published Sunday, July 28th, 2013

Is Chattanooga becoming Softball USA?

Members of the Michigan Batbusters, in blue, leave after their game as the Florida Riptide, orange, gets ready to take the field Friday at the NSA softball tournament at Warner Park.
Members of the Michigan Batbusters, in blue, leave after their game as the Florida Riptide, orange, gets ready to take the field Friday at the NSA softball tournament at Warner Park.
Photo by Angela Lewis.

As coach of the Tampa Mustangs elite travel softball team, Vern Tatum has seen some of the country's top complexes.

After spending much of the past week at Chattanooga's Summit attempting to win a National Softball Association "A" World Series crown, the Florida coach described the Scenic City's top venue as "unbelievable."

"One of the best facilities I've ever seen," he continued. "And there's so much to do here. Lookout Mountain. Museums. The aquarium. The zoo. It's all just a great representation of Southern hospitality."

With cities everywhere looking to lock down tourist dollars, Chattanooga appears to be making a strong bid to become Softball USA, especially for tournament play. According to Chattanooga Sports Committee numbers, softball tournaments at Summit, Camp Jordan and Warner Park will account for 24 of the 75 events on this year's CSC calendar.

Those events are expected to attract nearly 36,000 visitors, who will spend millions of dollars. The NSA tournament alone brought more than 150 teams and at least 2,500 visitors to the city.

"We're a family-friendly destination," said CSC President Tim Morgan, who declined to give specific financial figures regarding these events.

"People are competing in a sport, but they also want to experience your whole community," Morgan said.

"What we sell is quality of service. We work hard to make sure you can experience Rock City, Ruby Falls, the aquarium, Lake Winnepesaukah, the zoo, whatever your family's interested in, as well as playing in some of the best softball facilities anywhere."

In what is surely music to Morgan's ears, NSA vice president and board member Jack Roney said Friday, "You've got some of the best facilities anywhere. Both the Summit and Warner Park. And Tim Morgan and his people have been outstanding helping folks take in other attractions. They even had one of the water parks offer free admission for several hours on Monday. We've had people all week tell us how great Chattanooga is."

•••

The city has heard such talk before, only ultimately to lose high-profile competitions to bigger cities with newer facilities. The SEC Women's Basketball Tournament. The NCAA's FCS championship game. The Nationwide Golf Tour. The Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association's Spring Fling. All once called Chattanooga home. All now are gone.

Citing national events already scheduled for the Summit in the future -- and knowing that the city failed to attract a single national tournament for eight years before the Summit was built -- the CSC is committed strongly to ending that string of lost sports with softball.

"We are always selling, selling, selling to the national governing bodies," Morgan said. "I can assure you that we must stay competitive in the stick-and-ball sports."

Notice that Morgan said stick-and-ball "sports." As in multiple. With the sparkling Summit having already returned more than $30 million on an initial $12 million investment, the CSC is conducting a sports facility feasibility study to identify new revenue opportunities, particularly regarding baseball.

"We want to know if there's something out there we're missing that can contract new events on weekends, but also serve the locals during the week," Morgan said.

And despite his lavish praise, the NSA's Roney noted one glitch in the city's softball facilities for large tournaments.

"They could maybe upgrade the fields at Tyner and Camp Jordan to be more in line with Warner Park," he said.

•••

There has been a sense in recent years that local slowpitch softball has been downgraded to make way for girls fastpitch. Events such as this past week's NSA tourney and several past Amateur Softball Association competitions only underscore that shift.

As 63-year-old Mike Clements, a long-time slowpitch player and coach, lamented in this paper earlier this month, "People just seem to be interested in other things these days. There's a lot of other stuff to do. It's really become hard to get young people to play."

Yet the day after that article ran, this email arrived from Soddy-Daisy's Jim Alsup: "I am a senior softball player. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the demise of slowpitch softball has been greatly exaggerated. There is a thriving senior softball community in the Chattanooga area."

The city's Greta Hayes strongly supports Alsup's statement. A 15-year employee of Parks and Recreation, Hayes' new title is director of recreation for the Department of Youth and Family Development.

"There's plenty of church and adult softball still being played," she said. "It's just not downtown anymore at Warner and Montague (parks). We just had our largest adult league this spring at the Summit since it's been open, with 58 teams. I'm not saying it's like it was in the 1960s and 1970s, but a lot of people are still playing."

More important to Hayes, a lot of urban youngsters are starting to play softball and baseball thanks to Major League Baseball's RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program.

The RBI group gave the city $10,000 for baseball uniforms this year. Now completing its third year, RBI helped encourage 1,500 local youths to participate this summer, and nearly 500 of those were girls.

"The RBI program gives these little girls hope," said Michelle Taylor, who coached this year's Chattanooga Khaos to the regional championship game in St. Louis.

"The first year we had a team, we had to tell them what hand to put the glove on. They knew nothing about the sport. Now they're calling me in the early spring, 'Are we still doing RBI? Can I be on the team that's going out of town?' Yes, it's about sports. But this is really about empowering and impacting young lives."

Said Hayes in explaining that impact: "Off that first RBI team, eight of 11 tried out for middle school softball. Five wound up making all-county. So it's definitely made a difference in their lives. If nothing else, they're not sitting at home playing video games anymore. They're active. They're playing a sport they love, a sport that might help them get to college one day."

A single case in point: 14-year-old Shawnquell Stanfield had never seen a softball until three years ago when she made the Khaos. She'll soon travel to Hershey, Pa., to compete in the national finals of softball's version of "Punt, Pass and Kick" after tossing a softball 154 feet. College coaches are expected to be in attendance.

As he arrived in town last week to watch his 18-year-old daughter Danielle play for the Aurora (Ill.) Raiders, Chicago resident Dan Helms couldn't believe the city he'd passed through for 20 years on his way to Florida vacations.

"What a beautiful, friendly community," he said. "And the Summit, I've never seen anything like it before. The outfields are major-league quality. Just a great, great place."

A few feet away from Helms at the Summit stood Jim Piercefield, the Tennessee state youth director for NSA.

"This is the softball mecca of the country," he said.

Maybe Chattanooga has finally found a sport it can call its own for years to come.

Email Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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