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More Than 39,000 Orange County Residents Can't Be Wrong; Slo-Pitch Softball Participation Is Rapidly on the Rise : UP, UP AND AWAY

SUMMER SPECIAL: A look at recreation and outdoor life in Orange County during the summer. Third of 10 parts.

July 09, 1986|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | Times Staff Writer

Mike Goff of Mission Viejo is the ultimate slo-pitch softball animal.

The 28-year-old truck driver plays five nights a week on seven teams in five Orange County cities. He spends one night a week as an umpire in Irvine. He spends many weekends playing in local tournaments.

Goff said he has several friends who play three, four or five nights a week. Many of those friends, he said, are having problems with their wives and girlfriends, who are losing the battle for attention to a game their husbands and boyfriends have fallen in love with.

Goff found the perfect solution. He married a woman who plays softball four nights a week.

Such bliss.

But apparently not eternal.

Goff's wife, Mary, wants to have children soon--a proposal Mike has greeted with resistance.

"That's gonna ruin everything, in my opinion," he said. "Mary says, 'Oh, you can still play one night a week.'

"I say, 'No way.' "

Only 10 years ago, adult fast-pitch softball was flourishing in Orange County. But, oh, how long ago it all seems.

Remember the Mission Viejo Vaqueros, a men's professional team in the Western Softball Congress? And the Santa Ana Lionettes of the International Women's Professional Softball Assn.?

Mike Wright, who has been with the City of Santa Ana's recreation division for 20 years, said that a typical summer adult league in 1975 consisted of about 100 fast-pitch teams and 10 slo-pitch teams.

Today, the opposite is true. There are 12 fast-pitch teams in Santa Ana, but the slo-pitch figure has ballooned to 270.

Bob Thrall, senior recreation supervisor for the City of Huntington Beach, said there were 24 fast-pitch teams in his city's leagues as late as 1981.

Today, there are none.

Slo-pitch, however, is thriving in Huntington Beach, where 420 teams are competing this summer--the most in any of the county's 26 incorporated cities.

A check with city recreation departments revealed that there are about 2,800 adult slo-pitch teams affiliated with Orange County cities, many playing year-round. Based on an average of 14 players per roster, there would be about 39,200 participating.

Of course, that figure doesn't account for people such as Goff, who play on several teams. Some teams also play in two or three different leagues.

It would be difficult to determine an exact figure for teams and players, but the picture is clear.

Slo-pitch softball is booming.

Not just men's slo-pitch. There are about 600 teams with men and women and 160 women's teams in Orange County. There are about 25 teams for players 55-and-over.

The most recent trend is an increase toward mixed teams. Three years ago, for instance, there were 24 in Huntington Beach. This summer, there are 86.

With the growth in slo-pitch comes a need for more fields. "Most cities are scrambling around trying to find enough facilities to use," Wright said.

Ken Cook, area director for the United States Slo-Pitch Softball Assn., has a plan to deal with the field crunch.

He and partner Steve Boehm are overseeing construction of a $1.2 million complex called the Irvine Softball Center, which will consist of six championship-caliber, lighted fields, each with an electric scoreboard. Plans call for batting cages and a 5,000-square-foot concession building with a pizza parlor, lounge and pro shop.

The complex, with an opening date targeted for Nov. 1, will be located on the grounds of Lion Country Safari. It will be used for slo-pitch softball only--no youth soccer or football--and will be able to accommodate 325 teams a season, four seasons per year.

"The traditional thing with slo-pitch teams is to play one night a week with your buddies and go out afterward for some pizza and beer," Cook said. "What we're going to do is create an environment where they can do all that at one location."

Construction of such a complex is a reflection of the sport's growth and wide-spread appeal, which can be attributed to several factors.

Slo-pitch softball is recreation-oriented. Hitting doesn't require a lot of skill, and everyone gets a chance to field the ball on defense. Strikeouts are rare, unlike fast-pitch, which is dominated by the pitcher. All the players are involved in a slo-pitch game.

Most cities classify their teams by skill levels (usually A, B, C and D divisions), so that games will be competitive. Those who were good high school or college baseball players, but who weren't good enough to make the pros can still maintain a high level of competition in a top-division, slo-pitch league.

Many who never played organized baseball have developed into excellent softball players. Those who are less talented still enjoy the sport on a lower level. Couples can play together on mixed teams.

"There's room for the athlete and the non-athlete," Wright said.

The sport can be addictive. Darrell Huntley, 32, of Whittier, was recovering from a broken hand and had a sore hip and sore back last week. But that didn't stop him from playing in his Anaheim league game Thursday night.

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