The Solent Softball League: 20 Years


Sefton Chatfield

I have been playing in the Solent Softball League now for, well -- I can’t remember the exact season I started, but it’s been around 13 or 14 years.

I was over playing football every Sunday morning, feeling cold and wet and then falling asleep for most of the evening.  So I hit the web to find something else to play (preferably a summer sport).

As I was into American sports when I was younger (and will never forget my first Super Bowl), I thought baseball would be a good sport to play.  A summer sport, good fun, and I love being on a big team.  Well, nothing came up for that, but softball did.  I remember watching my dad play softball in Holland when I was a kid, so thought I would email the contact details to see when and where they played.  A day later, I got an email giving me the details, and that was the beginning of my love for the sport.

From the very start, it was obvious that the sport had a community feel to it.  Everyone was friendly, full of advice and always very encouraging.  When there was practice, most of the league would practice together and if there was a game on, it was always loud, full of banter and good spirits.  I can happily say that not much has changed, apart from the number of teams we now have -- and players, of course.

The league originally started as two teams, born from winter indoor sessions created by the league’s founder, Chris O’Connor.  The Southsea Sharks and the Portsmouth Dodgers were the first-ever SSL league teams, followed the next summer by the Bordon Tomahawks and the Solent Sluggers, and the first league schedule was created.  Ever since, the league has had its ups and downs, but has always managed to keep going and is now enjoying unprecedented success.

Tom Prince Trust

The league has enjoyed success on and off the diamond, raising money for charity, winning  tournaments around the country and also having players represent GB at the national level.

The league is also a very proud supporter of the Tom Prince Cancer Trust.  Tom’s parents played in the league and Tom would come to watch and would pick up a glove and have a throw around himself, as he was too young to play in games.  Unfortunately, Tom passed away, and ever since, the league has been raising money towards the Trust set up in his name.  Every year, the league holds the annual Tom Prince Indoor Tournament, played solely to raise as much cash as we can for the Trust while playing some indoor softball at the same time.

As with most sports, players come and go, and softball is no different.  However, because of the less strenuous way the game is played, it means you can still play long after you would normally have had to quit in other sports.  Because of this, many of the players that were in the league when I first started are still playing today.

When I joined the league, Andy ‘Beefy’ Burgess was the league chairman.  He helped me out when I first got involved and is now the league’s Recruitment Officer and works hard at making sure new players feel welcome.  As a well-known figure in the league, I asked Beefy some questions.

So, Beefy, how did you first get into the league?

I was simply walking home from college one day when I happened to notice a poster in the window of a sports shop advertising a series of indoor softball training sessions that were being organised by Chris O’Connor and taking place on Sunday mornings at Priory School.

So I mentioned it to a few friends (Dave Ginn, Beverley Wilson, Kevin Eley) and we ended up going along to all 10 sessions, which then culminated in an exhibition game held outside on the Castle Field in Southsea.  By this time all those who had attended the course had split themselves into two basic teams – the Dodgers and Sharks.  The Dodgers consisted mostly of people who were working for a local company (Dunston Thomas) while the Sharks were a mishmash of whoever else had attended the indoor sessions.

Come the day of the game itself, it looked like the Sharks were going to be short of players, so at the very last minute I dragged along an extremely hungover Steve Wood and just told him to hit the ball and run . . . something which he has continued to do to this very day!

When Chris O’Connor decided to step down, what made you step forward to take his place?

We were having a league meeting (which used to consist of about six of us sitting around a table in the Green Farm pub) when Chris dropped the bombshell that he was stepping down from the Chairman role.  I remember there being a sudden hush around the table and everyone started gazing at the floor.  But then Graham Cooper broke the awkward silence with these crafty words: “I reckon you’d be a good Chairman, Andy . . . . “
And the rest, as they say, is history!

You have been a major figure in the league for as long as I can remember.  How have you helped the league grow so much over the years?

Early on, it was simply a case of exploiting all the usual advertising techniques that were available at the time -- i.e. home-made posters, adverts in local free-ad papers etc, and just continuously trying to spread the word throughout the local Portsmouth area.  Very quickly, though, you start to realise that unfortunately the ‘softball snowball’ doesn’t naturally get bigger of its own accord and so every season you need to keep repeating and pushing your recruitment campaigns time and time again.  Thankfully, nowadays, we have all the various social media avenues, which has been a tremendous help in just spreading the word about softball to the general public.

One thing I have learned over the past 20 years, though, is that word of mouth continues to be the most successful way of recruiting new players into our sport.  Dragging along friends/family/colleagues to a training session or game remains the best way of convincing people just how enjoyable softball is.

The Tom Prince Trust is such a big thing for all of us in the SSL.  Can you explain why to people outside the league?

The whole Prince family were regular faces up at the field, with both Clinton and Emma playing for the Homers team for several seasons.  Due to Tom’s young age, he was unable to officially join in with the games but he would always grab a few swings of the bat at the end of the session or chase after foul balls and overthrows and return them to the fielding team. His presence on the sidelines was a regular occurrence, much the same as many other ‘SSL kids’ who have come along with their parents over the past 20 years, and so it was with great sadness that we learned of his passing back in 2004 on what was in fact the eve of his 16th birthday.

Once I found out that his family was setting up a Trust to help raise money for further research into osteosarcoma (a type of bone cancer most commonly found in teenagers), it just felt right that the SSL should try and become involved in some way.  While there are many worthy charities out there that demand our attention and financial help (and rightly so), this particular cause felt like one where both I as an individual and we as a league could actually help make a difference.

And that’s exactly what we’ve successfully continued to do, having raised just short of £20,000 during the years that we’ve been involved with the Trust.  Our Tom Prince Indoor Tournament has now become a regular start to the season and I am extremely proud and privileged to be able to hand over our donation each year and receive that rib-crushing hug from Tom’s Dad!

So: onwards and upwards for the Solent Softball League in 2016, as we already have another team that has been practicing and entering tournaments in preparation for joining the league next year.  We will also continue to recruit, with our “free for rookies” indoor training sessions in Portsmouth and Southampton.  Who knows -- maybe we will expand with two teams next season!

Before that, however, we will have the biggest celebration the league has ever had, as we all head to the Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth on Saturday 10 October to celebrate an amazing season, and an amazing 20 years.

Many awards will be received, lots of dancing will be done and much drink will be drunk.

Pretty much the same as your normal tournament weekend, really….

Solent Softball League

tagged under: softball, bsf, slowpitch, experiences

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About Sefton Chatfield

Sefton Chatfield

Sefton Chatfield first got involved with the Solent Softball League back in 2001 and throughout this time has been a dedicated and leading member of his beloved Portsmouth Dodgers team.  In recent years he has taken on the role of Publicity & Media Officer for the league and has worked extremely hard at getting match reports included in the local press.  Last year, he also took on the arduous task of creating the current Solent League website:

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