'Well, we’re watching grass grow': WCWS absence leaves a hole in OKC hearts
Drive across the parking lot to Hall of Fame Stadium, and you can’t stop looking up.
If you’ve been to softball’s field of dreams — and many in our state have — you know what it has long looked like from outside. Brownish-red brick and stone. Concrete entrances and concourses. Low slung exterior.
Things, though, have changed.
Now, there’s an upper deck, an addition of 4,000 seats and a press box where there was only Oklahoma sky before — and it’s almost impossible not to stare.
“We look forward to sharing it,” USA Softball executive director Craig Cress said, “and we will share it.”
Just not this week.
This was supposed to be the start of the Women’s College World Series. We were supposed to be figuring out the teams that would be coming to Oklahoma City, dreaming about the matchups at Hall of Fame Stadium, readying for the opening games Thursday.
The coronavirus pandemic changed those plans.
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Instead, we are left to lament what would have been — and this WCWS would’ve been grand.
This would’ve been the 30th year of the event in Oklahoma City. The series was first played here in 1990, and with the exception of 1996 when it went to suburban Atlanta as a warm-up for the Olympics, it has been here every year since.
It has grown so much since its early days.
The first few years in OKC, the combined attendance of all sessions was around 16,000 or 17,000. With the addition of that upper deck, capacity this year would’ve grown to around 13,000. Add standing-room-only tickets, and crowds would have pushed 15,000.
The attendance for one session might’ve come close to the tournament total from days of yore.
Sue Hollenbeck was so pumped about the big crowds. The director of sports business for the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau took over local leadership of the event a year ago, the first without the Oklahoma City All-Sports Association’s oversight. She stood inside the stadium amid ongoing construction last spring — when the upper-deck expansion only existed on a blueprint — and talked giddily about what was to come. She knew people who wanted all-session tickets but never tried to get them because the demand was so high.
Sure enough, the added seats sold out for this year’s WCWS.
Hollenbeck couldn’t wait to see the extra energy of the extra fans, not only during games but also around the city.
“I’ve said this before, I’ll say it again — softball fans are the best fans in the world,” she said. “They get out. They spend money. They go to attractions. They go to restaurants. They go to bars. They buy stuff.
“When there’s not a game, they are out and about in Bricktown and River Sports Rapids and Midtown.”
Last year, WCWS fans spent $14.4 million in the city. Hollenbeck expected that figure might come close to doubling this year, soaring to between $22 million and $27 million.
There are very tangible losses that come from the WCWS being canceled, but there are intangible ones, too. Plans are altered. Traditions are upended. The event has become part of who we are as a city, and having it canceled leaves holes in our hearts.
That’s how it feels for Julie Schmiedeskamp. The group sales manager at the Colcord Hotel is a liaison for the WCWS team that stays at the downtown property, and even though it hosts lots of sports teams, the WCWS is a bit different.
“At a minimum, a WCWS team is with us for five nights,” Schmiedeskamp said, “but could be up to 10 nights if the team goes all the way to the championship series.”
That was the case last year with UCLA. Schmiedeskamp and many others at the Colcord got to interact a bunch with the players and coaches and got to know the Bruins a bit.
When the team left for games, the Colcord staff felt part of the send-off with the Bruins’ parents and fans.
“They sing the fight song and line the lobby to cheer them out the door,” Schmiedeskamp said. “As the competition went on, these send-offs became more enthusiastic.”
And after the Bruins won the title, besting OU in the championship series, Schmiedeskamp and Co. got to witness the celebration.
They felt a part of it, really.
“Even though they were our guests, they were more like family,” Schmiedeskamp said, “so we really had a special place in our hearts for all the staff, players, parents and fans. It is difficult to describe the excitement, but it is something we won’t soon forget.”
Such memories make us miss the WCWS, make us long for its return. But maybe they push us, too, to be even better when the WCWS comes back.
At Hall of Fame Stadium, construction has continued with the absence of the tournament. Instead of hearing the pop of a glove or the ping of a bat, the rhythm of hammers and the hum of construction vehicles fill the complex these days. Projects are being completed instead of needing finishing touches later this year.
Similarly, groundskeepers were able to install new turf on the entire field. Had the WCWS come to town, turf would’ve gone down for the smaller collegiate footprint but would’ve waited on the remainder of the field because that extra turf would’ve been where massive outfield bleachers were built for the WCWS.
Since the tournament didn’t come and the bleachers weren’t built, the entire field was replaced all at one time. Cress, USA Softball’s executive director, said the turf will be better, lasting longer and staying stronger.
Every day, he checks on the field via the video feeds from the cameras set up inside the stadium.
“We joked when the grass was going down — ‘What are we doing? Well, we’re watching grass grow,’” Cress said with a laugh. “In my case now, I’m watching grass get greener every day.”
That isn’t as fun as watching softball, but these days, we do what we must to fill the void.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.
Rewatch WCWS games
The NCAA will be re-airing almost two dozen memorable games from the past two decades of the Women's College World Series starting later this week. The games will appear commercial-free on Facebook.com/NCAASoftball and Twitter.com/NCAAsoftball. Here's the complete schedule:
Time, Game, Original date
11 a.m., Florida vs. Louisiana, May 29, 2008
2 p.m., DePaul vs. Washington, May 31, 2007
5 p.m., Baylor vs. Kentucky, May 31, 2014
8 p.m., LSU vs. Stanford, May 24, 2001
11 a.m., Alabama vs. LSU, June 4, 2016
2 p.m., Louisiana vs. Texas, May 22, 2003
5 p.m., Baylor vs. Oregon, June 3, 2017
8 p.m., Alabama vs. Arizona State, May 30, 2009
11 a.m., Florida vs. Oklahoma State, May 30, 2019
2 p.m., Arizona vs. Texas, June 5, 2005
5 p.m., Northwestern vs. UCLA, June 4, 2006
8 p.m., Arizona vs. Cal, May 24, 2001
11 a.m., UCLA vs. Washington, June 2, 2019
2 p.m., Alabama vs. Florida, May 31, 2009
5 p.m., Auburn vs. Oklahoma, June 7, 2016
8 p.m., Oklahoma vs. Tennessee, June 3, 2013
4 p.m., Arizona vs. UCLA, June 7, 2010
7 p.m., Florida State vs. Washington, June 4, 2018
4 p.m., Arizona vs. UCLA, May 28, 2001
7 p.m., Oklahoma vs. UCLA, June 4, 2019
4 p.m., Alabama vs. Oklahoma, June 6, 2012
7 p.m., Michigan vs. UCLA, June 8, 2005