BTA, Best Talent Assembled | Provided
Tony Ward | Provided

BTA stands for Best Talent Assembled and they are a rising young team in the world of 16-inch softball. At last year’s No Gloves tournament, BTA battled the 45’s in what many have called ‘the game of the century.” The 45’s finally won the slugfest 14-13 in 11 innings.  That night, BTA’s longtime manager, Tony Ward, couldn’t sleep. That’s because Ward had built his team with the sole purpose of knocking off the mighty 45’s.

Ward grew up in the neighborhood where the White Sox play. He started playing 16-inch softball at the age of 15. He played with his friends on a team called The Kings. The right-handed hitter “had a little speed back then.” He patrolled left field and batted at the top of the line-up. “I cut the ball and kept the fielders honest,” he said. Ward is now 62 and hasn’t missed a season since he started. 

Claude Rhodes, a legendary figure in 16-inch softball, mentored Ward. Ward later started the Claude Rhodes Tournament to honor him. Rhodes and Ward have both been inducted into the Hall of Fame. In 1979, Ward joined the Flamingos and he played 11 seasons for them. In 1985, he first battled softball stalwart Mickey Balestri.  They competed in tournaments at Washington Park. Ward, though, primarily played at Rosenblum Park, a 10-acre facility at 75th and Jeffrey that became a hotbed of 16-inch softball.

When he was 42, Ward switched from outfield to second base. He finally had to quit playing six years ago due to hip problems. As his playing career wound down, Ward started BTA in 2016. The team is sponsored by A Plus Cleaning and Maintenance Services. This company has hired three of the BTA players and they are not obligated to play softball to keep their jobs. Ward is a retired CTA track inspector (“dangerous job”) who has recruited players to work for the CTA.

Ward is not just a manager but a sort of life coach. His players range in age from 22 to 28, with a few over 30. Ward gives them the opportunity to play competitive softball in the Forest Park league. He claims that Wes Shannon and Brian Blackwell are two of the fastest players in the league. Leonard Harris locks down first base while batting .740. 

BTA has regular practices for young players who sometimes don’t want to put the work in. “We keep kids busy in a positive way. I call guys all the time to eat together, play cards together. We have a team structure not I-I-I.” Still, it’s a challenge to keep players from going to another sport. His third basemen, for example, wants to play football. 

It’s also a challenge to keep them focused on softball when there are so many distractions. He sees social media, for example, as a “Separator. It doesn’t help with unity. We keep all their phones lined-up in the dugout and no one uses them.” BTA is built around defense and has a mantra: no extra outs. “We have a good shortstop and left fielder and a solid pitcher.” Ward believes the key to pitching is to throw deep strikes. “It keeps the batters off balance. We can’t keep them from hitting but we can make them uncomfortable.”

BTA is making lots of opponents uncomfortable. “We are no longer a big fish in a small pond,” Ward says. As one opponent predicted, “If BTA stays together, they’ll make a lot of noise.” While Ward keeps the team’s chemistry going, opposing teams realize that BTA is no fluke. During Ward’s 14-year tenure, the team has won two major championships but has yet to win the No Gloves. 

Ward first started watching the No Gloves in 1979. He saw the 1980 Flamingos beat the Bobcats on a controversial call. Black teams were not as well represented back then but Ward says some teams were simply not good enough. Ward has played in the No Gloves six times but never won a championship. His team’s best finish was 8th place.

Ward echoes many when he declares the Forest Park fields as the best in all of softball. He also believes the live streaming of softball games is elevating the game and bringing it into the 21st Century. “The game is going to reach new heights.”

BTA is also seeking new heights. This year, they will be fully loaded for the No Gloves. “We will have all of our players for four days,” Ward said. They’re entering the tournament on a high note having defeated the 45’s twice to take the Mid-Summer Classic tournament. 

Who knows, maybe BTA and the 45’s will play another “game of the century” this year.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.