The snapshot at Centennial Park probably captures the event as well as any.
Thursday, Day Two of the Amateur Softball Association's girls 18-and-under Junior Olympics national fast pitch tournament.
The games have been going on at Cedar Lane Park and Centennial Park simultaneously on seven diamonds since 8 a.m. Approximately every two hours for the rest of the day, two fresh teams take each field and begin another seven-inning ritual in search of a victory that will keep them within reach of the coveted national championship. Some of the 70 teams have traveled more than 3,000 miles for a chance to taste the title.
Four fields dot the Cedar Lane Park landscape. At Centennial Park, though, three adjoining diamonds permit an ideal vantage point for the softball junkie.
This spot at Centennial Park is softball heaven.
From here, one can watch three games at once. While many focus on their home team, some roaming spectators opt for the three-in-one approach. Occasional cries of "Heads up!" warn of a foulball about to land in the middle of the fans.
The distinctive ping of pitches striking aluminum bats, combined with the cheering and incessant chatter of fans and players, forms a cacophony bordering on harmony. The players -- about 1,200 have come from 24 states -- are the core of this five-day happening. They are also the most recognizable.
When they aren't performing, players arrive or exit the park, defined by their team colors, accompanied by entourages of coaches, parents and other fans. The park has fallen under a friendly siege.
Upon further inspection, one finds a sort of softball cult pervadingthe games. Bill Woolf of Chattanooga, Tenn., whose daughter, Amanda,plays first base for the Frost Cutlery Falcons (also of Chattanooga), is enjoying his seventh consecutive trip to the nationals. He has accompanied his daughter to Texas twice and to places like Boulder, Colo., and Richland, Wash., in pursuit of national titles.
"You lookforward to seeing certain teams here and seeing certain people coming with them, and if they don't make it, it's kind of a letdown," saysWoolf, whose hat sports a slew of tournament pins he has traded withother parents through the years. "Some of us see each other every year. Next year will be the last year my daughter can play in this. I don't know what we'll do with ourselves in the summer. It's a softballcommunity.
"This is probably the largest tournament I can recall," adds Woolf, who drove 10 hours to get here. "The facilities here are beautiful. They are doing a better job than some places do when they try something like this for the first time."
And can these girlsplay the game. The pitching is uncommonly good, although hitters rarely appear overmatched. Defenses are routinely exceptional. No wondernearly 200 college coaches and scouts have come from as far away as the University of Hawaii.
Games move along swiftly, usually takingno more than 90 minutes. Most of them are low-scoring affairs, and the competition is as evenly matched as it is fierce. On Thursday, thefirst full day of competition, three-quarters of the 54 games playedwere decided by three or fewer runs.
Fittingly, one of the six games played Wednesday night -- following opening ceremonies attended by about 6,000 people at Cedar Lane -- took 14 innings to decide. The Wild Ones (Arizona) outlasted the Manchester Mustangs (Missouri), 1-0.
At this level, the high quality of play can be assumed. Many of these girls have been playing since the third or fourth grade, and some, particularly those from California, play nearly year-round. The four teams from Maryland -- the Lewistown Tigers (Frederick), Wagner's, Tangerine Machine and Jade Garden Bandits (all Anne Arundel County)-- play a summer schedule.
Wendy Podbielniak, a member of the Fast Gold Thunderbirds (Chicago), made the trip with her team despite being on the injured reserve list with a sore shoulder. She plays about95 games a year.
"We're the best team in Illinois, and you can quote me on that," she says. The Thunderbirds were 2-0 after Thursday, and were scheduled to face the California Raiders on Friday night.
The Gordon Panthers (LaPalma, Calif.) are the defending champions, and also took a 2-0 record into Friday's action.
Not everyone takesthe talent for granted.
"Obviously, we have our jobs to do and that comes first, but sometimes you step back and really appreciate thesuper level of ball here," says John Dye, a Columbia resident who was one of the 43 umpires selected to work the tournament.
Dye, one of four Howard County umpires chosen, is a Defense Department employee who has umpired for nearly 20 years. He works high school fast-pitch games in the spring, and adult slow-pitch recreation games from April to October. He umpired a national slow-pitch tourney 10 years ago in Minnesota, but these nationals are a different matter altogether.