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Always at the top of her games


Diane Schumacher, whose resume attests to the fact that in her playing prime she could hit the seams off a softball seven days a week, is beginning to wonder if hitting a 90-mph baseball or a rising, 60-mph softball really is, as many argue, the toughest act in sports. She's thinking it might be hitting a golf ball.

"That little ball sits there," she said the other day, "and you swing at it, but the slightest mistake ... " Her voice tails off. "Golf may be the toughest game, in fact."

Which is insight into the athletic mind of Schumacher, who, unless you're into softball, may be the best-known athlete in Howard County today that you don't know much about - maybe never heard of. Or perhaps you know her parochially as the athletic director trying since 1999 to rebuild Howard Community College's sports program.

Missed the money

For unlike Lisa Fernandez and Dot Richardson, two American fast-pitch softball players who were on TV and in the papers almost daily during last year's Olympics in Australia, the same sport gave Schumacher fame but didn't leave her financially independent. She was born too early.

Now in her 40s, though, she is in four halls of fame, and she did throw out the first pitch in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the first in which softball was a medal event.

Check the partial list of accomplishments that accompanies this article. No question, Schumacher's a softball legend - and no slouch at basketball, either, averaging 22 points a game in college one year and coaching at two colleges.

With a pair of college degrees involving athletics, sports are her livelihood, as, in a sense, she works in Columbia to add a new career branch as a female athletic director leading both men's and women's programs.

Here's a secret: Schumacher would like to coach a men's team in college, any sport.

She thinks men's sports in general would benefit from having female leadership and insight. Skills in sports both genders play are essentially the same, she says, and points out that if men can successfully coach girls and women's sports, common at all levels today, it's sensible that things could work the other way around.

Thoughts on sports

A nearly two-hour chat with Schumacher proved provocative, as she tossed about ideas and opinions as freely and confidently as she once bashed softballs.

Her perspective, especially on youth sports, is fascinating, some of its roots extending back to high school in Massachusetts, where she wanted to compete but had to found, with her father's help, softball and basketball clubs to do so. But having laid that groundwork for, now, a couple of generations of female athletes, she said, rates as the highlight of her athletic legacy.

A sampling of other Schumacher views:

Practice vs. play: "We put 9- and 10-year-olds in the same number of games college players play, which develops an attitude of 'I don't like practice; I want to play games.'

"We practiced a heck of a lot more, and games were a special event. No more. In softball, for instance, youth teams play 30, 40 games a year - I know a 12-and-under travel team in Illinois that played over 100 games in a year, which is ludicrous.

"Who's smiling in the team picture? It's the coaches, not the players.

"But the coaches will say, 'The kids want to do it.' And I say, 'The kids want to have ice cream for dinner, too. They don't want a full-course diet that's healthy. ... You're the adult. You're supposed to know what's good for these kids."

Parental attitudes: "When things weren't as organized, after you played, the first thing parents - today, most are in one-parent families - asked was who you were with. And then they asked, 'Did you have fun?'

"Now the parent asks, 'Did you win?' and next, 'Did you play?' Those are the values parents have. They don't ask, 'What'd you learn today?' or 'What happened in the game?' They don't spend enough time on the process [of learning a sport]. ... So kids don't understand the process of being a teammate, or where they fit in among players with different levels [of skill]."

Impact of TV and computers: "A big difference in coaching and teaching in just the last five to eight years is the retention skills of students. What used to be 20 minutes on a drill in which kids could create on their own, I've taken down to three and five minutes. Kids today don't know how to take something very simple and make a game out of it. They're very easily bored."

Concentrating on one sport: "There used to be three distinct seasons, and everybody could play more than one sport. It's terrible that we don't do that anymore [in youth sports]."

Winning: "I've won a lot of things in my life, and I'm not a millionaire. ... But there are lots of [sports] millionaires not in a Hall of Fame. The IRS can take those things away, though. But they'll never take away my [ASA Hall of Fame] induction, my diamond ring, or what I've done. ... I feel I've been very, very blessed and very rich."

At a glance

Some sports career highlights of Diane Schumacher:

U.S. national softball team player, 1976-86. Two world titles; captain, gold medalist in 1979 Pan American Games; captain and silver medal, 1983 Pan Am Games.

Player in Olympic Sports Festivals, 1978-86. Three golds, five silvers.

Winner of eight Amateur Softball Association championships with the famed Raybestos Brakettes, of Stratford, Conn. ASA is the governing body of American softball, although the sport has several other national organizations.

Seven-time ASA All-American, 1978 ASA most valuable player, five-time team batting champion. Counts as her single biggest thrill hitting for the cycle just once - a single, double, triple and home run in one game. A la Babe Ruth, "just fooling around," she pointed to where she would homer.

Voted into four halls of fame: First American into the International Softball Hall, 1994; ASA Hall, 1992; Connecticut State ASA Hall, 1992; Springfield College Hall, 1992.

Head women's basketball and softball coach, Princeton, 1979-81.

Head women's basketball and softball coach, women's athletic director, Augustana College, 1985-99.

Never played formal high school sports.

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