After having enjoyed and endured Ken Burn's 20 hour documentary/ anthology achievement Baseball, I was not sure what to expect from the documentary "Fastpitch." Considered by fans and players alike to be a sport in critical condition, fastpitch softball, the focus of the documentary, is a sped up version of softball in which pitchers hurl rocket like pitches from a pitchers mound approximately 15 feet closer to home plate than its baseball counterpart and teams representing bars, restaurants, small towns and entire tribes, sometimes filled with local players added to the teams rosters, regularly square off against each other with the goal of winning the world championship in a tournament style championship series. In his documentary, Jeremy Spears takes the viewer deep inside the sometimes unglamourous world of fastpitch softball, giving pause to reflect on the history and the stars of the game as he too goes on a quest for the world championship, or at least respectability.
At first seeming like a study simply in the sport, its players and its fans, all with a distinct down home feeling, Jeremy Spears' documentary soon delves deeper and, for better or for worse, does a commendable job of capturing both the life of the players (as he soon joins one of the teams as their shortstop) and the role that, even in a smaller league, money has begun to play. Because he joins up with the Ashland, Ohio Abbot Labs team, much of the focus of the documentary is on this team, from the manager who is forced to bankroll his team and their lodging at home and on the road, to the star player of the team, Shane Hunnuhunnu, a New Zealander who has a knack for slamming home runs and is the object of affection for many local ladies of Ashland.Spears' focus on the one team allows the viewer to experience all the highs and lows of the game, although it is Spears' other fascination, a team called the Tampa Bay Smokers (while Major League Baseball removed cigarette billboards the Smokers' jerseys feature a cigar as does the team mascot) gives the viewer the unfortunate sense of where the game is going. The Smokers are bankrolled to the tune of $500,000 a year (compared to the $30,000 spent by other teams) by a man named Peter Porcelli, a multi-millionaire who sets out to buy the best players and field a championship team, with new uniforms for each game, parties for the players on his private yacht, and the commandeering of a radio station for the purpose of broadcasting the World Championship tournament games all the way from Wisconsin to Florida). Fans, players and coaches all seem to believe that the best players will follow the money and take better offers with teams that can pay more, leaving the less well-to-do teams without a local star player to look up to. It is somewhat disconcerting to hear even the most devout fans of the sport pronounce its impending death, but, as the documentary depicts Porcelli as somewhat slimy and slick, it seems to implicitly raise the question whether this is the future of the sport that will keep it on life support for a while longer.
Himself a virtual melting pot (Spears describes himself as a Chinese, Polish, German, half-Jew), Spears does a great job at examining the multicultural aspect of the game. While baseball routinely draws players from throughout Latin America and South America, the allure of fastpitch softball has brought a number of players from New Zealand (where fastpitch is huge) and led to the formation of a team called the North Americans, composed largely of members of the Lakota tribe. The documentary follows members of the North Americans as the talk to students at a local school about the dangers of drugs and alcohol and the manner in which it can interfere with ones dreams. Later, during the World Championships, the Star Spangled Banner and the Canadian national anthem are followed by a traditional Lakota chant.