DeKALB – When Tom Crouch isn't serving as the executive director of the Kishwaukee Educational Consortium, he is playing fast-pitch softball against the best players in the world.
The DeKalb resident is a member of the USA Softball Men's Fast Pitch National Team and the Minnesota Angels of the International Softball Congress (ISC). He occasionally plays for the Hustle Hogs men's softball team in DeKalb.
Crouch, the chairman of the ISC players' representative committee, has played in the Pan American Games and his sport's World Cup. In 2006, he earned All-American honors for the Green Bay Toppers, leading them to the ASA Men's Major National Championship.
Growing up in Malta, he played baseball, basketball and soccer in high school and at Kishwaukee College. Crouch played baseball for a year in Winnipeg, Canada, before returning to Northern Illinois University, where he got a degree in education.
He played a prominent role in setting up the Hogs' Ice Breaker Exhibition Tournament last weekend, which featured top players from the Czech Republic and New Zealand as well as teams from Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.
Before the tournament, Crouch, who plays short stop, took a few minutes to discuss men's fast pitch softball with MidWeek reporter Doug Oleson.
MidWeek: How did you start playing softball? Around here, the emphasis is for boys to play baseball and girls to play softball.
Tom Crouch: I started playing softball by being a bat boy and scorekeeper for my father, Tom Sr. He played on local teams. ...A lot of baseball players, after graduating from school, will get into softball because there are more opportunities for them to play.
MW: Is it a big transition from baseball to softball?
TC: I'm 38 and I've been playing for 20 years. I started young, which is kind of different. In America, guys grow up playing hardball, so the adaption from hard ball to softball takes a lot longer compared to guys coming from Canada or New Zealand, where softball is more popular. They grew up playing a lot more softball, so they get into it a lot younger.
In America, the average age for most fast-pitch softball players is 34 to 38 because it takes them so long to transition from baseball to fast-pitch softball. There are ex-major leaguers who will try to come over and play fast pitch and just never succeed.
MW: Which is harder to hit?
TC: I played college hardball, and it's much more difficult to hit a major-level fast-pitch softball than a hardball.
MW: Why's that?
TC: You're 46 feet (from the pitcher's mound) for fast-pitch softball, and a high-level pitcher is throwing 80 to 85 miles an hour. It's a lot less time to react to the ball than at 60 feet, 6 inches and 90 miles an hour for baseball.
Of course, you can talk to someone else and they can say something else. It may depend on your swing or how long you've been playing it.
MW: I once saw a game on TV – I'm going back a long way – and top major leaguers like Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente went up against the King and His Court and they couldn't touch him.
TC: Now, most of those guys, because they are great players, in a couple of years they will adapt and be the best players in that sport.
It's just like a baseball game where for seven innings you're facing an overhand thrower and the last two innings they bring in an underhander. It's a huge advantage for the pitcher.
MW: Who exactly are the Minnesota Angels?
TC: They're a team in the International Softball Congress. The players ages are 19 to 40. We face players from 20 to 25 countries. There are four different countries on my team: Canada, Venezuela, Argentina and the United States. It's an eclectic group.We play 60 to 80 games a summer.
MW: Do you get paid?
TC: Our pitchers are paid well. Position players typically are paid travel expenses.
MW: I see you also play with the Hustle Hogs.
TC: Sometimes when we get a 10-day break (with the Angels), for me to stay sharp, I'll play with a local team, the Hogs. The majority of those players are local, in the age range of 19 to 40, the whole gamut. There are some events I can't play in because they're a lower-level team. I am in the major division. You have A-B-C levels, and they are a B team. They'll play about 50 games a summer. They play mostly in Illinois, but some in Wisconsin.
MW: What's it like playing international teams?
TC: It's fantastic. I think I appreciate the opportunity to stop and smell the roses and say I get to play against the best athletes and fast-pitch softball players from around the world. How many people get that opportunity? So I dedicate myself to it and I work at it all the time.
MW: Is it ever awkward playing in foreign countries?
TC: I think everybody looks at it differently. It excites me to do it, but I have known players who I have played with and against who have a hard time adapting to it, playing in front of large crowds of people who don't speak English rooting against you.
I enjoy that. I look at that challenge as an exciting one. But I have friends who really don't like that who are probably good enough to continue playing at that level, but they don't like experiencing that.
MW: Is it hard playing with teammates who can't speak English?
TC: It takes a person who can adapt to people from different cultures who appreciates diversity. I think that is something I have been able to do where others may not want to experience that.
Some people don't like to be taken out of their comfort zone. I think you really have to live to thrive in that situation, not just against crowds and other teams, but with your own team. You are going on road trips with these guys. With my team, for example, you have four different countries. We have one pitcher from Canada and we have position players from Canada, Venezuela, Mexico and the United States. We have a real eclectic group.
It's a rare fantasy to experience different cultures. I have relationships from Europe and Asia and South America that I cherish and I'll have for the rest of my life.
MW: Is communication ever a problem?
TC: I speak a little Spanish, so it's not for me.
MW: How much longer do you hope to play?
TC: I guess that depends how I keep myself up and avoid injury. I would like to play at the high level until my early 40s. You look at major league baseball and there's Jamie Moyer and he's 49 years old and he's still competing. But he's a pitcher and he doesn't play every day. It depends if they still want me. If they don't, then I'll probably play locally with my friends or guys I have been playing with on the lower levels. We'll just see what happens.