Softball play begins at Farnham Park!

Thu 13 Jun 2013

Three years after starting the project, BaseballSoftballUK opened the country's first purpose-built baseball and softball complex at Farnham Park Sports Ground in Buckinghamshire during the first week of June with school, league and tournament softball play – and to great acclaim.  One long-time player said: “The sport has finally grown up!”

Baseball play at the site should follow soon, and the National Baseball League team Herts Falcons were so excited about the facility that they stopped in on their way back from a league fixture on June 9 to get their feet on the new baseball field.

The facility has been built to accommodate extensive use by the local community as well as by domestic league and tournament competitions – and eventually international events.  It consists of four fields – three that can be used for softball or youth baseball and an international-specification full-size baseball diamond. 

First use

First play at Farnham ParkThe site's first use on Wednesday 5 June, perhaps fittingly, was by local Year Nine students from seven schools across the Chiltern and South Bucks District who have all started playing softball this year.  They found the experience of playing on the new fields very exciting. 

As one of the school buses pulled into the grounds and the fields were first seen, a hush descended on the excited students. One exclaimed: “We're playing on that?!” 

The round-robin event was held to determined the teams that will represent Chiltern and South Bucks at the 2013 Buckinghamshire County School Games event on 20 June.

This was the first time the pupils had been given a chance to play on dedicated facilities, and the tournament was such a success that the local club that helped organise the event is confident it will result in a new youth section being formed. 

South Bucks District Council Sports Development Officer Joe Sammon said: “BSUK did a great job organising this event so that local community use was the first activity on the new facility.  I am really looking forward to seeing more school events and community programming on the Farnham Park fields.”

First league game

The first league game involving teams from the local Windsor and Maidenhead District Softball League was played on the new fields on the evening of Thursday 6 June, with the Chalfont Firebirds playing host to the Maidenhead Rebels. 

“It's awesome playing on the new fields,” said one of the team members. “I loved playing there tonight.”

Tournament play

The new facility then received full-on use at the second Diamond Series Softball Tournament of the year on the weekend of 8-9 June.

With a record number of 55 teams entered in four grades of adult co-ed slowpitch play, there was a new buzz around the event for those using the fields.  Altogether, the tournament spread across 15 diamonds, including the three new purpose-built fields. 

As the Diamond Softball Series organises the country's largest tournaments, it was particularly appropriate  that the first weekend of tournament play at the new facility came during this event.  Teams from all over the country were able to enjoy the new fields – either by playing on them or at least by seeing games showcased on them.

Unfortunately, the excitement raised at the Diamond event around the new fields was tempered by disappointment on the part of many participants that the Diamond Series organisers, against the wishes of BSUK, reserved use of the fields exclusively for A-grade teams with the exception of the B-grade and C-grade finals.  

Many people made the point that softball isn't an elitist sport and the fields were built for everyone to use.  BSUK has been conducting a survey following the weekend to assess what – if any – steps should be taken to encourage a better spread of use of the new fields by tournaments hiring the site.

Impact and comments

Organised slowpitch softball has been played in the UK for almost 30 years and has grown rapidly during this time, in large part because of its accessibility and ease of play – including the fact that the game can be played on grass in parks with minimal infrastructure.  With the vast majority of slowpitch taking place on grass fields booked from local authorities or schools, many had come to believe that the sport wasn't worthy of dedicated facilities.

But BaseballSoftballUK has always had a different point of view. 

John Boyd, Joint CEO and Head of Development for BSUK, said: “The new facility at Farnham Park is remarkable because it changes the view of the place of softball and baseball in this country.  It makes a bold statement about our rights as credible, well-played and increasingly popular British sports.”

This sentiment was shared by members of the softball community who took part in Diamond 2. 

“I've been waiting 25 years for these diamonds to arrive and they were not a disappointment,” said David Baird, a former GB Slowpitch Team member and baseball player.  “It's a fantastic facility and I personally would like to pass on my thanks to everyone involved in making this happen.  The sport has finally grown up,” David added. 

Another former GB Slowpitch player and now coach, Mike Ashley, said: “It makes me wish I was young enough to take advantage of something I did not expect to see.  I was hugely impressed with the facility and congratulate all involved for making something special.” 

Great interest

Interest in the site has been building for months.  A Facebook Page for Farnham Park that was set up to follow progress through the building stages has 500 people liking it.  One member said: “Great job.  I have been playing for 26 years and at last there are 'Fields of Dreams' in the UK.  It looks amazingly cool – well done to all involved.” 

This was a sentiment echoed by the 20 members of the Herts Baseball Club's National Baseball League team who turned up on the way back from their league games at Bracknell to check out the new baseball field.  The team was seen running phantom drills (without a ball!) on the field in their excitement – an effect that baseball fields seem to have on people, as often seen in films. 

“Home! Home! Home! And the winning run scores!” one member of the team exclaimed, as he trotted home to win the title. 

“How soon can we book it?” asked Lee Manning, the Team Manager. 

Darrin Ward, who has been playing baseball in London since he was a teenager, noted how remarkable it was to have a field with proper international dimensions. 

A local resident who came over to see one of the softball games said that he loved what had been done and appreciated what the sports could offer the local area.  And a local coffee shop manager asked what was going on at the field, because they'd served so many people in different uniforms. 

Purpose and potential

In 2009, BaseballSoftballUK embarked on a journey of facility improvement, guided by its 2010-17 Baseball and Softball Facilities Strategy.  

John Boyd said: “The key to delivering this Strategy is a new mindset – that of being deserving of quality facilities.  In order to achieve this, our sports have to be able to demonstrate that we are well organised, locally connected, inclusive and growing.  There is great reward to be had where this can be achieved, and the incentive of quality facilities is proving to be a significant catalyst for local organisations to embrace these aims.  Our clubs and leagues are getting stronger and stronger as they seek to have better places to play.” 

Farnham Park is slightly different, though.  It isn't a club or league site – it's a complex designed to bring together the existing playing community and new initiatives to be delivered locally.  It's a focal point igniting new programmes across Buckinghamshire and Berkshire, inextricably connected to BaseballSoftballUK's local development work. 

“This is a great example of how to connect facility development with a genuine and sustainable increase in participation in our sport”, said John Boyd.  “We are building strong connections with the local community, who are welcoming of the new opportunities that our sports have to offer.  It's been surprisingly easy for people to understand what we're trying to do and we've found an enormous amount of willingness to help.”

Helping hands

The new facilities at Farnham Park were made possible by the help and support of many people and organisations.

The enabling funds were provided by Sport England as part of their Capital Award for Facilities in the 2009-13 Whole Sport Plan and this was matched in part by a Baseball Tomorrow Fund grant enabling local youth development.

South Bucks District Council have closely supported the project with the award of a 21-year lease and continue to support the development of new local opportunities to play.

The project would not have happened without the efforts of Project Manager Jon Marsh and the BSUK staff delivery team around him.  Now that construction has been completed, the project is being managed by a Farnham Park Management Committee that includes Darrell Pitman, Mark Salter, Jeremy Thomas and a number of BSUK staff.

The original approach to the project was shaped by BSUK's Facilities Steering Group that included Colin Stone, Geoff Webb (CEO of the Institute of Groundsmanship) and Rosie Benson from Sport England, along with BSUK staff.

Final preparations for opening the site for play were supported by voluntary help from over 22 people at a special work day held on 2 June.

Help in identifying development possibilities on the site came from organisers of the Diamond Series softball tournaments, who also brokered some local relationships in the early stages.  And of course, many BSUK staff have been heavily involved throughout the project.

Requests for use

Patrick Knock, the BSUK Development Manager responsible for coordinating programming at Farnham Park, has been inundated with requests for use and already has a very full calendar of play for the remainder of this year, evenly split between those new to the sport and those already hooked. 

Five teams in the Windsor and Maidenhead Softball League have already made the site home, with more expected to follow next season. 

In delivering its Facilities Strategy, however, BSUK's concentration has not just been on Farnham Park.  The agency has also helped build or improve a number of club facilities across the country. 

A new field for the Manchester Softball League was opened in 2011, a new youth baseball field will be opened in Milton Keynes later this year and important hubs of the sport were improved in Hemel Hempstead, at Finsbury Park in London, in Brighton and in Leicester, where a facilities grant awarded to Leicester Blue Sox by BSUK in 2011 has been instrumental in the successive growth of adult and junior baseball and women's fastpitch.

There are also half a dozen applications from baseball and softball to Sport England's Inspired Facilities programme currently being assessed – and success for some or all of these applications will lead to further development of high-grade facilities for the sports.

Follow on Facebook

For those keen to follow progress of the site, please like the Farnham Park Baseball and Softball Facility page on Facebook.

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