? Are you providing instruction? Are you playing in any slow-pitch softball leagues?
A: I pitch when I do camps and clinics. I’m still doing instruction. I’m mostly broadcasting the sport at this time of year (late spring). When I do have any free time, I work out every day, in some manner. I still like to cycle – as much as I can when I can. I I did a triathlon back in November. I’m also a runner. So, I’m always staying busy, healthy, and active. I believe it’s extremely important. And, it sets such a great example (for younger people). But, I really don’t have a lot of time these days to run around a softball field, especially a slow-pitch field, but it does sound like a fun idea!
Q: What kind of corporate affiliations have you had in the past and to whom are you working with now?
A: I am still working with Rip It Sporting Goods and 3n2. Both of those companies are based in the Orlando, Florida area. I’m still doing some work with JUGS Pitching Machines and Musco Lighting. I am still involved with quite a few of the sponsors that I had when I played ball, which is super exciting because they are a big part of our sport. They are helping get the word out there that it’s not always just about the softball. With Musco Lighting, it’s about women and girls initiatives where we focus on those females who are underserved and forgotten about a number of times. I try to be a good role model for all of them. It’s important to get in shape and take care of yourself. Do something and find something that you are passionate about, get out there, and have some fun.
Q: At what point did you realize that fast-pitch softball was the sport for you? I know that you also played basketball and other sports, but when did you realize that fast-pitch softball was going to be your ‘meal ticket,’ so to speak?
A: I probably realized that fast-pitch softball was my sport when I was in high school. I just loved it. Even before I started pitching, I just loved the bat and ball sports. I loved baseball and I loved softball. I couldn’t wait for my dad to come from work so he could play catch with me. I have always been fascinated about both sports. I love the simple game of ‘catch.’ To this day, it puts a huge smile on my face. I just think that there’s nothing greater. In fact, I wish more parents would play ‘catch’ with their sons and daughters. Just go grab your gloves and go out in the front yard and have a good ‘ole game of ‘catch’ or ‘burnout’ when you try to ‘sting’ the other person’s fingers because you are throwing the ball so hard. There’s something that’s ‘American’ about playing ‘catch’ with your family members.
Q: With so many young girls getting involved in 'travel ball' at such a young age, is there a concern that they will experience ‘burnout’ and lose interest in the sport at too young of an age?
A: I think it’s important for kids to be kids at any age and have fun. That spirit of having fun was the one thing that I always had, no matter if it was my 16th year of professional ball in Japan. I always loved the sport. I always did things, as much as possible, to keep from ‘burning out.’ Young children, though, when they are 6, 7, or 8 years old, they don’t get to make those decisions because the decisions are typically made for them by the parents or the coaches. I do think that we need to be cognizant of that and need to be very careful that kids are having the opportunity to play a sport and really enjoy it and have fun. The other thing, too, is that we really need to look at how much kids are being used, especially pitchers. It’s not healthy for a kid to go out and throw five games in a day in 100 degree weather! It’s just not right and it almost borders on child abuse. I think the big message is that you have to keep it fun and that there should be a limit on everything. Like everything in life, it’s about putting things in perspective and balance.
Q: As a fulltime Florida resident, I’m sure you have been following the success of the softball teams from the University of Florida and Florida State University. Is this the first time that both schools have qualified for the WCWS in the same year? What do you think about the chances of the two Florida teams in the Women’s College World Series?
A: The Lady Seminoles of Florida State qualified for the Women’s College World Series ten years ago. During that year, I don’t believe UF was in the World Series, but they have been since then. I think this is the first time that both schools have qualified for the WCWS in the same year. This year, both schools have great shots to get in the championship game and win. It all comes down to which teams play flawless softball. The Lady Gators have the experience of being here. Florida State has no experience in this setting.
Q: What two teams will reach the final of this year’s Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City?
A: Holy cow! That’s a tough one. I think that there’s a good chance that we could see Alabama and Oregon in the championship final. The UCLA days and Arizona days have fallen by the wayside because there are a lot of really good teams out there. It really is hard to pick a winner which makes it a lot of fun to watch. I very easily could have said Florida State and Oklahoma……or Louisiana-Lafayette, which has a pitcher named Christy Hamilton who is good. She was really good two years ago, but was injured last year. And, they have some unique hitting styles.
Editor’s Note: Mike May has interviewed sports celebrities from the past and present, including Paterson baseball legend Larry Doby. Click HERE to read Mike’s Q&A on JockBio.com.