BY JEFF FALK
The tragic death of fast-pitch softball, at one time one of Lebanon County’s greatest summer time activities, has been well documented. And recently the struggles of local legion baseball – not to mention teener-aged ball – and Lebanon County amateur golf to attract participants have made headlines.
But what if I told you there was a summer sport that was flying in the face of that trend, one that is actually thriving, and seemingly becoming more popular? Could you guess what it is?
That’s right, slow-pitch softball is actually gaining in popularity, and may be enjoying more popularity as a sport than it ever has. Some estimate the number of young adults – yeah women have a league of their own – currently playing slow-pitch softball in Lebanon County to be in the thousands.
If accurate, that number would rival any organized sport in the county for participation. So where are all these players playing? Heisey’s Diner Field, the mecca of Lebanon County slow-pitch softball.
“There’s probably more now than there ever was,” said Rick Barlow, who serves as the league president for a number of Lebanon County slow-pitch leagues, as well as the curator and facilitator for Heisey’s Field. “More than years ago. I think it’s because you can play a game in an hour. It’s a hitters’ game. Guys like to be able to hit a home run and have a high batting average. If you’re not hitting .500 in slow-pitch softball, you’re not doing anything.
“I would say there’s over a thousand slow-pitch softball players in Lebanon County, give or take,” continued Barlow. “Slow-pitch really thrives in this area. I’m a people person. If anybody has any questions, they call me,”
From the beginning of April to the early fall, Heisey’s Diner Field is home to no less than five of Lebanon County’s nine slow-pitch softball leagues. And that’s not mentioning the countless tournaments which are contested right off of Route 72 in North Lebanon township during those months.
“I would say there’s more slow-pitch played there than anywhere in Lebanon County,” said Barlow. “Heisey’s is basically the main field. It has the best lights. It has the best conditions. It’s always been ‘the place’. When you think of softball in Lebanon County, you think of Heisey’s Field.
“I think it’s because we maintain it,” Barlow continued. “We try to make it the best venue to play at. It’s just the atmosphere, right along the highway, Heisey’s Diner right next door. It’s just a nice set up.”
In many ways, Barlow and the field’s owner, Gary Heisey, are simply getting what they want. Heisey’s Diner Field is used hard and often over the summer, doubleheaders up to five and six times a week.
“For me, the field just being used means a lot,” said Barlow. “I know Gary wants to keep it going because it’s his dad’s wish. When I took it over, I wanted it to be used as much as possible. It’s good for Lebanon County. It’s good for everybody. It’s not perfect, by any means. But we do this all with volunteers. We don’t get anything handed to us.”
“I basically run all the leagues,” Barlow added. “I have an umpire coordinator, but we maintain the field, get balls, things like that. I just basically do everything. Help is hard to find. Guys like to play, but… It is a lot of softball. The bottom line is: there’s a lot of guys who play, so it keeps us busy.”
Slow-pitch softball is a fast-paced hybrid of its fast-pitch cousin. The game revolves around the batter, not the pitcher. It features four outfielders and there’s a premium placed on athletic defenders.
While played under a bit of laid-back conditions – with occasional injections of intensity – most of the competitors are in their 20s and 30s, but some are in their 40s and 50s.
“It might take a better athlete to hit a fast-pitch softball coming in at 60 or 70 miles an hour,” said Barlow. “But when it comes to things like fielding, base-running and fundamentals, it’s a level playing field. It’s harder to hit that high arc than it looks. It might sound like a fat man’s sport or an old guy’s sport, but these guys are athletes.
“There is strategy with pitching,” added Barlow. “The pitcher can do anything he wants to do on the mound, as long as it comes from the rubber. You’re not going to fool batters often. The batter has the advantage. But there is some strategy. You can really mix it up.”
The guys who are playing slow-pitch softball locally are former scholastic athletes or current coaches. But perhaps the most important thing about the game is that the competitors are staying active, getting exercise and staying connected to sports.
“Oh yeah, I still play,” said Barlow, himself a bit long in the tooth. “Last year I had over 500 at-bats. This week, I’m playing every night. Not everybody does that. But there’s a lot of guys who do. I can play softball in an hour. I can play golf in four hours. It’s less time and just as much enjoyment. As long as I can have fun, I’m going to keep playing.
“The players are mostly from Lebanon County,” Barlow continued. “They’re guys who played baseball through high school, or they’re guys who played other sports. It’s kind of like, ‘Hey, my buddy’s playing it. I’ll try it’. That’s why we’re getting so many guys out. We try to help the community a little bit too. It’s a sport where you get to knock the ball around and have some fun. And you get to go home in one piece.”
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