Historic town's summer shootout offers "mother lode" of action and altitude
By Joel Priest
In 1869, the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first team to take the field for both fun and financial gain. The sport itself was still in its infancy, "soaking" or "plugging" (throwing the ball at a runner) was a common way to record an out, batting helmets wouldn't exist for nearly eight decades and the word "softball" wasn't used.
Baseball was beginning to pique the interest of fans around the still-expanding United States. As the 1870's unfurled, a steady stream of settlers ventured into the rugged peaks of the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado Territory (statehood came in 1876). Hoping to strike a more tangible "paydirt," many packed pickaxes instead of bats.
In 1860, the area known as Baker's Park was one of the earliest locations where prospecting parties first searched for gold. The resulting camp was known as Baker's City, which was forever changed fourteen years later. Instead of bonanzas of gold, "Silver by the ton!" was found, and the town was officially born in 1874, only five years after the birth of professional baseball.
Silverton hasn't gone the way of the dinosaur, dodo, and hundreds of other Colorado mining camps and small towns. Many antiquated mining structures are still visible throughout town. The train that used to haul ores for processing in Durango to the south still rides the narrow gauge rails, carrying passengers and tourists instead.
"I think everybody likes to come up here and kick back, have a good time," said Luie Valdez, player for Romero's (Silverton, CO), "You just get guys who want to come up and enjoy the weekend."
And still at what is believed to be its original location, is the town ball field. And like the remnants of neighboring 1880's ghost towns, the field has been there well over a century.
Descending the north side of Molas Pass on U.S. 550, almost fifty miles north of Durango, Colorado, you see it greeting you just inside the city limits sign. You are now 9,318 feet above sea level. The mile-high altitude in Denver's Coors Field suddenly seems low. You are surrounded on all sides by peaks that pierce the skies, many over 13,000 feet. The only eruptions heard here are those of softballs cracked skyward by aluminum bludgeons.
Welcome to the Silverton Mountain Man Softball Classic
One of the Four Corners region's favorite summer softball events, the Mountain Man, draws players of any and all abilities for a two-day avalanche of competition.
"You get some really good players, and then you also get other teams, like ours, where it's all family," explained Valdez, "My nephews and sons make it a point to get together as a family, come up, play ball and have a great time."
"It doesn't look like your average big softball tournament," said Silverton Event Coordinator Stephanie Reigh, the event's organizer. "It's got a ‘hometown'...a small-town feel. That's what's nice about it."
"In a sense it's kind of more laid-back," said Mike Olivieri, pitcher for the Outlaws (Montrose, CO). "You're not as intense as, say, if you went up to Grand Junction's tournaments or a Triple Crown event. But the competition's still definitely there."
"I've been coming up here for years," said CRC's (Ouray-Ridgway-Telluride, Colo.) Mike Wage, "the last time I was on a winning team up here was 1984!"
"When I first had a tournament here, I had 14 teams. It was just...well, the days just ain't long enough here in Silverton!" noted Valdez. "Down the road we switched to having eight teams because, up here, you never know when it's going to rain or something."
The 2004 edition of the Classic drew teams from Colorado and New Mexico, and high-scoring action was definitely a resounding norm rather than a passing exception:
Round-robin play began bright and early at 8 A.M. on August 7th. The time of day would suggest the game might be a bit sluggish while everyone gradually became accustomed to the breaking sunlight. Not the case at the MMSC. Hits after hits fell like hail, and runs outraced runs like a ceaseless relay race. Before long, the hand-written (not hand-operated like out-of-town scoreboards at Fenway Park) scoreboard was saturated with blue ink to keep up with the scoring flood, as Central Distributing/Russell Stover (Montrose, Colo.) out-gunned Huck Finn Exxon (Durango, Colo.) in the highest-scoring battle of the entire war, 40-29. Sixty-nine runs before nine in the morning. Who needs coffee?
In the seventh and last game of the tournament, two weary and well-tested teams took the rocky and pockmarked field for the championship face-off. After a furious seven innings of softball, where players showed no concern for their personal health, diving headlong into the rocky infield, jamming feet and ankles into the cratered outfield grass to make a play, the Country Boys emerged victorious following a 32-24 trackmeet with Central Distributing/Russell Stover.
"I guess my favorite part is the very end, handing out the prizes," said Reigh, "it's neat to see the camaraderie between all the people and everyone takes it in stride whether they lose or win."
Possibly the only thing to outnumber the sunburns many players and fans sustained over the wonderful weekend was the total of runs scored. The average score of all games was 25-13, and a grand total of 711 runs were scored in the 19 total games.
"Some pretty stiff competition," said the Outlaws' Mike Olivieri. "Normally a lot of teams come up and they're all really good 'ballers. The stiff competition makes it a lot of fun."
Take ingredients, blend well and serve immediately. The end result is surely one of the highest-elevated softball tournaments in the world. Played in such a uniquely isolated location where past mingles with present, and terrain touches lingering tarpaulins of clouds time and time again, newcomers to the area might believe they're somewhere else.
"Is this heaven?"