The game of our lives
Softball continues to bring people together in Whistler
"Our entertainment in the summer included the baseball games between the four logging camps. The winner, winning the four cases of beer. Incidentally, you had to order your liquor a week ahead of time from Lillooet. We played at Charlie Lundstrom’s farm end of Green Lake — lots of mosquitoes and long grass... No matter who won, we all drank the beer anyway. We had some really good times..."
– Our Family Life at Parkhurst: 1948-1956. Eleanor Kitteringham
By G.D. Maxwell
Some things never change.
Before mountain bikes, before championship golf courses, before white water rafting, before the whole entertainment complex that has become summertime Whistler, there was fishing and there was softball. And while the fishing may never again be as good as what’s represented in the extant photos of Rainbow Lodge’s glory days, softball in Whistler is a growing passion and, for many, the quickest way into the community underlying the resort.
In its various forms — slow pitch, fast pitch and orthodox — softball is one of the world’s most played games. At the adult level, it is unquestionably the only team sport attracting anywhere near the level of participation it enjoys. In the US, more people play softball, 40 million, than baseball and football combined. The best estimates for Canada indicate in excess of 3 million people play some form of softball. While hockey will always be Canada’s national game, more of us will play softball, for more of our life, than ever laced up skates and grabbed a stick.
Softball is attractive to different people for different reasons. It reflects our individual personalities and provides a link to summers gone by, when the line between life and play was impossible to draw clearly. Standing in the field, feeling the heat of the sun and the coolness of the grass meet somewhere below our knees, time and our minds wander. Our attention blurs, then comes quickly into sharp focus as the pitcher delivers the ball. Muscles tense, anticipation rises, then, more often than not, the ball passes the batter and we relax back to contemplation and wait for the cycle to begin again.
Within this simple, yet tremendously complicated sport, we are allowed to spend many brief pauses in our own world. Depending on our level of sophistication and understanding, we might be reviewing the game’s strategy at that moment — who’s on, who’s up, how many outs, what will I do if the ball comes to me, in the air or on the ground — or we might just be daydreaming in the summer sun. Either way, the crack of ball and bat puts the whole team into motion, catch the ball, throw the ball, back up the play, everyone moving to the pace of the baserunners until play stops and the next lull takes us back to that quiet place.
Our moments of reflection and focus, private as they might be, take place within the fabric of a team. This may be softball’s greatest draw. We are a team; we are a family, if only for a few hours a week. Softball, more so than baseball, lends itself less well to star quality and, therefore, demands even greater teamwork for success. The best teams seem to know this inherently. They create an atmosphere of support and play the game with a constant barrage of mutual assistance: "Good pitch; good catch; two’s down; play’s to second; nice swing." Frustration with a teammate’s bad play is put aside until after the game’s over and emotions have subsided.
As adults, no other activity can offer this level or quality of interaction. Softball is therapy.
This year, probably 900 Whistlerites participated in organized softball therapy. Slow pitch drew team rosters in excess of 850, with coed orthodox and women’s fast pitch contributing the rest. Forty-nine teams signed up to play slow pitch with the Whistler Baseball Association this spring. Five nights a week — Sunday through Thursday — all three fields at Spruce Grove and both Meadow Park diamonds are busy with double headers.
"The number of players this year is up significantly over last year," explains Tim Houlihan, WBA administrator. "Interest is growing and it’s getting big enough we’re going to have to look at a few different options for the not too distant future." Some of the options might be age designated leagues, over 40 for example, others might include a recasting of league structure.
Max Kirkpatrick, a WBA director, illustrates: "Maybe what we need to do is split slow pitch into two leagues, call them Blackcomb and Whistler, for example. We could keep the division designations: A, B, C, and have the season build to playoffs between the leagues."
It was not always thus.
Early on, softball was probably played in Whistler anytime more than 12 or 15 people gathered at Rainbow Lodge on a lazy summer afternoon. But around 1980, a handful of teams got together for a bit of ball and a lot of socializing. It wasn’t necessary to have beer carted in from Lillooet by then, but win or lose, the players retired to Tapley’s or the Boot to wash down the dust and replay the highlights.
"The early teams I remember, Nesters, Garibaldi Building Supply, Westside Yacht Club, Stoney’s, never practised. We were all young and athletic and were looking for something to do in the summer. There were two fields, one at old Myrtle Philip school (near where the firehall is now) and one in the field across what’s now Northlands," explains Barb Kentwell.
Barb, ace second baseman for Sportstop, has lived in Whistler for 24 years and played softball most of them. "The fields were pretty bad then, and pretty wild. If the ball went over your head in the outfield you’d wonder if there might not be a bear in the bush. And there were some pretty big holes in the outfield; they’d swallow players. Dust was a problem at Myrtle Philip; we’d actually have games dusted out. But if anything, it was more of a social scene then. The teams provided their own umps when they were up to bat and afterward, everyone would get together at one of the pubs instead of each team going their own way like they tend to now. Even though we played hard and argued the umps’ calls, there was probably less emphasis on competition and more on having a good time than today."
As interest grew along with population, Whistler softball grew larger and more formal, although this word has to be understood within the context of the town. During the 1980s, early organizers, Paul Woodside, Jan Simpson, Paul Phillips, Dave Asher, Rod McKinnon and Pat Parker among others, were instrumental in managing the growth — forming the Slow Pitch Baseball Council, bringing outside umpires to the game, integrating new teams and getting new fields built.
Meadow Park, which initially had one diamond — home plate was down by the River of Golden Dreams and the outfield up towards the tennis courts — was reoriented and two new fields built. The old school field was lost to the growing municipality and volunteers built a fourth diamond at the new school site over a long, summer weekend about five years ago.
Then, three years ago, the fields at Spruce Grove were constructed. They weren’t much to look at then, but baby, have you seen them lately? "Spruce Grove will be a world class softball park when we’re finished," Max Kirkpatrick says. "Last year we poured the forms for the bleachers. This year we’ve finished the bleachers and the landscaping, and the plan is to have the concession building (with flush toilets and a rooftop beer garden), brick work and scorekeepers’ shacks done."
"Next year," he continues, "lights go in. The KOA building will be moved to the north-east corner of Field 4; plans are to use it as a clubhouse and provide change rooms. Where the parking lot is now, we’ll construct a soccer field and two more ball diamonds; the new parking lot will be just east of Field 3. And while future plans aren’t finalized, there’s room at Spruce for a couple of volleyball courts, tennis courts, children’s playgrounds, maybe a batting cage. We’ll have one of the finest facilities for softball in the country."
If we build it, they will come.
People love to come to Whistler to play ball. Almost since the beginning, tournaments have played a large role in softball at Whistler. As an adjunct to the play itself and as a boost to summertime business, Doug Nicholson started holding Longhorn tournaments in 1983. The idea was to invite some out of town teams to mix it up with the locals on the field and party over the fine plays at the Longhorn afterward.
The concept has grown and on almost every summer weekend, tournament play abounds in Whistler. The Longhorn hosts five tourneys each summer, Tapley’s hosts a few, the Dregs tournament is a local’s favourite and the August long weekend has been, for nine years now, given over to the Coors Lite 5000. This three-day event brings 20-24 teams together from the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island and Washington state to play each other and local "tournament" teams. The calibre of play is pretty high, sometimes — like this year — the weather co-operates, and everyone is overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the local facilities. "The fields are better every year and where else in the world can you lose a fly ball against a glacier background?" an outfielder from Jack’s Team, up from Washington, exclaimed this year.
With Spruce Grove near completion, the future for tournaments in Whistler looks better than ever. "This Labour Day weekend, we’re hosting the (Slo-Pitch National) Provincial Championships and next year, we’ll be doing the Nationals," Tim Houlihan tells me. "Tournaments are already a big part of what we do here and they have the potential to be a lot bigger. Every tournament brings anywhere from 12 to 16 out of town teams up here. Figure about 15 players on each team, so each weekend, maybe 225 people come up here to play ball. They all have to stay somewhere, eat somewhere and party somewhere; it’s good business."
Softball’s good business for other people in town. "A lot of the people we treat in the spring and summer are here because of softball injuries," Allison McLean from Peak Performance Physical Therapy Centre says. "Probably the most injuries we see are sprained ankles. People slide into bases wrong, trip over other players and turn an ankle running bases. Pulled quads and hamstrings are the next most frequent problem. Baseball is a ballistic game; you go from dead stop to flat out and back again. You need lots of power and training to do that kind of activity. The other main thing we see is arm and shoulder problems, rotator cuff tears, sprains and tendonitis from throwing too hard, not warming up and throwing wrong."
When asked what players can to do lessen their chances of injury, Allison offered the following. "Stretching is most important, especially the big muscles, the quads and hamstrings. People mistakenly believe that because they’ve biked or bladed to the field, they’re warmed up and are limber. The opposite is true. Once they’re there, the muscles tighten up quickly if they don’t stretch. I see a lot of people with shoulder injuries who don’t really know how to throw a ball correctly; they do it all with their arm instead of torquing their body into the throw. Finally, brace a previous injury, especially ankles. If you’ve sprained or twisted your ankle, tape it up to add stability and avoid further injury."
In the end, having fun, playing hard, being part of a team, staying healthy and enjoying summers — both past and present — is what the game comes down to. Softball embraces everyone who wants to play. As organized sports go, it would be hard to come up with an example where coed integration has worked better, where players with abilities ranging from exquisite to absurd can play on the same team and both have fun, where the age span of teams is generational and where so many people can find their centre.