June 27, 2013

Slow-pitch softball: Tournament reverses gender stereotypes

By Devin Golden

— For nearly 25 years, the Southern Softball Association of America’s Youth World Series has built a consistent pool of teams from across the country.

With the biggest field yet, the event needed more fields for the 2013 version. And Heritage Point Park in Dalton will fill that need.

The SSAA will host its Youth World Series, a slow-pitch softball tournament, the weekend of July 11-14 at the park. There will be boys tournaments for seven age groups — as low as 8-and-under and as old as 20-and-under — and girls brackets for five age levels, the youngest 8-and-under and oldest 19-and-under.

Despite him calling it a “niche sport,” Mike Mason, the SSAA’s national youth director, said the boys slow-pitch tournament has built up its fan base and player pool since beginning a quarter of a century ago. It grew large enough to need a park as large as Heritage Point, because Mason expects more than 60 teams to compete. Teams are coming from as far away as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Louisiana.

“It began slowly. We had like 19 teams. It has built up now to where we’re 60-plus,” Mason said. “The park attracted us because we needed the 10 fields. We had it in Ringgold for four years (2002, 2005, 2006 and 2012). A lot of our fans are from Louisiana and a lot are from Ohio. We try to have it at a midpoint.”

The event coming to Dalton has been in the works since last fall when Mason met with the Dalton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau and Dalton Hospitality Association. He said many teams have participated in the event for years. A large group of teams come from Pennsylvania and Ohio and have Amish culture.

“A lot of these guys are second- and third-generation players of the sport,” Mason said. “I got involved when I moved to a small town in Tennessee and none of the kids played baseball. They all played softball. I swore I’d never let my son touch a softball, and here I am.

“It’s a high level of ball. You’ll see softball played at the highest level. You’ll see these teams do well at the men’s national slow-pitch softball ranks.”

The event’s past included only boys events, but this year adds the girls.

“Our thinking is this,” Mason said. “The boys teams are bringing some of the girls from their area. Consequently, maybe some of the girls will bring along the boys. The girls who are playing are primarily of the older age groups who are done with their fast-pitch teams or didn’t make their high school or college teams.

“The breakdown right now looks like about 45 boys and 15 girls.”

The Georgia High School Association at one time had slow-pitch softball as one of its female sports before fast-pitch softball was the only sanctioned softball at the high school level. Northwest Whitfield, which won the 2012 Class 4A softball title, won slow-pitch championships in 1988 and 1993.

But Jason Brooker, the Lady Bruins head coach this season, doesn’t ever remember the slow-pitch variety for boys. He graduated from Northwest in 1994.

“I played a lot of slow pitch when I got out of college for four or five years,” Brooker said. “For adults, it was (big). There was nothing like that around here (for kids) until you were a washed-up baseball player and played slow pitch.

“It gives people a chance to do something different. If they don’t like baseball or are struggling, it gives a chance to do something different. Once it’s hit, it’s basically the same.”

While there aren’t any Georgia teams signed up, Mason said it is open entry and he hopes some nearby slow-pitch teams form and compete. The games last seven innings and the tournament schedule includes pool play on July 11 and the morning of July 12, with bracket play following and concluding July 13. July 14 is used as a makeup day in case any games are postponed due to weather and the schedule is delayed. The pool play seeds teams for the bracket round, which uses the double-elimination format.

The boys age groups are 8-and-under, 10-and-under, 12-and-under, 14-and-under, 16-and-under, 18-and-under and 20-and-under. The girls age divisions are 8-and-under, 10-and-under, 13-and-under, 16-and-under and 19-and-under.

Team registration costs $250 and entry deadline is July 8.

Weekend passes cost $15 and single-day entry is $8, Mason said.

For more information, visit the tournament website, www.boysworldseries.com.