Maybe it’s the economy. Maybe it’s soccer. Or fast-pitch. Or competition with other towns. But girls don’t want to play softball in Forest Park.
For reasons no one can understand, Forest Park Little League has cancelled its fourth season of girls softball after only four girls signed up for the 2012 season.
“I’ve been working on this since October,” said Little League President John Tricoci. “There are always a lot of girls on the Mighty Ts (co-ed pre-school T-ball team).” But for some reason, the interest dwindles when the girls reach older grades. “They play [16-inch] softball at the middle school. I don’t know why they don’t want to play here.”
Softball is huge in Forest Park. The town has been famous for more than 40 years for its no-glove softball tournament, a 16-inch softball Hall of Fame monument and even a professional girls’ softball team during the 1940s: The Parichy Bloomer Girls.
So where are the girls?
Board member Connie Custardo has a lot of ideas. She coached the final season and said fast-pitch took them by surprise. “Fast-pitch kind of snuck up on us. It became popular after the  Olympics and became a phenomenon. The pitching basically eliminated the arc. They were blowing us away. We were pitching these big old [underhand] grapefruits.” Neighboring teams in River Forest and Oak Park took advantage of local university pitching clinics at Concordia and Dominican to teach girls the new style.
“I wasn’t directed towards the colleges, and I feel terrible about that,” Custardo recalled. As a result, the team had a lousy season. “Other teams were ready and we didn’t pull off any wins.”
Custardo said her own daughter switched to the Oak Park league in 2009 after seventh grade. Proximity of other softball options are another factor drawing interest away from Forest Park Little League, hypothesized Custardo. “Like high school and so many other things in Forest Park, we look to neighboring communities for our needs.” The four girls who tried to sign up for 2012 were placed in the River Forest softball league, said Tricoci.
Soccer is another factor, said both board members. Lots of children want to play both sports, but combined with the economy, they guess that parents are making a choice: soccer or baseball. Soccer also involves continuous team movement. Parents may be attracted by a sport that keeps kids moving, unlike baseball which has downtime, Tricoci said. He was quick to point out that he works with the soccer coaches to avoid schedule conflicts.
“We sit down before the season starts,” he said. His own son played both sports and he understands firsthand what a scheduling nightmare it can be. “On Saturdays, we’d be running from baseball to soccer and changing in the bathrooms on the way there.” That’s changed this year and will be better going forward.
Tricoci believes soccer and baseball can easily co-exist. “But I understand if soccer is easier for parents. There’s one practice a week and games on Saturday. With baseball you might meet four times a week and on the weekend. We offer 18 games in a season. Soccer has eight. You’re getting a bang for your buck with baseball. Plus soccer is played in both fall and spring.” Little League costs $95 a season for older players and $45 for T-ball.
The board turned over twice during the past five years and some institutional memory was lost, said Custardo, so rebuilding is necessary.
So is cooperation with the schools. District 91 changed its usage agreement for rental of school facilities after many years of allowing Little Leaguers to practice indoors for no charge. The change came after Forest Park Middle School re-finished the gym floors several years ago. The district now charges $40 an hour for indoor practice time, which Tricoci says Little League can’t afford. The teams practice drills during the colder months at St. John Lutheran Church gym, which they rent for $50 a day. As a new school board member, Tricoci would like to revisit the school policies, bringing the subject up in a D91 school board meeting March 8. “Especially for community not-for-profit groups, they need to be able to use the schools,” he said.
Both coaches agree, to get girls back will take an effort. “I’m willing to do whatever it takes,” Tricoci said. “If it’s getting free pitching clinics, I’ll schedule them.” Custardo thinks the focus should be on younger players just leaving T-ball. “We need to build a ground-up situation and get them while they’re young.”
Both coaches/board members believe the interest is there.
In the D91 board room, where Tricoci and his colleagues meet once a month, are T-shirts designed by middle-school students. One of them reads: “Softball: Live it. Love it!”
“I’m going to try really hard to make sure it happens next year,” said Tricoci.