Fastball's popularity on the upswing

ERIC BENDER -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 12:45 PM ET

ST. THOMAS -- Those who like the game like it a lot.

Fastball has waxed and waned in St. Thomas for decades and like a rise ball, it's on the upswing with the 2005 Canadian senior men's championship that opens tomorrow at Doug Tarry complex in the southeastern sector of the city.

The 13-team tournament ends next Sunday, with the bronze-medal game at 11 a.m. followed by the championship final at 1:30 p.m.

Bill Horne, head coach of the host St. Thomas Evergreen Centennials, said there are enough young players to sustain the sport.

"Maybe not right around here now but over Kitchener way, there's a lot of fastball and in the South Perth league. And there were 20 teams at the midget championship."

Matt Gentes, director of marketing and communications at Softball Canada in Ottawa, acknowledges there was a decline in the sport "a few years ago," but added registration numbers have "held steady with a light increase" the last two years.

There were more than 30,000 players (men and women) registered at all levels, including recreational teams and slo-pitch. Men's fastball is most popular (by ratio of population) in Atlantic Canada, he said.

Diana Thibodeau, Softball Canada program director for championships and officiating, said the men's championship is "our premier event in the country.

"The top athletes from around the country are there and they are pretty much the top athletes in North America in the sport. It's the best ball you'll see in the country."

It's not the popular sport it used to be several decades ago, Horne and fellow host committee co-chairperson Bill Allman agree.

But where tournaments are held, the faithful flock to the venue, driving hundreds of miles to get their fastball fix.

That's why Horne, Allman and a third co-chairperson, Scott Kennedy, were convinced as they watched bleachers being trucked in that there will be throngs of fans throughout the week.

It's not just blind faith that they'll come and make a $200,000 budget tournament profitable. A total of 30,000 spectators attended the 1999 tournament.

It's the second time in six years the national championship has been held at the St. Thomas complex, and the last time, hosted by six local fastball teams, it produced a tidy profit. The Tarry five-field complex was deemed an ideal venue for the Canadians.

Horne, Allman and Kennedy are the trio of co-chairs who are members of the Centennial Sports Club that won the bid for the 2005 championships in 2002.

The club, a 140-member non-profit organization, will donate all profits to local sports teams. In the past six years, the club has turned over $148,000 to minor sports.

Where quality teams used to be put together strictly from local talent and perhaps an import pitcher, top teams are now assembled by players from widespread hometowns.

The host team here this year does have a fairly strong local flavour, though.

Nine of the 17 members are local -- outfielders Kevin Lynch of Shedden, Troy Rick of St. Thomas, Mark Coleman of Fingal and Ryan Wolfe of London; utility player Chris Wismer of St. Thomas; infielder-outfielder Chris Payne of London; first baseman Brian Harvey of London; second baseman Tyler Lessard of Union; and pitcher Dan Beecroft of St. Thomas.

Allman, who began playing fastball with the Port Stanley Stork Club men's team at age 14, said the cost of running top teams has risen with the need to pay travel expenses for out-of-town players.

In his prime, there were several fastball leagues in and around St. Thomas that eventually merged into the Memorial league where he pitched and where he became president after his playing days. Although they didn't win it, Allman remembers the St. Thomas team going to the Canadian championships in 1967 in Saskatoon as the highlight of his career.

"Slo-pitch took over because the guys got a little older and it was a place to go," Allman said. "There was less commitment and you could go out just a couple of nights a week. Then slo-pitch took off and there were more tournaments and there was more commitment and that declined."

Horne, virtually a legend in fastball, pitched an inning last year with the Union Storm of the St. Thomas and District Major Fastball League which he manages. By doing so, Horne, now 54, became a kind of Gordie Howe of his sport because he had pitched in competitive fastball in five decades.

The cost of operating a team these days is substantial, Horne said. For Canadian teams the budget can run from $25,000 to $75,000 depending on how many tournaments a team enters and how far it travels.

"The Canadians are in Prince George, B.C., next year and if you qualify, it will be $30,000 just to get there," he said.

Top U.S. teams spend up to $400,000 and bring in players from Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The three other Ontario entries here are Innerkip, Waterloo and Jarvis.

The opening ceremonies at 6 p.m. tomorrow will include a tribute to Lorne Thomson of Port Stanley. Thomson, a longtime trainer with area ball and hockey teams and who was the trainer of the host Fingal 99ers, died in 2002.

THE VENUE

Douglas Tarry complex at the northwest corner of Fairview Road and Southdale Line has five back-to-back diamonds. Two will be used for games and two will be available for practice. A third will contain a huge tent for food concessions and merchandise-souvenirs plus a smaller beer tent. Website is canadians2005.ca

ADMISSION

Daily

Adult (19 and up): $12 or $7 after 6 p.m.

Student (13 to 18): $5 or $3 after 6 p.m.

12 and under: Free

Tournament passes

Adult: $75

Student: $30

Parking

$5 daily or $25 for a tournament pass

PAST CHAMPS

Ontario and British Columbia have been the fastball powers over the years.

Ontario teams have won the championship 14 times since 1965, while B.C. teams have taken 12 titles -- Victoria teams winning 10 of them. In Ontario, Owen Sound teams have captured five championships, the most recent ones coming in 2003, 2002 and 2000. The Toronto Gators won three Canadians in the 1990s. London's claim to fastball fame came in 1970 when the London TV Cable team won the Canadians.

HOW THE SCHEDULE WORKS

-- With an uneven number of teams (13) in the tournament, pool play is not possible. All teams play eight games in a round-robin format against teams that are selected in a seeding formula.

-- The top four teams then advance to a double-knockout schedule and the next four teams advance to a single-knockout schedule. The bottom five teams in the round-robin are eliminated.

-- The host St. Thomas Evergreen Centennials play their first game tomorrow at 1 p.m. against the Alberta Express and play again tomorrow at 7 p.m. against the Eastmain Fireballs. St. Thomas goes on to play the Mulgrave Nova Scotia Eagles, the Charlottetown Fawcetts, the defending champion Saskatoon Black Sox (Tuesday, 8:30 p.m.), the Kitchener Twins (Wednesday, 2 p.m.), the Jarvis Merchants and the Kinkora Hitmen. St. Thomas does not play the Vancouver Grey Sox, Innerkip, Prince George or Newfoundland in the round-robin.D With an uneven number of teams (13) in the tournament, pool play is not possible. All teams play eight games in a round-robin format against teams that are selected in a seeding formula.

-- The top four teams then advance to a double-knockout schedule and the next four teams advance to a single-knockout schedule. The bottom five teams in the round-robin are eliminated.

-- The host St. Thomas Evergreen Centennials play their first game tomorrow at 1 p.m. against the Alberta Express and play again tomorrow at 7 p.m. against the Eastmain Fireballs. St. Thomas goes on to play the Mulgrave Nova Scotia Eagles, the Charlottetown Fawcetts, the defending champion Saskatoon Black Sox (Tuesday, 8:30 p.m.), the Kitchener Twins (Wednesday, 2 p.m.), the Jarvis Merchants and the Kinkora Hitmen. St. Thomas does not play the Vancouver Grey Sox, Innerkip, Prince George or Newfoundland in the round-robin.


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