Annual Falcon Club softball tournament may be on its last legs

OBSERVER Photo by Ron Szot The 44th annual First Ward Falcon Club Men’s Fastpitch Softball Tournament has faced one of its toughest years to date, leaving the future of the tournament in doubt.

The annual First Ward Falcon Club Men’s Fastpitch Softball Tournament is in the midst of its 44th edition, but unless something drastic changes, it may not see a 45th year.

“The main struggle is the unfortunate lack of committment from some of the players on these teams,” Tournament Director Tim Wdowiasz said. “Every team struggles to bring more than 12 guys, which is not how it used to be. It used to be easy to get a team assembled, but now guys just don’t committ like they used to.”

With only three teams in the Dunkirk men’s league, the struggle has become very real to keep interest up for men’s fastpitch in the area.

“That’s been rough,” Wdowiasz said. “We’ve basically got about 40 people playing in the league and unfortunately it gets old playing the same guys over and over and over. Through the years we’ve faced each other many times, but there are a lot of good, young ball players out there, and I wish they would get something together and try to enjoy the game.

“Obviously some of it is family obligations,” Wdowiasz added. “And some of it is people get stuck working odd shifts, or some guys just want to play when they want to play. They just don’t want to make the full committment.”

OBSERVER Photo by Ron Szot Pictured is action from the 44th annual First Ward Falcon Club Men’s Fastpitch Softball Tournament, Saturday, in Dunkirk.

Four local teams are represented in the tournament this year, which has been about the norm for the last several years. Missing are some of the Canadian and Pennsylvanian mainstays.

“It seems like we hit a peak a few years ago,” Wdowiasz said. “Unfortunately the last two years, the conflict with other tournaments has really spoiled ours. This tournament was always the one to be at and unfortunately some of the teams, because of the logistics, just can’t committ.”

One Canadian team that found its way down south of the border is the Owen Sound U-23 Selects.

“In Ontario, we still have a lot of fastpitch leagues going, but they’re dwindling in numbers,” Owen Sound coach Jamie Simpson said. “In a range of maybe two-and-a-half hours from where I live in Cambridge (Ontario), you can probably find about 100 teams, and there’s about four or five different leagues in that area. And we have more in the Ottawa area, so we’re looking really good for teams.

Where they’re having problems in Ontario, according to Simpson, is the same as it is locally, not enough players to go around.

“What we’re finding, with the numbers dwindling in each league, is that with young guys coming up, and they’re playing on three different teams,” Simpson added. “So it’s not uncommon to go to a league game and have nine guys, because everyone is spreading themselves out around.

“I’m one of the executives for the Provincial Ontario Amateur Softball Association,” Simpson continued. “And we’d like to see more and more teams and it’s starting to grow at the younger levels, so we’re hoping that’s going to lead to more teams and league.”

One of the advantages that the leagues in Ontario have, however, is something that you just don’t see in the states — youth softball for boys.

“I guess, when we take a look, our future is the youth,” Simpson said. “It’s really about getting the kids when they’re younger and getting them to come back more and more,” Simpson added. “A lot of people say that fastpitch is dying in Ontario, but I like to say it’s changing. Our Under-23 teams is going to the Canadians next week in Saskatoon, and at our provencial qualifier this year, we had seven teams. When I was younger, back in 1996, we had 43 teams, so it is changing, but the idea is to stay stable and try to start getting those numbers coming back.”

Something that has been changing in the world of men’s fastpitch softball, is sponsorship money, which used to be readily available to the bigger club teams.

“Absolutely it does,” Simpson said when asked if a lack of funding has hindered men’s teams. “If you’re fortunate enough to find a sponsor, that’s great, but it’s a lot of hard work to sponsor your team now. Gone are the days where you might find a sponsor who gives you $5,000, $10,000 or $15,000. Now, it’s to the point where you’re going out and doing the fundraising yourself, and it takes an awful lot. Our young guys here put on a spaghetti dinner and it was really good and they really threw themselves into it. It’s a lot of hard work.”

Growing up in the Dunkirk area, you knew once your baseball playing days were over, that you could play fastpitch if you could get a group of guys together around a pitcher who could throw a little bit. Now, those finishing up their high school or college careers, don’t seem to find they’re way back to the smaller diamonds in the city.

“We definitely need a commitment from some younger players,” Wdowiasz said. “And a commitment from the teams that we do have here, and maybe get a committee together to try and form something to get the interest back up and get the fans back down here, whether that’s (bringing back) a band to play at Promenschenkel Stadium on Friday night, or having stuff for the kids to do during the games. Pretty much anything to get the fans back down here.

“The game is usually a lot shorter (than baseball),” Wdowiasz added. “They’re usually done in 90 minutes, so it doesn’t take up your whole night. I just wish some of the players would see that and pick up their bats, grab a ball and come join us.”