During a fun conversation with a friend, who is a successful restaurateur and high school softball coach, we lamented about the lost art of the game of Pepper. We both agreed it was time for Pepper to make a comeback. I plan to include it as one of the drills I use with my college softball team during practices and even before games.
For those who are not familiar with Pepper, it’s pretty simple. One player is the hitter and the rest of the players are fielders. The fielders throw to the hitter from a short distance and the hitter attempts to hit a ground ball or line drive back to the fielders. There is really no limit to the number of fielders, but the typical game of Pepper includes five to seven players.
To see the game in action, there are plenty of videos online, including this famous old-time example of how Pepper can be fun and instructive.
The game begins when one of the fielders tosses the ball (overhand or underhand) to the hitter from fifteen to twenty feet. The hitter will then use an abbreviated swing to hit the ball back to the fielders. The intent is not for fielders to throw fastballs or for the hitter to launch rockets back at them. Fielders should throw balls the hitter can easily handle and the hitter should hit routine ground balls or line drives.
Pepper can be used as a practice tool or as a fun competitive game. As a practice drill, the hitter should attempt to hit balls randomly or sequentially to each of the fielders, so they all get a chance to field multiple balls. The primary benefit for the hitter is to practice focusing on the ball as it hits the bat, and the primary benefit for fielders is a keener focus on the ball until it stops in the glove.
As a competitive game, the hitter loses if the ball is missed or fouled off, and the fielder loses if an error is committed. The hitter who loses will exchange places with the fielder who threw the ball. The fielder who loses can be eliminated from the game, forced to the back of the line (if the fielders are in a single file line), or just teased by everyone in a good natured way.
Here are two primary benefits of playing Pepper:
All you have to do is look at the expressions on the faces of the Cincinnati Reds in the picture above to see teammates strengthening relationships through this simple game. For just a few minutes, these major league players, including Pete Rose, and Hall of Famer Johnny Bench, probably felt like they were back on the sandlots of their youth instead of a huge stadium. Pepper games typically include a dose of good natured kidding, a little trash talking, and praise for a well-placed hit or an amazing catch. If coaches have players who are not on the same page, forcing them to play a quick game of Pepper could bring them back together quickly as teammates with a common mission.
Playing Pepper is something Tee-Ball players and professional players can use to improve several critical skills. I recently returned from my third trip to the Dominican Republic. I marveled at the amount of repetition the Dominican players are accustomed to for each fielding or hitting drill. They understand clearly that repetition leads to habit, which leads to comfort, which leads to confidence, which leads to success in games. Using Pepper as a drill, a competition, or just a fun activity, provides players with opportunities for valuable reps of hitting and fielding fundamentals they will use in games. Hitters can work on tracking the ball into the hitting zone, the proper swing sequence, directional hitting, and general bat control. Fielders can work on footwork, glove position, watching the ball into the glove, and how to quickly set up to make a throw.
When Pepper was popular, warning signs popped up at many fields and stadiums prohibiting players from engaging in this activity. The concern was a stray hit could injure someone in the immediate area. I totally understand this concern, but I think these signs actually contributed to the steady decline of Pepper.
Please join me in saying “Yes” to Pepper. I’m looking forward to watching the skills of our college players improve as much as their relationship with each other. I can’t wait to see a game of Pepper spontaneously break out before an important game to ease the tension and to send a message to the other team. I believe Pepper is a good “seasoning” for success!