Softball: A True Underdog Story
On December 2, 2019, the Singapore softball team lost 8-0 to the Philippines in a SEA Games round robin match.
It was a tough loss, but not wholly unexpected. The Philippines team was the unanimous favourite coming into the games, and it was playing on home soil.
Singapore has had some successes in the softball scene, with the men clinching bronze in the 2011 and 2015 SEA Games, but the Philippines was playing on a whole different level.
Apart from a shock loss to Indonesia in 1997, they had so far secured every gold medal up for grabs at the SEA Games.
No one expected that to change.
Almost no one.
A difficult sport in difficult terrain
In an interview with Mothership, softball captain Ivan Ng detailed how complex softball can be:
"It is often said that if you learn to understand the rules of softball, then it would be easy to understand any other sports’ rules.
Multiple attributes are required for softball, the speed and agility to run, good hand-eye coordination, quick reflexes, and strength to hit the ball hard or far. And having played softball, the athleticism allows softballers to play multi-sports."
Here's a piece detailing why some consider softball to be actually more difficult than baseball.
Basically, smaller fields and really fast pitches equals insanely quick reaction speeds.
But while prepping for the 2019 SEA games, Singapore's softball team faced some metaphorical and literal bumps on the road.
In 2018, the softball team had to move to Farrer Park after their lease at Kallang Diamond ended.
According to a 2017 Straits Times (ST) article, the Kallang site was "to be developed for community sport activities such as football".
In the same 2017 ST story, some concerns regarding the pitch condition at Farrer Park was raised by the president of the Singapore Baseball and Softball Association (SBSA) Foo Pei.
"The ground is not flat and it's grass. But at Kallang and at competitions, we play on even ground. So these concerns might affect the national teams when they train there."
Those same concerns, and more, proved to be valid nearly two years later.
After the tournament, Ng expanded on the scope of the field's issues to CNA.
They had to weed and flatten the ground, and the lighting and terrain even led to a "couple of minor injuries here and there".
In fact, the lighting problem proved to be such an issue that they had to bring in generators so they could practice.
Ng told us the team trained four times a week on the field, and had two gym sessions at the Singapore Sport Institute on Wednesdays and Fridays.
But their training wasn't confined to just the stadium and gyms.
One of the more impressive feats that the softball team manage to conjure up was their absolutely packed 2019 calendar of training trips and tournaments.
They traveled to Indonesia, Australia, Czech Republic, Indonesia again and Japan in the months leading up to the SEA Games 2019.
Ng credited the support of "[their] overseas counterparts, donors and support from SBSA and [their] families" for giving the team the opportunity to try their hardest during these trips.
The team also set up fundraisers to meet their monetary goals.
But even with the help they got, there was no escaping the sacrifices they themselves had to make.
Ng talked about "convincing the players to commit to the trips and to sacrifice the family time or personal leisure time" after the training schedules for the year were mapped out.
One of the team members, Aloysius Ong, on the advice of his father, even pushed back his A-Level examinations by a year to focus on softball.
Ong told Today that some of his teachers and friends "felt that it wasn’t worth it, and it was too big of a sacrifice to lose out by one year".
All that preparation, sacrifice, and hope appeared to be hanging on a knife's edge.
An 8-0 loss against the tournament favourites should have rightfully dampened the spirits of any team, yet they were far from discouraged.
One of the reasons for their confidence could perhaps be traced back to a match in June 2019 at the World Championships, all the way in Czech Republic.
Comprising the best of the best in softball, Singapore found themselves largely outmatched during the tournament, but there were two matches that stood out.
One was a narrow loss to Denmark.
The other? An even narrower win against the Philippines.
Ng credited this win as one of the reasons why they were confident that they could usurp the champions.
"We knew we could do it, and true enough we worked towards our target and finally took a narrow win off them in June 2019 at the World Championships. We knew that we could do it again."
And so they did, twice.
After their initial 0-8 loss to the Philippines in the round robin, they rallied to a 4-3 victory in the semi-finals, before absolutely knocking it out of the park with a 6-1 belter.
Their sacrifices had paid off.
They had, as Ng later told CNA, "toppled a giant".
When asked about the team's future plans, Ng, who is retiring from the national team, said the team will be taking a break in December to "catch up with their work, studies, and families and friends".
The team aren't resting on their laurels though.
According to Ng, they are already looking to "ensure the continuity and succession planning for more success".
Their goal is to qualify for the next World Championships and improve their world ranking.
And with the new Jurong East field poised to position Singapore as a "venue of choice" for global competition, the lights are finally shining bright for our young softballers.
Additional reporting by Zhangxin
Cover image courtesy of Ng and taken by Yeo