Micky Mantle, Roger Maris or Curtis Granderson could have manned this mini version of Yankee Stadium– but it wouldn’t have mattered. Most necks crane in the same fashion.
Such was the barrage of softballs flying out of the replica Yankee Stadium at the annual USSSA’s “Toys for Tots Tournament” at Big League Dreams in Cathedral City, Calif. from December 9-11. For nearly two decades, the Palm Springs area has held the charity event, with Big League Dreams serving as the host site since opening in 1998. The Cat City locale is the original Big League Dreams Sports Park, which now has 11 facilities stretching from California to Nevada, Arizona and Texas. The newest Big League Dreams set of replica fields opened in Perris Valley, Calif. in January of 2012.
“By far, this is the biggest tournament we host annually,” said Pat Queenen, general manager of the Cathedral City Big League Dreams. “It’s brings in over 100 teams each year from various states.”
This year’s version of the off-season, charity tournament featured 134 teams representing better than 20 states to play replicas of Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field along with Boston’s hardball cathedral. The event attracts many of the country’s top squads and players, dueling across Men’s Open, Men’s D, Men’s E and Co-Ed Divisions. Each player is required to bring a toy (or cash equivalent) to the tournament and initial figures suggest that better than 2,500 toys and more than $3,000 was raised for charity this year. The toys were collected daily by local Coachella Valley Marines who go on to distribute the gifts throughout the area.
“It’s unbelievable. The turnout has been really good and the teams seem to having a fun time,” said Dennis Rulli, Southern California state director for USSSA Softball and a tournament partic¬ipant with TYJA/Reebok. “It’s all about the giving back and people having fun.”
The maxim of charity and the pursuit of fun were echoed throughout the weekend with all in attendance taking in the winter sun along with amiable revelry at Big League Dreams’ “Stadium Club.” The atmosphere stretched from the players, to the hosts, soldiers, umpires, vendors and sponsors.
“This is definitely the best venue in the Unites States to play softball,” said Mark Weber, owner of TYJA Sports. “You’re getting great teams put together with a great product, so it makes it real simple to be successful.”
When not working with customers, Weber led his TYJA/Reebok squad to a 3rd Place finish in the Open Division.
“This is truly the ‘perfect storm;’ you’ve got the best facility, probably the best teams in the nation,” Weber added. “You put all that together in a really nice setting and it makes you want to play here. The players have been very posi¬tive about our product and have been very easy to talk to and receptive about us telling them how our product works.”
Weber estimates that he vends at nearly 25 tournaments a year and says the host site creates an unparalleled experience:
“The ‘Big League Dreams’ concept around the country is probably the best place to play softball. It’s not only the field quality, it’s the atmosphere that makes you want to be here.”
Overseeing a wealth of the on-field action was two of the country’s top-level umpires, who were flown in from Detroit to work the tournament.
“We’re out here to relax and have fun with these guys,” said umpire Tony Walezak, adding that he was impressed by the “spread out” level of competi¬tion. “We don’t have to take it as seri¬ously as we do [during the season]. We still do take it seriously, but it’s our time to relax. Here I am: never thought I’d be umpiring a softball game in December, being from Michigan.”
Added fellow Blue, Chuck “Doc” Beckwell: “We work games at major league parks, minor league parks – these guys play at great facilities. But this one rivals all of those. This tournament – probably because it’s ‘Toys for Tots’ – it’s a little bit more relaxed. These guys are a little bit more relaxed.”
Some of the game’s top players echoed such impressions.
“I try to come every year,” said Chris Larsen of eventual 5th Place finisher (tied) DeMarini. “It’s how softball is supposed to be: good atmosphere, a lot of people come out, the music is good. Just a good time all around. And anytime you can help out a charity like ‘Toys for Tots,’ it’s a good thing.”
Lee Trotter of TYJA/Reebok was playing the event for the first time and was quick to share Larsen’s opinion.
“It’s fantastic,” said Trotter. “All the people here, all the people brining in toys. How do you beat it? It’s a tourna¬ment where you just go have fun, the sponsors come out and show some good products for next year. And it’s all for the kids.”
Approximately 15 Marines from the area appeared throughout the weekend to collect donations, doing so on their own time.
“We do this every year, and it’s all done by volunteers,” said Staff Sergeant Brian Pierce of the nearby Twentynine Palms base. “So we’re not getting paid for this; the Marines have already done their job for the day and are using their liberty hours to come out here and show support for the local community. We’ve collected several boxes full of toys, which we’ll take back to our ware¬house and then distribute to local area community centers.”
While the tenet of goodwill was the crown champion of the event, winning players were proud to couple the charity with well-earned hardware.
“Dennis Rulli has done a great job and taken it to the next level,” said Don DeDonatis III of Fence Brokers, Inc. (FBI), who won the Open championship with a 44-32, seven inning win over 4 The Fallen. “It’s also a way to get everyone together in the winter and have some fun. It’s a little bit more of a laid-back tournament than we’re accustomed to playing but obviously come Sunday it’s a little more competitive when it gets down to it.”
4 The Fallen is the tournament’s most unique team, considering both their perennial “Toys for Tots” success along with the team’s roster.
“Of our 13 players, we have four active duty players, five military veteran and four descendant players, so their father or grandfather were either officers or veterans,” said 4 The Fallen’s Chris Chaney, who has appeared at the tour¬nament every year since its inception.
“It’s my 26th year at ‘Toys for Tots,’ so I’m kind of the grandfather of the event,” Chaney added. “Our teams have been able to win 17 over those tourna¬ments, so this year with a hand-selected young team I was very pleased that these young guys held their own against the top competition in the country.”
DeDonatis added that his team was proud to be sharing the diamond with the runners-up.
“Those guys tell us it’s an honor to be on the field with us, but we feel the exact opposite,” DeDonatis said of 4 The Fallen. “We’re fortunate to be on the same field as them because they’re the true heroes and people we look up to.”
FBI sponsor and coach Chris Walker was making his second appearance at the event and plans to return next year to defend the title. Said Walker of the atmosphere:
“The quality of the teams is pretty amazing. You’re not going to find another off-season tournament with that many teams with that many good players.”
Like many participants, Walker traveled far to take in the winter respite.
“This time of year it’s always rainy and cold in Arkansas, but man it was nice in Palm Springs,” he added. “On Saturday it was 80-degrees with sunshine and we were joking around that we were going to have to get the sunscreen out – actu¬ally, some guys did.”
Taking the Men’s D crown was Shut D, who made an island traverse to the desert from Kailua, Hawaii.
“This was our first time and we really enjoyed ourselves,” said Shut D’s Benny Alcoran who praised both the level of competition along with the chance to watch some of the nation’s top players in action. “I’ve been hearing about the tournament for a long time from one of my SoCal friends. It was definitely worth the trip and we’ll be back next year.”
Earning the Men’s E crown was Team Downside from nearby Colton, Calif. while the Co-Ed Division was won by the Jager Bombs of Whittier, Calif.
“It was a really good turnout; the Co-Ed Division doesn’t usually get all that many teams in most tournaments, so it was really fun,” said Angela Trevino of the Jager Bombs. “It was run so well, especially considering how many teams were out there.”
Echoing the sentiment of myriad participants at “Toys for Toys,” Trevino was already looking forward to signing up for the 2012 tournament.
“We’ll definitely be out there again.”