Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Weekend men's softball generates memories

U.S. men's national fastpitch team visits the Roanoke Valley

Kelly Dampeer needed all of one inning to prove something most area sports fans probably did not know.

It happened Friday night, at Moyer Sports Complex in Salem.

Facing one of the best pitchers in the country in the top of the sixth inning, Dampeer stepped up with two men on and two out. The 34-year-old Roanoke resident promptly ripped a two-run double down the left-field line.

He wasn't done. In the bottom of the inning, Dampeer made a lunging, backhanded stab of a line drive in the hole at short -- a sparkling defensive play that developed faster than you could say "Dang!"

Sure enough, there still are some outstanding men's fastpitch softball players around here.

They just don't get many opportunities to show it.

This weekend was an exception, as Team USA brought its thundering bats and wicked windmills to Salem for a tune-up before next month's International Softball Federation World Championships in Canada. On Friday and Saturday, the Americans played a pair of exhibitions against Keatings Fitness Center -- a nationally ranked team from Pennsylvania -- and two games against a squad of Roanoke Valley talent.

Dampeer, a former Northside High and Radford University baseball star who spent three years in the Cleveland Indians organization, actually played for both Keatings and Salem. He drives up regularly to Lancaster, Pa., because Keatings is among the closer options for high-level players in this area who want to compete.

But it didn't used to be that arduous to find a great game.

Members of the 20-man local roster remember a day when the Roanoke Valley was a hotbed for men's fastpitch softball. Mike Mitchell, Friday's starting pitcher for the Salem All-Stars, recalls coming to watch his father play at Oakey's Field in Salem in the 1970s and '80s, when spectators covered the entire banks of the park during league games.

"They saw what you saw out here today, all weekend long," said Mitchell, 40, who coaches the Roanoke College women's softball team. "They just flocked. As a kid growing up, it was great. There were tons of kids you got to play with. We played hot box and paper cup ball out in the playground when they were out there playing.

"It was a bigger atmosphere than some of the slowpitch tournaments I've come out and watched around here now. It was great."

Now? Well, there still are occasional men's fastpitch games at Oakey's. But they're mostly scrimmages, impromptu games staged by the core of fastpitch players in the area who can't get enough of the sport.

"It's a great game," said Boones Mill's Larry Bowles, 30, a former Virginia Tech baseball pitcher and Anaheim Angels farmhand. "It's a faster-paced game, more strategy to it. I actually love it. The game fits me. I'm an old guy now, but if I had it to do it over again and baseball wasn't around, this would be the game I'd play."

Team USA coach Peter Turner said most of the remaining men's fastpitch hotbeds in the U.S. are in the Midwest, particularly those areas near the Canadian border. The 17-man American roster features two players from Wisconsin, one from Illinois and one from Iowa. Part of the reason they've scheduled this tour is to try to grow the sport at the grass-roots level.

"The thing that's made it tougher for us is you have a lot of these wooden-bat leagues and a lot of these guys still hanging on to baseball," Turner said. "I played college ball, and then once I played this, I couldn't go back out to play baseball again. It's a slower game. You come out here, you can play in two hours and be done."

Fastpitch is a much quicker game than baseball by any measure. The games are two innings shorter, the pitcher fires (underhand) from 14 feet closer, and the distance between the bases is reduced by 30 feet. The lack of time to react at the plate is part of the reason for the game's waning popularity, players say. Young baseball standouts get frustrated that they can't hit it right away, and many flock to the slowpitch ranks.

"And the reaction time on the field is quite different," Dampeer said. "You normally get three, four hops on a baseball field. Here it's one or two. It's completely different defensive positioning. It's harder to hit the ball, but it's easier to get a hit if you do hit the ball, because the ball gets through pretty quick."

Dampeer had two of the 10 hits notched in 14 innings against Team USA on Friday (both comfortable wins by the Stars and Stripes), drawing praise from the Americans.

"We think he's a good ballplayer," Turner said. "We think he can play. That's the kind of guy we want to get into camp the next go-around."

Dampeer said he's open to the idea of trying out for Team USA, but there's only one way to stay sharp in the interim: Put plenty of miles on the car to find places the sport still thrives.

"We're doing all we can to kind of revive it around here, to have a decent couple of teams to put together just so we can travel, just enjoy the competition of the tournaments," Dampeer said. "I think if people tried it, they'd really like it."

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