Maryville, Tennessee sits at the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, and, within its bounds, there is a park called Sandy Springs.
It is a typical park with walking trails, playgrounds and ball fields. However, those are not just any ball fields. For me and a lot of other people, they are the softball version of the Field of Dreams.
They know that they have hit the pinnacle of the slow pitch softball world when they step between the lines. (For those in the fast pitch game, a field in Oklahoma City is considered the mecca. I have been on that field, as well. Nothing there compares to the feeling of what happens at Sandy Springs.)
Before I explain why this place is important to me, I should explain something else. When most people think of slow pitch softball, they think of weekends of drinking beer and horsing around. They may also think of a local church league. I am not talking about that kind of slow pitch ball. I am talking about elite athletes who travel around the country playing for teams that are sponsored by businesses and bat companies. I am talking about professionals.
As I have written before, my dad used to sponsor one of these teams, the Le-Al-Co Storms. I grew up traveling with his players and learning the rules of the road. For that reason, Sandy Springs became a special place in my life.
Traditionally, we played the first tournament of the year at Maryville’s Spring Open. For the players, it was a time to knock off the rust. For me, it was the beginning of a summer of adventure. However, the first big moment at Sandy Springs happened before I could remember.
In 1974, Le-Al-Co and its ten players from Lebanon, Tennessee defeated the top ranked team in the nation to win its first state championship. It took two diving catches in the last inning to clinch the game, and it created stories that I have heard all of my life. There would be more wins, but everyone involved says it was their greatest win.
A few years later, Le-Al-Co won another state championship by beating its arch-rival, Rochelle’s Market. By this time, my dad had expanded to players throughout the state to make up the roster. Many people considered it a Tennessee All-Star team. That did not make the win any less sweeter. In the last inning, Rochelle’s had the tying run on second with one out. A fly ball out near the fence led the runner to advance to first. We appealed the play and said the runner had left base early. The umpire called him out. Ballgame. State champions. The other team went nuts.
Those were great wins, but nothing compares to being at Sandy Springs in July. That is when it hosts the greatest tournament in the nation, the Smoky Mountain Classic. Some say it is bigger than any national championship, and I tend to agree. There is nothing like playing on Saturday night. Thousands of people sit on the hillsides to watch the best teams in the nation. The sounds of Ray Molphy, the Voice of Softball, would boom through the night air. It is electric.
When I was a kid, I refused to go to the room because I did not want to miss anything. They tell the story that we were playing late into the night, and I was worn out. I was standing next to my dad when he looked over to find me asleep. I fell asleep standing up.
We played a lot of games in the Smoky Mountain Classic. We won a bunch and lost a bunch. However, two stand out more than the others.
In 1991, my dad, along with Louisville Slugger, sponsored a team that consisted of players from throughout the country. It was ranked first or second all season. My brother, who did not make many games, showed up that weekend. My dad, my brother, and I watched as the team battled through the loser’s bracket to finish second. It was the highest finish we ever had in the tournament. Two days later, my dad suffered a massive stroke that took him to death’s door.
The next season, I was coaching another team with Larry, who has spent as many nights in Maryville as anyone. It was called Datom Argus and was one of the top ten teams in the country. We found ourselves playing past midnight in the loser’s bracket against the top ranked team, Ritch’s Superior. Despite the lateness, it was a huge game. The winner would get a spot in the national tournament.
I do not remember all of the details of the game, but a few things stick out. The thousands of spectators were gone. Their sponsors and the tournament officials were sitting on the hill watching. Everyone needed and expected the other team to win. One of their best hitters popped up at a crucial time, and Larry taunted him. We were getting under their skin, and they were pressing. Bucky, who put the team together and was one of our best hitters, hit a home run that barely made it over the fence. Their left fielder threw his glove over the fence in disgust.
It was a close game, but we pulled off the upset. We showed up a few hours later to play the next game. Getting to Sunday in the Smoky Mountain Classic is a huge accomplishment, but we were done. Our big game had already been played.
A few months ago, I went to Sandy Springs to take these pictures. The scene was tranquil. People were walking dogs, and children were playing on the fields. However, I could feel something in the air. I could feel the crowd. I could hear the games. I tried to explain it to my wife, but she did not understand. I do not expect those who read this to understand, but Sandy Springs is a special place.