Thursday, July 29, 2004

Metro adapting to game's curves

As softball's focus shifts to more wide-reaching titles, this local event is trying to find its place in the mix and get new players on the field

By Colleen Kane
Enquirer staff writer

Phil Washum swings for a home run here, but the Metro has limited homers to prevent lopsided scores and overmatched teams.
The Cincinnati Metro Softball Tournament begins its 52nd year when play opens tonight. Throughout the years, several adjustments have been made to the tournament, and even softball has changed, but the Metro is still trying its hardest to remain at the center of Cincinnati's softball world.

Tonight through Aug. 10, 320 teams will participate in six divisions, and hundreds of people will come to watch.

"You're playing against everybody in town," said Donald Holden, a 30-year Metro veteran and member of EMR Worth, a Major team. "You're trying to get the best team. It's huge."

It remains big, despite reported drops in softball league and tournament play, according to tournament director and Cincinnati ASA commissioner Danney Saylor and ASA official Mike Grimm. This year's team total is down five from last year's.

"I feared (a decrease of) 30 teams or 10 percent because softball is on the decline in general throughout the nation," Saylor said. "And the upper levels have a much, much higher rate of attrition than the lower levels. It's sponsorship, money, travel, competitive level."

Only seven teams are entered this year in the Majors bracket, the top division, and 12 are entered in the second-tier A division, down from previous years. Possible reasons for the drop stretch from teams wanting to play down a level, to the high cost of fielding a Major-level team, to upper-level teams focusing on other competitions.

Jerry Lauer, a pitcher/coach with defending Major champion Watanabe, will experience the last reason first-hand. Watanabe has an out-of-town tournament scheduled this weekend that conflicts with the Metro because of an unlucky draw, so the team could be split in two. Lauer said he's seen teams focus on national and world championships instead of local tournaments.

"This used to be the highlight of the season," Lauer said. "I mean, you always wanted to go win the worlds, but in December when you were sitting in a bar, nobody remembered who won the worlds. They only remembered who won the Metro. Everybody wanted to win the Metro because that's what you talked about. Those were the bragging rights.

"It's not the highlight of the year anymore. They're playing to win the world."

So the Metro's future could lie in a different type of team.

"The future of this tournament is in the younger teams. It's in the average team," Saylor said. "It's in the Dirt Dawgs, you know, the guys who just go out and play for fun in Rec leagues and don't have big budgets."

Saylor started running the Metro in 1979, when there were 64 teams in all divisions - women's, men's, industrial, seniors. Now, there's 400-450 total, he said. And in the men's, he's slowly created divisional play to keep teams at a fun and competitive level. He added a B division in the early 80s. He tacked on a C division in the late 80s and a D in the early 90s; both remain booming with more than 100 teams.

This year, he added an E or "Rec" division, intended for teams who want to test the Metro without getting destroyed by better teams. Two key rules govern the division as equalizers: A home run automatically ends the inning without a score, and only four runs are allowed per inning. It's just one more step to strengthen the tournament's competition, along with lengthening the basepaths, allowing base stealing and banning ultra-powerful bats have done in the past.

Eleven teams are entered in the E division.

"They don't catch the ball well. They give up one or two innings of 10 or 12 runs each," Saylor said. "Their backs are broken. They're run-ruled. They're embarrassed. They don't want to pay for that. ... (Here), the absolute worst team cannot get beat more than 20-0. Without those rules, they could play that team, and the game might not end today."

The hopes are that this new division also will bring in some of the younger players the sport lacks. They'll get a chance to ease into softball, and then work their way up in divisions as they get better.

"It's new, and all change is tough," Saylor said. "It will grow."

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