Dan Vestal has been umpiring slow-pitch softball for 15 years, four of which have been behind the plates at Cosmopolitan Park.
He said he knows many of the players who populate the fields for the Monday night men’s D league, having done business with them at MC Sports in the Columbia Mall where he is a retail specialist in baseball, softball and golf.
“I’ve sold bats and gloves and shoes and softballs to a lot of the people that play up here,” Vestal said.
He is taking in a game between TigerBoard.com and Broken Bones on the green field while waiting for his next game to start. All but one member of the TigerBoard.com team are dressed in matching canary yellow shirts with bold black numbers on the backs. Vestal’s sons, 26-year-old Mike and 31-year-old Bob, man the right side of the infield for TigerBoard.com and are also former teammates of their father, whose playing days have left him with a vertical scar that spans across his left kneecap. It is a reminder of the reconstructive kneecap surgery he had because of the wear and tear from years of playing. Such family ties are a running theme at the Rainbow Softball Center.
The parking lot at Rainbow sits above the diamonds, facing large plots of grass used for lacrosse. The top of a concrete hill that slopes downward into the diamond complex provides a view of six bustling fields, a small building housing a concession stand, a few batting cages and a playground. The center lives up to its name with fields that are color-coordinated. The dugouts and light posts of the fields are painted red, green, yellow, orange, purple and blue to delineate the fields. Monday nights feature, among other leagues, the men’s D league. In the league, which consists of 10 teams, balls hit over the fence are outs instead of home runs. Vestal said this places more emphasis on base hits.
The name of the softball center sounds more like a gathering ground for children than a softball depot for men. One look around will tell you the same. Children of all ages populate the complex, running around and getting dirty while moms sit on the bleachers, pretending to watch their husbands. The breeze makes the nets that stretch above the fences gently sway back and forth throughout the evening.
From other fields come cries from babies and pleas for money for the concession stand. A young boy in a blue shirt with thin white horizontal stripes asks his mom, Jill Anderson , for money to go buy some food. She hands him a few bills, asking her son what he is going to get.
“I don’t know, something delicious,” he replies absentmindedly as he uses the bottom bleacher as a balance beam on his way to the stand. He later returns with a deep red licorice rope and a hot dog wrapped in silver paper.
Anderson said she has been cheering for her husband Abe and the rest of the Broken Bones team, which he manages, for several years. Jill Anderson, her 14-year-old daughter Alysha, and Wendy Will sit on a set of bleachers next to the team’s dugout on the third-base line. Throughout the game, they let everybody within an earshot, and maybe even some of those outside of it, know what they think of the team’s play.
“We like to come out here and cheer on the guys,” she said. “We hope if we give them enough crap they’ll do better. Sometimes they get a little lazy out there.”
Will agrees with Anderson, saying that she has been coming out to the fields for the past several years, for better or for worse.
“If I’m frustrated from work, I get to come out here and yell at them when they mess up and they won’t get mad at me,” Will says while chronicling the game’s events in a scorer’s book.
Around the fields there are sounds anybody would expect to hear at a softball complex: the slow, labored squeak of the pitching machine as it lobs another ball toward an anxious hitter; the sharp thud of the bats contacting the arching softballs; the crisp pop of a ball caught too far into a glove. Birds chirp in the trees that surround the outfield fences as if they are in the nosebleed seats of a stadium, commenting on every play.
A young girl in a white shirt and blue skirt shoves a beach ball through a patch of grass with another young girl in a red floral print dress. They head over to the fence surrounding the game and shovel sandy dirt, which has managed to escape the field, into an orange bucket using a small yellow shovel.
Meanwhile, next to the yellow field where Tiger Embroidery is taking on Dirty Dozen, 11-month-old Eva Armentrout struggles to walk through a lush plot of deep, green grass, her pacifier fastened to her lime green shirt. She is accompanied by her mother Andrea, who has come with several other wives and mothers to support Tiger Embroidery. She said the wives and their families were friends before the husbands starting suiting up to play.
“The wives come out here to hang out and let the kids play,” Armentrout said. “We have been close friends since high school, and we all had children right around the same time so our kids would have others to play with. We let them come out here and chase each other around and have a good time.”
Over her right shoulder, her five-year-old daughter Hailey and a young boy climb over tires anchored into the ground that are bigger than they are.
They don’t seem to care about the score of the game at all. In fact, they don’t seem to care about much of anything except which tire they are going to leap to and crawl on next.
Back at the green field, Broken Bones has started the second game of its doubleheader. An electric buzz blankets the fields as the lights warm up, bright, white light radiating from the bulbs. Abe Anderson shouts an order from the infield to the bleachers and Alysha makes a trip to the concession stand to get him an orange Powerade. Besides Powerade, the softball center sells soda, water and beer — by the cup and by the bucket.
Vestal said he thinks the best thing about the league is the competitiveness and the camaraderie provided by the games.
“It’s great for when you don’t want to just sit around, when you’ve still got that drive,” he said. “Some guys come up here and play with their sons or their best friends. We got guys from 18 to 60 playing up here, and some of those guys that are older are real good.”
While some teams wear coordinated jerseys or have color schemes, plenty of players wear non-traditional clothing.
There are jeans, jean shorts, athletic shorts that hang below or rise above the knees, tall socks, short shocks, short sleeves and a variety of hats and sunglasses on the players. Umpire Terry Kloeppel, deemed one of the best by Vestal, has been umpiring at Rainbow for 20 years and says the accessibility of the game is one of the things that makes it great.
“It’s a fun thing to do in the summer,” Kloeppel said.
“Everybody can play and it gives people an excuse to get together after the games. Everybody tries to win, but it’s not life or death. People are just out here for a good time.”