Fans flock to softball's signature event

Graham Hays/espnW

Softball fans from all schools -- even TCU, which doesn't have a program -- and walks of life make up "Tent-opolis" every year at the WCWS.

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Elimination Saturday at the Women's College World Series is a study in survival for each of the six teams that take the field at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium hoping to be one of only two teams left standing when the clock strikes midnight. Or, as is often the case at the end of a full schedule, several minutes past midnight.

The experience is a little different for fans. For them, after a search for coffee if they made it to the end of the previous night's games, the first full day of the weekend is a beginning. It is a chance to sit back and savor a unique atmosphere in women's sports.

An atmosphere that brings many back year after year, no matter the colors of the uniforms involved.

No matter the color of the tents beneath which they congregate in the parking lot, for that matter.

Carol Stiff/espnW

Saturday's elimination day crowd of 9,192 was more than three times that which watched the 1992 championship game.

The purpose of the World Series is to determine a national championship. But somewhere in the past three-plus decades, it also became a way to celebrate the sport and the role it plays in the lives of those who participate, support or simply enjoy it from afar. Most of which, in all honesty, has little to do with what happens inside the stadium.

This year, Saturday morning arrived framed by thick gray clouds that eventually delivered a brief shower before the start of play. But the less-than-perfect conditions didn't stop fans in the stadium's expansive parking lot from erecting tents, firing up grills and opening coolers more than two hours before the first pitch at 11 a.m. local time.

A man tipped his Oklahoma Sooners cap with a "Good morning" as he carried a bag of trash from his RV to a nearby trash can. A few rows away, men tended a line of grills near an LSU tent -- just as they had when that team actually made it to the World Series two years ago. A little closer to the line already forming at the stadium's main entrance, TCU and Oklahoma State tents came together to form part of an enclave that covered multiple parking spots.

This, as Stevie Smith explained from the comfort of a camping chair, was "Tent-opolis." And visitors were welcome.

The TCU tent belonged to Smith and her father, Mark, who reside in Plano, Texas. The purple awning is an oddity even in a parking lot with plenty of representation for schools that are not in the field of eight teams, given that the school is one of only a handful in major conferences that does not sponsor softball.

"It's not like we don't have a dog in the fight," lamented Mark. "We don't have a dog."

Nonetheless, father and daughter have been coming to the WCWS from their Plano home since the latter was in elementary school. She now is a speech pathologist, having played college softball herself at Division II Texas Woman's University not quite a decade ago.

The stadium wasn't what it is now when they first started making the trip (and it isn't now what it will be when a multimillion-dollar renovation project is completed that could keep the event in Oklahoma City through 2035). Back in those days, the only permanent seating was in a small semicircle around the infield. Where seats now extend down the foul lines, Stevie and other kids with limited attention spans would seek out cardboard and slide down the grass berm.

That's the World Series that Kentucky coach Rachel Lawson experienced when she came here as a player with Massachusetts in 1992.

"The grass wasn't green," Lawson recalled of a time when the outfield fences were also the temporary break-away variety common to youth leagues. "They came out and spray painted the grass. And we thought that was the coolest thing ever, by the way. So to see how far with the attendance and everything that the city of Oklahoma and ASA has done for it is absolutely incredible."

AP Photo/Alonzo Adams

The WCWS not only crowns a champion, it also has become a way for fans to simply celebrate softball's signature event.

Saturday's crowd of 9,192 was the fifth-largest single-session total and more than three times bigger than the crowd that watched the 1992 championship game. The top 10 attendance figures have all occurred since 2010.

The World Series was even less of an event than what Lawson and Smith experienced on their first visits when Teresa Ryser played in it for Oklahoma State in 1981. It wasn't in Oklahoma City, for one thing, instead held in Omaha, Nebraska, better known as the home of college baseball's championship. That was the first year the NCAA sanctioned a softball championship, and the games were held in what was more of a community complex than a stadium. Attendance for the entire NCAA tournament that year was 17,740, less than the expected attendance for Saturday's two sessions at Hall of Fame Stadium.

In addition to a lot of support for Oklahoma, partly because it is in the field and partly because the group's members include the mother of former Sooner Susan Ogden, Tent-opolis features an Oklahoma State section for which Ryser, a regular year after year, is among those responsible.

"I think just how much it's grown," Ryser said of what she thinks when she looks around at the scene these days.

If she was succinct in her words, she wasn't short on emotion as she spoke. One of the other members of the group explained that Ryser's father had passed away within the year, making this a particularly poignant trip to the sport's signature event. It was her father who founded a youth softball organization in Tulsa at a time when the ink was barely dry on Title IX.

In the stands Saturday along with some of her U.S. national team teammates, as they have been throughout the tournament, Lauren Gibson faces a busy summer that includes the ISF World Championship, the sport's premier international event, in the Netherlands. The 2013 SEC Player of the Year at Tennessee, Gibson played her final college game in Oklahoma City a season ago and has been forced to get creative to find ways to keep her softball skills sharp over the winter and spring as the national program operates on a shoestring budget, the result of the sport's exclusion from the Olympics.

It helped that she could save money on a batting practice pitcher during the times she was home in Maryland. As he has been since he learned the sport when his daughter picked it up, Steve Gibson is Lauren's personal pitcher.

"He throws a curveball and a screwball very well," Lauren said by way of a scouting report. "He pitches underhand and he also does baseball-style to me. Obviously he doesn't pitch extremely hard, like Jackie Traina or someone like that, so he throws overhand to me, as well, just for speed purposes. He used to play baseball, so he knows how to throw some pitches."

While the focus for the WCWS is on the best college players in the country, and even the best in the world like Gibson, the connection between parents and kids is universal.

The first experience Mark Smith ever had with softball was coaching a team comprised mostly of the younger sisters, Stevie included, of the team of baseball Little Leaguers that included Mark's son. Before he knew it, he was a softball dad. In some ways, he still is.

"It's fantastic to have that go on even after I'm done playing softball," Stevie said of the time with her father. "It's been great. It's a good tradition, it's fun. We call it the start of our summer."

It's mothers and daughters, too, of course.

Four years ago, the Gonzalez family -- mother Gracie, father Roberto and adult daughter Sarah -- parked in a spot that offered some shade, a rarity across the expanse of asphalt. They went next door to the ASA Hall of Fame to pass time before the gates opened and discovered they had claimed a spot usually part of Tent-opolis only upon returning.

Instead of their territorial incursion sparking an argument, or even a polite request to move, they were adopted. One more rectangle was added to the annual gathering. They come the farthest of any members of the group, driving from their home right on the U.S.-Mexico border. But this was the fourth year in a row they made the trip. Now a high school teacher and coach, Sarah played softball, but so, too, did Gracie in the pre-Title IX era.

As the rain let up and the start of play approached, the residents of Tent-opolis extended an invitation to return for a burger or a hot dog. They probably meant later that day, when they retreated to the space between sessions in the stadium. But it's unlikely the offer came with an expiration date. Come next May or June, a burger would be waiting.

Odds are they will be here. Fathers and daughters. Mothers and daughters. Recovering softball parents. Friends and former players.

What happens in the stadium may be about elimination. What happens around it is a lot more about renewal.

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