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Softball as it's played -- and lived -- in rural America. Country Rovers of Upper Sandusky

The drive from the Logsdon farm to the softball diamond back of the Guardian Industry glass works runs through fields of corn and soybeans as green and productive as you will find anywhere. Gene Logsdon looks at them and says quietly: ``As if we needed to add to the glut we already have.'' Then this part-time farmer and full-time author of books on agriculture and country living lapses into silence.

It's always like this.

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The nearer he gets to the playing fields the more silent Mr. Logsdon becomes. The smile that seems a permanent part of his countenance at all other times now appears only intermittently. To Logsdon, softball is serious business, very serious business.

On this particular evening, with the season nearing its conclusion, the game has become even more serious than usual. The championship hangs in the balance. The Country Rovers, the team he founded seven years ago and managed until he handed it over to his son this year, is tied for first place in the Wyandotte County League here in upstate Ohio. They can't afford to lose at this late stage.

This is the season for league championships.

In cities like Chicago and towns as small as Upper Sandusky, teams are battling out the last wars for the big trophies. The largest of these -- like the one sponsored over the Labor Day weekend by the American Softball Association, with 33 teams competing -- draw big crowds and lots of press attention. But it's hard to imagine any of those high-powered team managers caring any more about the outcome of a game than Gene Logsdon does.

Of all life's minor setbacks, defeat on the softball diamond is perhaps the worst, Logsdon feels, particularly when so much is at stake. When it comes to softball, ``I'm not really me,'' he explains.

All afternoon Logsdon has talked about his first love -- farming -- and now he's about to show off his second.

The Country Rovers are playing a team that has nowhere near the depth of playing talent the Rovers can call upon.

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``But that's just the sort of team we might lose to,'' Logsdon says, noting his team's habit of toppling the leaders and almost as regularly falling to teams in the cellar.

Around Upper Sandusky, fully half the members of any softball team are likely to have ridden a tractor, baled hay, or tossed 180-pound sacks of chicken feed around all day long. So the line of vehicles -- and there's maybe 50 of them drawn up to one side of the Guardian diamond -- includes as many trucks as it does cars.

Its obvious that those vehicles brought more than just the players to the softball diamonds. Most of them, it seems, brought an accompanying spouse, a slew of children, and maybe even an aunt or uncle. Softball, as they play it in this part of the world, is a major family sport.

On this particular evening, the sun goes down and a barely adequate lighting system turns on just as the blue-and-gold-uniformed Country Rovers take to the field. Because of some ill-lit areas in the outfield, it could be a little tricky pulling some high flies out of the sky tonight. It's also unseasonally cool for summer's end, and the prediction is that no one will hit the ball out of the park tonight. No one does.

``Never could figure out why the ball flies farther when it's hot and humid,'' someone says. ``You'd think it would be the other way around,'' another adds. ``When the air's as thick as soup out there even a pop-up carries to center field.'' ``When you guys figure out why hot-air balloons go up, you'll understand why,'' says a third. But all the jesting ceases when the field is set and the first batter walks to the plate.

Softball is serious business -- whether it's played adjacent to an Ohio cornfield or in the heart of the apartment districts in a major city.

On the mound for the Country Rovers, Logsdon crouches and then delivers an innocuous-looking arched pitch that drops over for a strike. But the next pitch is struck cleanly and falls in for a hit. The same batter later crosses the plate to score. But that is the first of only three hits and the only run Logsdon will surrender all night. That's an impressive performance for soft pitch, in which 20-hit games are no disgrace.

On this evening, pitching, more subtle than it would appear, coupled with impressive defensive plays, never lets the opposing team into the picture. In fact, the game ends in a 13-1 rout -- a wider margin than even the winners would like to see.

``I'll take my victories any way they come,'' Logsdon says, ``but I like them best of all when the result is in doubt right up to the final inning.''

The reputation of softball itself has been in doubt from time to time during its relatively short history. In the late '20s and early '30s, when it came into being, those who categorized themselves as red-blooded American sports fans were at first derogatory. ``Sissyball'' or ``kittenball'' were the terms of the time. In his book ``Softball: So What?'' Lowell Thomas says feelings ran so high at times that occasionally rocks were hurled onto the field during play.

But all that has passed, and today few people argue with softball's place in American sports. With an estimated 33 million players, it's the nation's top participation sport by far. It's also played regularly in foreign countries where baseball doesn't even have a toehold.

Softball comes in several varieties -- fast pitch, slow pitch, and medium-fast pitch. But in the past two decades, slow pitch has taken over as the undisputed king among the nation's participation sports. Why? ``Because everyone can play it,'' Logsdon explains, ``from teenagers to folks well past middle age and at all levels of ability.'' In fact, there are so many leagues at so many levels that virtually anyone who wants to swing a bat can find a niche for himself somewhere.

Scores in which both teams reach double figures are commonplace. Compare that to fast pitch, in which pitchers so dominate that a 1-0 victory is almost standard when two teams are evenly matched.

But there's still another reason slow-pitch softball is so popular: In Logsdon's words, it ``belongs to the people. You can't separate it from the culture of the lower middle classes. It is their sport. Our sport. It was never imposed upon us the way others are imposed.''

Today, Logsdon contends, baseball is the ``property of little league, high school, college, and the pro interests. It's the same with basketball and football. You have to bow down and worship coaches. Softball is a path to excellence for independent people who don't bow too well.''

There's yet another reason Logsdon loves softball. He plays on the team with his 22-year-old son, who is as agile as a deer in the outfield and pulls down high flies in a manner that would put him onto prime-time news if he were in the majors. Gordie Howe played professional hockey with his sons for several years, but that was an exception for his sport. In softball it's fairly commonplace.

Some players have continued playing into their 70s with teammates less than a third their age. That gives Logsdon another two decades to go -- but he's not sure he'll wait that long. ``It all depends on the humiliation factor,'' he says, a broad grin creasing his face. ``For some of us,'' he explains, ``softball is not so much a game of skill as a game of humility. One keeps playing until he grounds out, pops up, and hits into double plays with such frequency that he can stand the humiliation no longer.''

Gene Logsdon has been retiring for several years now. But just when this is ``the last season for sure,'' a streak of ``humiliation'' is broken by performances that send his softball spirits soaring. Take his three-hit pitching display on the diamond in back of the glass works. That was followed on the weekend by a brace of clean hits that scored several runs.

So maybe he'll quit at the end of next season, instead.

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