Once reluctant, Tara Salcedo is now one of slow-pitch softball's stars
Being a slow-pitch softball player was never on Tara Salcedo's to-do list. It was a detour.
Salcedo played fast-pitch at Cal State Bakersfield, but when her father suggested she try slow-pitch after college, she said no. Now she laughs at the memory. She told him, "I don't want to play old-man ball."
Today, Salcedo, 36, is an accomplished hitter and pitcher for the U.S. women's national slow-pitch softball team. She is so talented that U.S. coach Don Cooper compares her to former fast-pitch star Lisa Fernandez, who helped Team USA win three Olympic gold medals in 1996, 2000 and 2004.
"[Fernandez] was one of the most dominant bats at the time and the most dominant pitcher," Cooper says. "That's what Tara brings you. She's by far the most dominant pitcher, but she's top-five or -six best offensive players, too."
Cooper, who coaches Salcedo on one of the top teams in the country, the Derby Girls (made up of top players from around the U.S.), says Salcedo takes a leadership role on and off the field.
"It's rare, I think actually, when you find the hands-down best player is also your leader," Cooper says.
There are some major differences between slow-pitch and fast-pitch softball. Slow-pitch teams have 10 players in the field, not nine. Pitches are thrown with a half-windmill motion and must arc up in the air. The ball is larger (12 inches vs. 11 inches), and the fields are often bigger. Offense is dominant in slow-pitch, whereas pitchers dominate in fast-pitch.
Salcedo loves the action of the slow-pitch game, as the ball is put into play more often, and fielders get the chance to make plays. Defensive strategy -- such as whether to use the extra fielder in the outfield or infield -- plays a big role.
While she doesn't solicit ooohs and aaaahs with rising fastballs and big strikeout games the way fast-pitch stars do, Salcedo enjoys the challenge of figuring out ways to stifle offenses. Her knuckleball is her best weapon.
"That's probably been the defining pitch for me," she says. "It took me a long time to learn to throw it. Took me probably a good year to throw it consistently, to stop spinning."
Whether slow-pitch or fast-pitch, some parts of the game are the same. It's still pitcher vs. batter. She'll throw some spinners and some screwballs and occasionally find something new to give the woman in the batter's box a different view.
Salcedo says, laughing: "Always trying to keep them off-balance and not have them hit it 320 feet."
Salcedo grew up in Bellflower, California. She received a scholarship to play catcher at Cal State Bakersfield, where she received NCAA Division II All-American honors in 2003 and 2004. She set school records for career home runs and RBIs while hitting .343 over four seasons.
After college, she continued to resist slow-pitch until about 13 years ago, when a work friend in Bakersfield begged her to fill in for a missing player. "I kind of got sucked in," she says. She now lives with her husband, Ronni (also a slow-pitch player), in San Tan Valley, Arizona. During the day, she works as an imaging scheduler for Banner Health, setting up MRIs and CT scans in the greater Phoenix area.
"Once you play league and people can see that you can play ball, they're like, 'Oh, you want to play?' So I was playing, like, every night of the week on a league team."
She played mostly third base then and found the game more competitive than she expected. She continued to play through moves to Los Angeles and Arizona, eventually learning to pitch and joining the Derby Girls. She's now entering her sixth season with the team.
Twice she has been selected Most Valuable Player at the USA Slow Pitch National Championships during Derby Girls' title runs. She also won MVP honors for the team in its United States Sports Specialty Association (USSSA) championship seasons.
When USA softball created a national women's slow-pitch team in 2017 for a Border Battle tournament against Canada, Salcedo was part of it. She has been selected a third time for this year's Border Battle in July in Michigan.
"Any weekend I get to wear USA across my chest, it's really special," she says.
Softball is a year-round passion. As a member of the Derby Girls (who play at the top AA level), Salcedo competes in 10 to 12 tournaments each year, typically from the spring through the fall. She plays for other league teams year-round, so she is sometimes away from home several weekends per month.
During the Derby Girls' offseason, she puts in extra work with other top players from her area, getting together for batting practice and to get in some pitching. That's when she can refine pitches (different types of knucklers and a screwball) and experiment with new ones.
Softball, she says, is in her blood. Her dad and mom played, as did some aunts. She has now played for 30 years.
"I love to play and love to be on the dirt," she says.
Her softball friends are from every corner of the country. When she travels, it's like a reunion tour.
"I love the competition and the sport in general, but more than anything, I love the happiness and the people [the game] has brought into my life," she says.