Brakette's #9 Jess Mouse at third during softball action against Newtown Rocks in Stratford, Connecticut on Thursday July 12, 2012. (Photo: Christian Abraham)
Feature article from the Connecticut Post website posted 7/20/12, 12:06 AM EDT:
Brakettes endure, despite many hurdles
By Michael Fornabaio
STRATFORD – Maybe it's not quite like the olden days, when the police had to turn fans away up the block at a packed Raybestos Field.
That softball field is overgrown now, outlines of the infield and fences now ghostly on a satellite image. The game they once played on it has grown and changed in other ways, forcing the Stratford Brakettes to adapt along with it.
"We're doing OK," longtime general manager Bob Baird said at a recent game at DeLuca Field, the team's home since 1988. "We can't have rainouts. We need people to come to games. We're relying on hot dogs, souvenirs, everything.
"All the things every other team we used to play had to worry about, we worry about, too."
After playing under the patronage of Raybestos, Hi-Ho and the late David Carpenter, the Brakettes have gone five years without a primary sponsor.
With help from the community and key sponsors, they've made it work.
"There are no big sponsors in this day and age," Baird said. "Dave Carpenter was the greatest. He was a fantastic guy. For a guy who (previously) never knew anything about softball, he loved it."
They play a different kind of schedule, sometimes against different kinds of competition, in a completely different tournament at the end of the year—this year, in two different tournaments.
They're still the Brakettes, still the legendary team in the majors division of women's softball. Even as the landscape has changed around them, become overgrown in some ways and retreated in others, the Brakettes have remained a constant in Stratford.
"I think it has a future," said pitcher Brandice Balschmiter, who finished her college career at UMass in 2009. "A lot of kids are coming out of college ... it's a good option if they want to continue."
The trick for the Brakettes, sometimes, is getting them while they're in college.
"I come down here because I love playing," said Balschmiter, who's from upstate Newark, N.Y. "We play because we love it....We have so much fun."
And she said that even though she has had to pitch some grueling weekends, the only available pitcher on the roster.
The Brakettes have won 164 games in a row, a 25-month winning streak, which had to be fun. But Baird and field manager John Stratton both said that recruiting players has become tougher because of a different season: college softball.
"Years ago, Joan Joyce and so, there was no college ball," Stratton said. "We'd start in May and be done Sept. 1, Labor Day."
Now many players have been working out at their college since early in the school year, then playing lots of games during the college season until May.
Alabama, for instance, won the national championship after playing 68 games in four months.
"They just want to rest," Stratton said "I tried to get players from Alabama, from Virginia Tech, and they just don't want to play in the summer. It beats them up."
Sometimes, even when a college player is eager to play—take former Masuk High and LSU standout pitcher Rachele Fico—she may be limited in some way. Fico was held out for a couple of weeks' rest after coming home from college.
Even the players who have come to Stratford sometimes can't make every game. At a recent game, five players were missing for various reasons. When the Brakettes travel to Ohio and Nevada in the next few weeks, at least a couple will have to miss the trip.
In past years, "It wasn't a question: You signed up, and you played for that team all summer long," Stratton said. "Now, they're working, whatever."
A TOUGH PITCH
National Pro Fastpitch (in which the Brakettes fielded a team in 2006) takes around 100 of the best women's players in the country, including several who were part of the national team when softball was an Olympic sport (dropped after 2008).
"Maybe some top players have gone overseas to play, because they get more money in the pro leagues there," Baird said. "I still can't understand how there are just four teams in the pro league.
"Sponsors are tough to come by, as we can attest."
The combination makes for a somewhat different Brakettes schedule. Baird looks for top 23-and-under or 18-and-under-Gold teams to bring to DeLuca Field.
"I must make 100 calls in the offseason," Baird said. "Anybody in driving distance."
Sometimes the schedule changes quickly. Last month, the Stratford Seahawks were a late replacement for another team.
"We just keep putting a different uniform on these teams," Baird joked. Turning serious, he said he gave the Seahawks credit. "They're fielding a team. They're playing a legit schedule."
Polish may be the biggest difference. In the first game of that doubleheader with the Seahawks, three errors broke the game open. In the second, the Seahawks made plays until an error broke everything down. The Brakettes swept by a combined 20-1, batting only in eight innings.
The team has worked hard to bring in fans. Friday's doubleheader included a big group from a local credit union. Scouts and youth teams in uniform get in free of charge, including during the Women's Major Softball tournament in August.
Rob Baird, Bob's son and the team's media director, leads a two-camera Webcast of every home game and several road games. The new CPTV Sports cable channel has picked up several games to air, tape-delayed.
"We try to get (fans) down here," Bob Baird said. "We still put a good product on the field; we give the fans a big schedule here."
That schedule includes the New York City Havoc, a team that arrived in Stratford in 2009 with little fanfare. A few days later, they were the inaugural Women's Major Softball National Tournament champions.
They do it the hard way. Unlike the Brakettes, who at least have a home stadium, some sponsorship and a 60-year tradition on which to draw, the Havoc are constantly chasing their own bottom line.
Up until their visit to Stratford in early July, the Havoc had run up costs of over $4,000, and that's just tournament fees, insurance, ASA costs and the like. Much of that is the responsibility of the players.
"Meals, travel," co-manager Kim Tolve said, "everything's on their own."
They were thankful, though, that the Brakettes and Comfort Inn picked up their rooms that weekend.
Added co-manager Dawn Gugliaro, "They buy their own pants, their own socks. They work Monday to Friday; they don't have practice. They save up their sick days so they can take off Saturday and Sunday. These are girls that love to play. They dedicate their summer to playing."
The Brakettes have had to scramble several times through their history for survival.
"It's our fifth year without a sponsor," Baird said, adding that the team has done well this year. "You see out there, the signs on the fence, those are our `grand slam sponsors.' Every little bit helps."
There are 20 sponsor banners on the fence; the most incongruous might be Fishback Nursery of Oregon, until you note that the Brakettes' shortstop is Mandie Fishback.
Hypack of Middletown is one sponsor; president Pat Sanders is the father of former Brakettes pitcher Bailey Sanders, and his name comes up quite a bit as a generous sponsor.
Early in the first game of doubleheaders, Baird often dons a special T-shirt and a cape to sell 50/50 raffle tickets. At a game in June with a huge group of scouts and kids in the stands, the team's take and the winner's take were both $119. In mid-July with a nice crowd, the take each way was almost $195.
The fan who won gave the money back to the team.
The Brakettes' season used to build toward the ASA women's majors championship. They won it 28 times through 2007.
Two years later, the Brakettes were done with the ASA tournament. They had a list of complaints: that a weeklong tournament had become a "glorified weekend," as Baird said in 2008, and that teams played in the tournament after being assembled at the draw. The 2008 tournament had an aggravating end and was interrupted by weather and the departure of the SoCal Hurricanes.
They began the Women's Major Softball National Championship in Stratford in 2009. At least 12 teams are expected for this year's tournament, August 9-12, at DeLuca Field.
Last year, 11 teams played; eight were from the tri-state area. Only the St. Louis Saints came from farther away than central Pennsylvania.
The ASA women's majors tournament is scheduled for Auburn, Ala., for August 2-5. But since 2009, every ASA women's majors tournament has been canceled—including one set for DeLuca in 2010, when the WMS tournament moved to West Haven.
Storm USA's Chris Wells doesn't need much winding up to get him talking about the ASA, either, about their procedures for allowing players to try out for the national team, about their tournaments in "the most remote places." (Only seven teams made it to Auburn in 2004.)
Wells is one of the people behind Fastpitch Championship Invitational, a three-year-old tournament in Las Vegas.
"Where can you get from any point in the country, cheaply?" he asks. (Later, he notes, "If you win, it's exciting. If you lose, you're in Las Vegas.")
The teams for that tournament had been drawn mostly from California, including the Hurricanes. Wells had a wish list of teams from around the nation he'd liked to have gotten, including the St. Louis Saints, who'll be in Stratford in August.
One of those teams, the Brakettes, will show up at the end of the month, after a stop in Akron, Ohio, to play the professional Akron Racers.
"They've put their money where their mouth is," said Wells, repeatedly complimentary to the Brakettes, their history and their staff in a phone conversation.
He's not expecting them to go to Las Vegas every year—he'd like to see a sort of World Series between the winners of the two tournaments, FCI and WMS—but he said two top California 18-and-under programs committed their women's teams to the tournament, simply because the Brakettes will be there.
"(The Brakettes) are going to be the guests of honor," Wells said.
After that, they'll go home, play three doubleheaders, then take on a dozen or so teams in the WMS tournament.
"We enjoy what we're doing," Baird said. "John's not getting younger. I'm not getting younger. Hopefully my son in the next booth is going to keep this going."