Softball: A Game for the Ages
25 Aug, 2015By: Peter Francesconi
Softball, for a game that was supposed to be played indoors (back when it was invented in the 1880s, was originally billed as a way for baseball players to stay in shape during the off-season), it has become a staple of action in municipal parks.
In fact, it’s fair to say softball is one of the most popular sports in the country, with an estimated 40 million Americans playing at least one softball game a year. Whether it’s in rec leagues, travel teams, senior classics or just pick-up games following the church picnic, softball is almost a universal sport. And these days, with diamonds across every city in the U.S., it has excellent venues to call home. And with those venues come tournaments and events on fields appropriate for all ages and types of play. Get ready to ‘play ball’ on some of these diamonds.
The premier softball complex in Dalton, Georgia, is the 300-acre Heritage Point Park, which has 10 softball fields, including diamonds with 310-foot fences. The venue offers concessions, a scorekeeper tower and pavilions, including a corporate pavilion for 500 guests, with all amenities. For families, Heritage Point Park offers plenty to do when not watching players on the field, including two playgrounds and a disc golf course.
“Softball has been a really big draw in Dalton,” says Grant Shell, the sports sales manager for the Dalton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We have 23 fields available all within 14 miles.” Among the other venues are eight diamonds available at Edwards Park, which also has concessions buildings, playground and picnic pavilion, and five diamonds at the 55-acre Al Rollins Park
“We can definitely handle large softball tournaments here,” says Shell, “and the Southern climate is a real draw, because we can start our seasons sooner and end later.” Tournaments coming to Dalton in September include both the Men’s and Women’s SPA World Championships. The Tri State Fast Pitch World Series brings more than 100 teams to Dalton, and the Georgia Park and Rec Association holds softball events in the town.
Dalton is easy to reach, right off of I-75, with plenty of hotel rooms, restaurants and historical sites. “We have some great places to eat here, including restaurants that have been featured on the Travel Channel,” Shell says. “This may be a small town, but it has facilities you’d find in a big city.”
The 150-acre Elizabethtown Sports Park is one of this country’s newest and largest youth sports centers, and for softball (and many other sports), the $30 million Sports Park offers a roster of facilities and amenities to please players, tournament organizers and families.
“We’re a perfect fit for families traveling with their athletes,” says Janna Clark, the sports and sales director for the Sports Park. The facility has hosted a number of high school, college and national fast-pitch events, and among tournaments on the schedule for 2016 is the Youth Softball Nationals in June.
The Sports Park has 12 total diamonds, arranged in three quads of four fields each. Six of the diamonds have skinned infields specifically for softball. All the fields have lights, covered brick dugouts, bullpens, and warning tracks. There also are wireless scoreboards and shaded seating.
“We can live stream games from all six fields at one time,” adds Clark. In addition, computerized drainage and irrigation systems make the fields playable quicker if the weather decides not to be cooperative.
The Sports Park itself has six full-service concession areas, nine restroom facilities (including seven family restrooms), and three large covered pavilions with tables and seating for ceremonies, events and meetings. The venue also offers tournament director offices with meeting space and an officials’ locker room.
When not competing, families and athletes can take advantage of the park-wide wi-fi, three miles of pathways and four playgrounds complete with misting stations. Plus, the park is convenient to plenty of hotels, restaurants and shopping, which suit all budgets and tastes.
E-town, in central Kentucky, is at the crossroads of I-65, the Bluegrass Parkway and the Western Kentucky Parkway—nearly half the U.S. population is within a day’s drive. Off the playing field there are lots of things to do, including museums, nature trails and Civil War and other historic sites.
Florence, South Carolina
In Florence, South Carolina, the city-owned Freedom Florence Recreational Complex, complete with nine diamonds, is the largest venue for softball. Jade Perkins with the Florence Convention and Visitors Bureau says Freedom Florence runs at least 50 tournaments a year, starting in February and running to the end of November. “Every weekend we usually have two tournaments running at the same time,” she notes. “That’s where we get a large draw from out of town.”
Freedom Florence is divided into an Upper Complex with five diamonds and a Lower Complex with four. All fields are lighted and have bleachers, and each complex has a Pavilion Tower with concession stands and restrooms. There is also an umpires’ locker room with showers, and a press box area with computerized scoreboards for each field. A batting cage facility features eight automated machines that can throw slow-pitch softballs to 90 mph baseballs.
But Florence also has five diamonds available at Frances Marion Athletic Park, and seven more at the Greenwood Athletic Park. “Overall, we have about 65 fields available for softball in Florence County,” Perkins says. Recent events have included the popular World Fast Pitch Connection National Invitational in July, which drew about 50 teams. In February, the South Florence High School Invitational will bring 35 teams, and next July, the Dixie State Softball Tourney will bring in about 50 teams.
Florence is located right off of I-95 at I-20. “It’s a great location, just an hour and a half from Myrtle Beach,” Perkins says. “There are 5,000 hotel rooms available, and plenty of restaurants — in fact, we’re known as a restaurant-crazy city.”
Right in the heart of Hampton is the 49-acre Briarfield Park, which is home to four lighted softball diamonds and includes bleacher seating, concessions and restrooms. “It’s a perfect venue for both youth and adult softball events,” says Brooks Hierstein, sales and services manager for Sports Hampton of the Hampton CVB. For families, Briarfield also offers tennis courts, a fitness trail, large playground, four large picnic shelters and more.
Also in Hampton is the Virginia Baseball Academy, whose coaches have college or professional experience and have intensive training in state-of-the-art softball and Major League Baseball techniques. “The VBA staff is passionate about both softball and baseball,” Hierstein notes, “and committed to helping each player achieve their goals in the sport.”
Off the field, Hampton has a number of attractions, including the Virginia Air & Space Center; the Hampton University Museum, which is the oldest African-American museum in the U.S.; the Casement Museum at Fort Monroe, where Confederate President Jefferson Davis was imprisoned; harbor cruises and plenty of outdoor recreation. “Hampton is situated in coastal Virginia, between Virginia Beach and Colonial Williamsburg,” adds Hierstein, “with over 100 attractions all within a 30-minute drive.”
The featured venue in Loudoun County, Virginia, is the award-winning Philip Bolen Memorial Park, which offers seven softball diamonds among its 405 acres. Bolin, along with additional nearby multi-field facilities in the county, hosts several large tournaments every year, including the PONY Nationals, which brings in more than 100 teams, the ASA Eastern Championship and the Senior Softball Atlantic Coast Championship.
Among other venues with multiple diamonds available are Claude Moore Park with five fields, Potomak Lakes Sports Complex with four, and Freedom Park with four, all within minutes of each other.
“For years, people have looked at these facilities as being recreational facilities, and they are,” says Torye Hurst, National Sports Sales Manager for Visit Loudoun. “But that mindset is changing—these are economic generators; they can bring in a lot of money, and you still have great facilities for your local community to use.”
Hurst says Loudoun County makes players and their families feel welcome in a number of ways. For instance, at the Pony Nationals “all the kids get bag tags with the tournament logo. It lets them know we appreciate them.” There also is welcome signage, and a “Welcome to Loudoun” program that includes deals and discounts for restaurants, attractions and shopping.
“It’s one thing to assist the people running the tournament, but the participants and their parents are important and if we can help them in any way we can, it shows that appreciation,” Hurst says. “We want to do what’s going to make a difference to them.” For tournament directors and organizers, there also is a sports grant program to help offset some of the costs of the event.
Loudoun County is located about 25 miles west of Washington, D.C., and is home to Dulles International Airport and close to several major interstates. The county has about 5,500 hotel rooms of all types and to fit all budgets, and hundreds of restaurants.
Everything is bigger in Texas and softball is big in Lubbock. The premier facility is the Lubbock Youth Sports Complex, which offers 12 fields for softball (and an additional four diamonds for baseball). In addition, the massive Berl Huffman Athletic Complex has four softball fields with shaded stands, a concession area, restrooms, press box and picnic area.
There are also plenty of other venues that offer softball fields that can be pressed into service for tournaments and events, including high school diamonds and fields in the many parks in Lubbock, says Scott Harrison, sports director for Visit Lubbock. The city also is home to a number of colleges and universities with fields available, including at Texas Tech University and Lubbock Christian University. Lubbock recently played host to a USSSA event that brought in about 100 teams, with a 10-game guarantee.
“Our weather here in West Texas is amazing, with a lot of sunshine, but not humid,” adds Alyssa Kitten of Visit Lubbock. She notes that Lubbock has close to a thousand restaurants, along with 5,300 hotel rooms—“and that number is rapidly growing.” The CVB can help tournament organizers to facilitate accommodations and other discounts.
Traverse City, Michigan
“There is a lot going on here with softball,” says Mike Norton of the Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s a varsity sport, a league sport, a club sport, and more.”
For the last 20 years, the fields at Traverse City West High School have been home to a college softball tournament held every September. A number of other school facilities have also held summer softball tournaments, too. The Traverse City Area Public School System has 15 softball fields available (including one with four diamonds in one location) all with bleacher seating, and all fairly close to each other. In the center of town is the Grand Traverse Civic Center, which includes a 45-acre park that has two softball diamonds (and six baseball diamonds) that are lighted, with bleachers, restrooms and concessions.
“The summer and fall are absolutely gorgeous here in Traverse City,” Norton says. “It’s great for visitors because there are a great many things to do. There are lots of beaches, hiking trails, restaurants and hotels.” Traverse City, known as the Cherry Capital of the World, with its more than 2.5 million cherry trees, also has been consistently voted one of America’s most charming small towns.