Fans packed the wooden benches at western San José’s La Sabana Park on a recent Sunday morning to watch the Red Devils take on the Águilas in a game of women’s fast-pitch softball.
While soccer remains the national pastime and by far the most dominant sport in Costa Rica, baseball and its direct descendant, softball, are gaining popularity.
The Costa Rica Softball Association consists of five leagues, four for men and one for women. According to Roberto Castro, the association’s president, the number of softball players in Costa Rica has increased from 200 to 500 in the past four years.
The women’s league was formed about a year and a half ago. Castro said it took eight months to recruit the 75 players needed for the three teams that presently make up the league. The association expects to add a fourth team at the beginning of next year.
“We’re green,” said player Gaby Saborío. “We play much less baseball and softball than in other Central American countries.”
Saborío, 49, played softball in high school and rediscovered the sport after a 30-year hiatus. “Many of my teammates from high school are my teammates once again,” she said.
Like Saborío, many of the older women in the league played softball when they were younger and wanted to pick it up again.
“Ever since I was young I liked playing softball with my friends,” said Marta Durini. “I didn’t like soccer, so the alternative for me was baseball.”
Durini, 60, grew up playing stickball on the streets in her native Guatemala, and then played softball at college in Costa Rica in the 1970s. The creation of the women’s softball league allowed her to rediscover the sport she has loved since childhood.
Venezuelan Carolina Salvany, on the other hand, played baseball when she was younger, but decided to try softball after being persuaded by a friend.
“There are minor adjustments between baseball and softball, but the technique is basically the same,” Salvany, 46, said. “Baseball is faster, but I prefer softball.”
Salvany even convinced her teenage daughter, Stefanie, to join the league.
Before the Águilas (Eagles) took the field, the players and coach John Barboza huddled for a pregame pep talk. “Just do your best,” they encouraged each other. “Have fun. If you make a mistake, shake it off.”
“It’s a team of women who come to enjoy themselves and have a good time,” Barboza said. “They play well together. It’s nice.”
The Red Devils’ leadoff batter lay down a bunt for a hit to begin the game and then safely stole second base. Fast-pitch softball is generally a quicker game than the slow-pitch variety, as bunts and steals are allowed. And with the faster pitches, there are usually more infield hits and double plays.
Red Devils coach Juan Carlos Coto said a women’s softball culture didn’t exist in Costa Rica prior to the league. The women’s league began by implementing an overall training program, but the ages of the players vary greatly, from 16 to 60.
“We have teenagers, grandmothers, mothers of families,” Coto said. “We have to try different methods to see what works for each person. But above all, the women like to play.”
Sheila Méndez, aka Macha, wakes up before sunrise every Sunday to catch a 5 a.m. bus from the Caribbean port city of Limón to San José to play third base for the Águilas.
“It’s a three-hour bus ride from Limón to San José and then 20 more minutes on another bus to reach the field,” Méndez, 44, said.
After the game, she returns to Limón. “It’s hard,” she said with a smile, “but I love it.”
The league relies on Facebook, email and word of mouth to recruit players.
“It’s difficult to find players because softball is not very popular or well-known here,” Coto said.
Kim Porras, 16, and her sister, Sheilyn, 20, lived in the United States for several years before returning to their native Costa Rica.
The sisters developed a love for softball after competing for five years in Pennsylvania and wanted to continue playing.
“We searched in newspapers and online,” Kim Porras said. “Finally we found this league, which was only a month old at the time. My sister and I have been playing ever since.”
“We have an interesting mix of players from Costa Rica, North America, Colombia, Venezuela, Nicaragua,” Coto said. “They are a good group of friends and they have a good time.”
Red Devil Verónica Vargas hit an inside-the-park home run that thrilled her team and the crowd. Spectators jumped to their feet as Vargas rounded third base and slid into home.
“Wow,” a male onlooker exclaimed.
Costa Rica women’s softball was represented for the first time at the Central American Women’s Softball Championship, which took place in May in Guatemala City. Although Costa Rica lost, Castro said the team played well against Guatemala, which eventually went on to lose the championship game to Mexico.
The women’s fast-pitch softball league plays every Sunday, 8 a.m.-noon, at the baseball fields on the south side of La Sabana Park. New players are welcome. For information, look up Softbol Costa Rica on Facebook or email the Red Devils’ Coto at [email protected] or Castro of the softball association at [email protected].