Softball fans cheer for sports complex

April 24, 2005|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The March 19 Opening Day at the Carroll County Sports Complex arrived after weeks of chilly, wet weather, prompting organizers to wonder whether players would be tossing snowballs instead of softballs.

"My money was on snowballs," said Jeff Degitz, bureau chief of the county Department of Recreation and Parks.

The weekend tournament, the first of a booked-solid season at the Westminster facility, went off with the standard equipment and a few shivering players.

For softball enthusiasts, few places offer a better venue to play ball than the 76-acre complex along Route 97, a few miles north of the county seat.

Many have chosen the spot for their annual tournaments. Organizers, including several state and national organizations, have reserved every weekend throughout the season that runs from mid-March through October.

"They come for the large fields, the surrounding area and the nice facilities," Degitz said. "We have space so that players are not hitting balls into the street or into people's houses."

Since it opened 15 years ago, the five-field complex has steadily built a following, drawing hundreds of players and spectators who promise to be a boon to county tourism.

In between games, the visitors can dine in area restaurants, shop at local malls and specialty stores, stay at nearby inns and visit county attractions.

"The facility is quite a draw, and it is bringing money into the county," Degitz said. "We will have local, state, regional and some national tournaments. We are drawing a lot of local groups and church leagues, as well as teams from California, Georgia and Canada."

The complex also offers lights on three fields and an air-conditioned concession building with meeting space, food services and restrooms. Throughout the season, rec and church leagues, men's and women's teams, teen and senior competitors take to the fields on weekdays. Weekends are reserved for tournaments, whose organizers pay about $600 for the two-day use of the facility.

Ocean City has fields with a view and Anne Arundel County has the newest facilities, but Carroll County can easily compete for players, said Bob Holland, state director of the U.S. Specialty Sports Association, who will be in Westminster for tournaments six weekends this season.

"There are a lot of places around the state, but few have five fields," Holland said. "The Carroll complex is in a nice, family-oriented location. If I was a player, I would rather be there than many other places. It has the best outfields in the state."

George Orr, who helped organize the Independent Softball Association Kickoff Tournament on March 19 and 20, said Carroll County is a good midpoint destination for teams from the Baltimore metropolitan area and Western Maryland.

"They do a great job with the fields, and it is always a good experience," Orr said.

Groups reserve the weekends well in advance of the season, knowing weather or poor field conditions could curtail events. Three tournaments were rained out last year.

"We try our best to maintain the fields and keep them playable and safe," said Matt Purkins, arena manager, coach and softball player. "These teams would play in a swamp or on a sheet of ice, if they could. They come a long way, and they want to play."

Degitz said many leagues have helped rake the fields because they don't want to go home without playing a game or two. One group even brought lawn tractors.

Serious players expect a good playing surface, Purkins said.

Fields should be smooth with "no humps, bumps or lumps," Purkins said. "They should be soft enough to dive or slide, with no bounces for the balls, and they should drain well."

The groundskeeper works every day, dragging, grading and mowing the fields, Purkins said. Maintenance is nearly nonstop.

"Before a tournament, we are there about 5 a.m., dragging the field while it is moist with dew," he said. "It is a race to have everything set up by 8 a.m."

A typical tournament can involve 25 teams each with a minimum of 10 players. Most teams play at least three games during a weekend. Some play as many as five. Hundreds of spectators usually accompany their favorite teams.

"They come in motor homes and stay on our parking lot," said Purkins.

Degitz said, "It is a whole subculture of well-oiled machines. Some even set up tents."

Coed softball has really taken off, giving couples the opportunity to engage in lively competition, said Purkins. It has grown from 14 teams two years ago to about 25 this year.

"Softball is giving couples opportunities for recreation with their friends," Purkins said

Degitz said, "It is as much a social outing as an athletic endeavor. It is really part of a national trend."

The tournaments are also introducing many people to Carroll County, said Barbara Beverungen, county tourism director. The down time between games gives players a chance to roam about the area. And the concession building is well-stocked with fliers featuring local attractions.

"The players often come with their families," Beverungen said. "They stay overnight, go to our restaurants and shops. If they like what they see, it could mean they will come back to see us again."

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