While wracking my brain for a column this week, I suddenly remembered my slow-pitch softball season was beginning. Our first game was Tuesday at Gordon Moore Park in Alton.
I’ve played for years. It’s something I picked up pretty much right out of high school. I’ve played in men’s leagues, co-ed leagues, summer leagues, fall leagues, snowball tournaments and state tournaments. Sadly though, the longer I’ve played the more I’ve watched numbers dwindle.
The older guys who were there when I started are mostly gone and the numbers for new, younger players aren’t there.
For instance Fred Slow, aquatics manager and rec assistant in Wood River, said leagues there have dwindled from 55 teams in 2003 to just 28 in 2015.
Only three leagues remain, a Wednesday men’s doubleheader league, a Thursday co-ed league and a Friday competitive men’s league.
In Alton, Recreation Supervisor Bill Diddlebock said there are only 25 teams in Tuesday’s men’s league at Moore Park. In the past they kept 36 teams in the league, sometimes even more.
Slow pointed to the emergence of kickball leagues, thriving adult soccer leagues, flag football and new sports like disc golf as cutting into the slow-pitch community. Wood River Township recently opened an 18-hole disc golf course inside Kutter Park in Cottage Hills.
Slow is optimistic, “It’s trending down, but I personally think it’s cyclical.”
But something I found was alarming from a 2011 article on athleticbusiness.com. The article discussed a survey by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association saying more than a third of slow-pitch players have disappeared since 2000.
That was a survey from four years ago, so I’m sure those numbers have dwindled even more.
“I guess people don’t play like they used to,” Diddlebock said. “We used to have all kinds of leagues here. We had a lot of fast-pitch and a lot of slow-pitch. We had a lot of people playing. It’s a gradual thing but it’s going down.
“The people that play love it. It’s just that there are not as many. I see athletics as a whole have been going down as far as kids. The only thing I really see getting bigger is soccer. For some reason it grows and gets bigger and bigger.”
There are less fields available now. The lights on Diamond 1 at Moore Park aren’t functional, leaving only Diamonds 2, 3, 4 available for league.
In Wood River East End and West End aren’t utilized for slow-pitch anymore. West End is used for youth games, while the East End field is no more. Neither have fielded games in four or five years, according to Slow. All games are played at Emerick Sports Complex.
Alton, Wood River and Roxana are all under the blanket of the Amateur Softball Association (ASA), but there are also the National Softball Association (NSA) and the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA).
NSA and USSSA have hurt ASA-sanctioned events also because of less restrictions on bats, leading to more home runs in those sanctioned events, which is appealing.
I can remember breaking in during the late ’90s and seeing ASA state tournaments and district tournaments conducted locally in Alton, Wood River, Hartford and Granite City. Now only the Co-Ed State Tournament in August at Moore Park remains.
Now we travel to Decatur for men’s state. We simply pay an entry fee instead of earning a spot through a district tournament.
In 2001 we fought through a district field of 30-plus teams at Emerick Sports Complex to earn our way to C state in Granite City where there were even more teams. In comparison, by 2011 we played at E state in Decatur where there were only 17 teams.
Leroy Emerick, who has been an ASA commissioner in Illinois since 1950 and has ties to the ASA dating back to 1948, has definitely seen it decline. In the heyday of slow-pitch, Emerick said state tournaments were thriving, with more than 100 teams participating.
“I ran slow-pitch tournaments at Gordon Moore Park beginning in 1987 and I think they pulled out about three years ago,” Emerick said. “In the beginning we had 18 co-ed teams, 60 major teams and about 40 minor teams. The co-ed increased in numbers and in 2007 we conducted a national co-ed tournament in Alton and we had 24 teams. We had a team from New Hampshire that came, but since then it has continued to go downhill ... but co-ed is still a rather popular game.”
Emerick, who turned 90 on April 2, is in his final season as ASA commissioner. His son Dean will take over next year.
With leagues ramping up around the area, enjoy it as long as you can. I know I will and Emerick has loved his time with the ASA.
I just hope Slow is right; it’s cyclical, and the numbers will bounce back for a sport so many of us have enjoyed over the years.
Follow @broseberry51 on Twitter