Last Modified: Friday, July 20, 2012 7:43 PM
If you build it, they will come.
In Sulphur, “it” refers to Frasch and McMurry parks, and “they” incorporates softball on all levels.
With Sulphur’s population of about 35,000, the likelihood of a deep-rooted softball tradition in such a small city might seem slim.
But state-of-the-art facilities and community enthusiasm provide major selling points for Southwest Louisiana to host softball from high school to professional circuits.
The fanfare all started 12 years ago when Sulphur secured its first big softball event, as Sulphur Parks and Recreation Director Norman Farr recalled. After two failed attempts, the city succeeded in earning a bid to host the high school softball state tournament, better known as Fast Pitch 56, at Frasch Park in 2001.
“When the LHSAA connected the facility with the people, that’s when we got our shot at doing it,” Farr said. “If we didn’t have as nice of facilities we had, we never would have gotten the tournament to begin with. Some people had given up, but (the facility) got us a chance.”
Frasch Park includes eight lighted fields in its softball complex, and McMurry Park houses 13 youth fields along with three lighted high school/college baseball turf fields, one of which played host to the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team’s twin games against Jennie Finch’s Bayou All-Stars last weekend.
Finch has been a premier face of softball in Southwest Louisiana since she retired from the professional ranks and settled in Sulphur with her husband, former MLB pitcher and Sulphur High product Casey Daigle, and their two young sons. Furthermore, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist was instrumental in bringing the 2008 team to McMurry Park as a stop on their Bound 4 Beijing pre-Olympic tour, along with the National Pro Fastpitch Championship Series in 2010 (her retirement year) and 2011.
Finch said Sulphur and softball are “a good match.
“This is a tremendous place for softball,” she said. “The people, the entire community really gets behind this sport. It is a great atmosphere to play in. It’s incredible to see how immaculate the facilities are.”
The Olympic team’s exhibition game against Louisiana-Lafayette, in which Finch threw a perfect game, drew an overflow crowd of 4,163 fans.
“The reason we got the Olympics, people knew we did (Fast Pitch 56) and they thought we did a good job, so they didn’t mind taking a chance,” Farr said. “Think about an Olympic tour that plays in Chicago and Arizona ... I don’t think you’ll find any place the size of Sulphur. It was that reputation (from the state tournament) that gave them a comfort we could do that. You have to have the infrastructure to handle these events, or they just can’t come. But the great people make the facilities go.”
Another testament to Sulphur’s sustainability on the diamonds is McMurry Park hosting the Class 3A, 4A, B and C high school baseball state championships this year for the first time. LHSAA Executive Director Kenny Henderson took note of Sulphur’s effective facilities that weekend, particularly in times of crisis such as the rain that hit the city on the opening day.
But thanks to the park’s cutting-edge turf and available fields, all the semifinal games were completed on the first day so the four championships remained on schedule.
“When the weather came in and it got bad, turf fields really came into play; the drainage was great,” Henderson said after the tournament. “I’m not sure if we had natural grass fields that we would have gotten some of those games in. I didn’t hear anything but positives from the fans. They were able to see multiple ball games.”
That baseball postseason setup will return to Sulphur in 2013, and Fast Pitch 56 has two years left before going back up for bids in 2014. In 2010, the LHSAA granted Sulphur a four-year extension on hosting the tournament, an unprecedented move.
“Everybody wants to play where championships happen,” said Eric Zartler, director of athletics for the Lake Charles Convention and Visitors Bureau. “There’s some of the best facilities in the state, and people want to come here and play on them. You hear when Sulphur has their big softball tournament in March, a lot of teams that are expecting to come back for their state championships will come just to ... get a little feel for it in the preseason, and the coaches use that as a tool ‘this is where we want to be at the end of the season. This is where we want to play our last game of the year right here.’ ”
And that’s not all. Farr hinted that a college conference has approached him about the possibility of Sulphur hosting its softball postseason tournament, which would be televised by ESPN.
National Pro Fastpitch moved its championship series away from Sulphur this summer to Rosemont, Ill., at the stadium of the Chicago Bandits, Finch’s former team. The park’s address is 27 Jennie Finch Way.
Moving the national tournament away from Sulphur begs the question of how the city would benefit from a professional softball team of its own.
“I don’t know if a team would work here,” Finch said. “I think it would have a chance if it got the right backing and was in the right league. I would be interested maybe one day in being a part of it. That is something I have not thought much about.”
Farr said Sulphur’s size might be a factor that would impede the city’s efforts to house a pro team. The 2010 turnout at McMurry Park for the NPF games did set a tournament record though.
“Both 2010 and 2011 were record years for them ... a long ways over anything they’d ever done before,” Farr said. “I think you have to have a sizable population (for a pro softball team) to maintain and foster and support that, so I think our population base would be a little less than they need.”
The small-town nature of Sulphur isn’t necessarily a negative aspect, as McNeese State softball coach Mike Smith attests. In making the switch last year from California Baptist in Riverside, Smith said the different “close-knit” atmosphere of Southwest Louisiana makes it great for softball events across the board.
“I coached in a bigger market, but here the hospitality and financial investment from individual people is second to none,” Smith said. “The small towns really invest and feel like they’re part of that family...Fast Pitch 56 is another great example of what we have down here and the excitement and the energy for the game of softball. And Jennie Finch has really helped out just by her presence.”
Breakthrough facilities only begin to tell the story of softball success in Sulphur. The city has engineered a fervor for the sport generated by the whole community.