I come not to bury men’s fast-pitch softball, but to mourn over it.
A great and storied sport isn’t quite dead — to borrow a line from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” — but it’s in trouble.
Not even 30 years ago, there were enough men’s fast-pitch teams in southern and southwest Minnesota that the district tournament could attract more than 30 teams. The numbers dwindled, enough so that the district tournament format was scrapped and teams could apply directly to compete in the state tournament.
Then the number of state tournament teams dwindled, too. Year by year. Bit by bit.
In Minnesota, the sport’s health has not leveled off. The decline continues.
Kevin Rogers, who has been directly involved in men’s fast-pitch since the late 1960s, laments the fact that only a handful of serious teams survive today. Not only are there fewer teams, and of course fewer devotees, but there are far fewer tournaments. It used to be that area communities like Okabena, Windom, Odin and Lake Crystal sponsored weekend tournaments every year, but not any more.
Rogers organized a tourney in Okabena as recently as last year, but it’s not going to happen in 2015. He says he’s frustrated at having to work so hard just to get teams to participate.
Fast-pitch softball is a girls and women’s sport now. Boys are steered toward baseball from the time they begin their introduction into T-ball. Fast-pitch softball has been squeezed out.
“You could see it in the cards 10 years ago, easy,” said Rogers. “Especially when there were no pitchers coming up. And the older ones retired.”
You won’t have to look hard among fast-pitch veterans to hear that, in many respects, it is a superior game to baseball. At the highest levels, pitchers dominate, which adds strategy and forces hitters to be at their best. Games move swiftly, making weekend tournaments festive occasions. You can play three tight and tense games in a day in a charged-up tournament atmosphere — which can be a whole lot more fun than playing one three-hour amateur baseball game that (when the pitching isn’t sharp) can quickly degenerate into tedium.
Southwest Minnesota has produced some world-class men’s fast-pitch stars, including Ellsworth native Chad Boom and the Ruthton Bouman brothers Shane, Troy and Todd — the latter who played quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings.
Rogers, a veteran baseball and fast-pitch softball player, is spending part of his summer helping run the Odin men’s fast-pitch team along with doing a little umpiring. He coached the Heron Lake-Okabena high school baseball team in the spring.
Up until this summer, he kept pretty busy with fast-pitch. But there are fewer opportunities now.
“There are no youth programs now,” he said this week.
Men who’ve built their entire summers around weekend tournaments, including state and national events, are re-thinking their options. With fewer tournaments to choose from, there’s even more travel involved than there used to be. And there’s not enough young pitchers to replace the older ones who are retiring. Without good young pitchers, fast-pitch cannot survive.
Rogers tells a story of the Lake Crystal 23-and-under fast-pitch program that only a few years ago competed for national titles. The team traveled to play in the ASA national tournament in Missouri last year but had to turn around and go home. Only three teams showed up.
The old-timers can recall that, way back in the 1950s, men’s fast-pitch softball was such a popular sport that communities could organize leagues made up entirely of church teams. There were more than enough pitchers to go around.
More recently, many southwest Minnesota teams enjoyed prolonged success on the state and national stages. The Mankato Happy Chef teams were national juggernauts for decades. Other teams — not quite as well known as Happy Chef but certainly outstanding in their own right — from Vesta, from Odin, the PJs Lounge teams based in the Lakefield and Okabena area — fared well at national events.
Relatively few players from those teams continue to perform today. They’ve retired, either due to age or the declining state of the sport they love.
Those talented old men are not being replaced. Their replacements are playing baseball, and they will never know the special charms of baseball’s cousin, fast-pitch softball.
You may not think it a shame that men’s fast-pitch softball is dying. And that’s fine. But if you ever played it with a passion, or watched it as a fan, you’re already missing it.
Doug Wolter is the Daily Globe sports editor. He served as sports reporter, then sports editor, news editor and finally managing editor at the Daily Globe for 22 years before leaving for seven years to work as night news editor at the Mankato Free Press in Mankato. Doug now lives in Worthington with his wife, Sandy. They have three children and seven grandchildren. Doug, retired after a lengthy career in fast-pitch softball, enjoys reading, strumming his acoustic guitar and hanging around his grandchildren. He also writes books on fiction. Two of his stories, "The Genuine One" and "The Old Man in Section 129" have been distributed through a national publisher.