"I am a girl," barks a pack of Big Red Dawgs in awkward unison, moments before taking the field to compete in the Oro Valley Fast Pitch Association semi-finals. For this team of 11 and 12 year old girls, softball is life. These girls and the 300 other players in the Oro Valley league are the perfect example of why softball in Pima County is rapidly becoming the number one sport.
The girls of Pima County have every reason to be excited. After all, how many cities can boast one of the top Division I university and junior college softball programs in the nation? As they take the field, glove in hand, ponytails sticking out the back of their helmets, these girls - ages 5 to 12 - can play with confidence knowing there is a future in the sport they love.
One day after the Big Red Dawgs competed in the semifinals; the city of Tucson opened yet another chapter in what's becoming a storied tradition of softball. Saturday night at Hi Corbett Field, the Tucson Heat played its first home game in the inaugural season of National Pro Fastpitch.
The first attempt at pro softball occurred in 1997 with the Women's Pro Softball League. It was created to provide women the opportunity to play professionally as well as entertain the throngs of fans the sport has begun to attract. After four seasons the WPSL went on a two-year hiatus, during which time it was restructured with the help of Major League Baseball, into the NPF.
Including the Heat's Saturday night opponent, the New York/New Jersey Juggernaut, the NPF is comprised of six-teams with franchises based in Houston, Sacramento, Calif., New England and Akron, Ohio.
The difference between the NPF and MLB, however, is as clear as night and day.
"In this league we're not about the money," Heat pitcher Leigh Ann Walker said. "It's about the love of the sport." The minimum salary of a NPF player is a mere $2,400 per 60-game season.
Walker knows a thing or two about softball in Tucson. The former Flowing Wells High School stand out pitcher began her career much the same way as the members of the Big Red Dawgs. She can recall a time when she was young and the larger-than-life players at the University of Arizona were her idols, most notably her current manager, Debby Day.
"I was in little league and she was pitching for the UA," Walker said of Day while signing autographs after the Heat's opening day 5-4 loss. "I used to go to her games all the time. I used to be one of these kids standing in line waiting for that autograph."
Day's autograph sat perched on Walker's shelf for years as inspiration, Walker said.
Now it's Walker and her teammates' turn to give something back to the community that supported most of her dreams growing up. Working with the younger players has been the best reward for the former University of Nebraska star.
"It's changed my life completely," Walker said. "To build something with the girls that I got to achieve, that's all I want."
The pitcher is among many of the Heat players who have been having an effect on the community since the team was drafted in December.
When they aren't on the field, the Heat is out in community. Players have been giving clinics to the younger girls at Hi Corbett Field and throughout Tucson, despite their busy travel schedules. Recently Walker was joined by her teammate and UA grad, Leah Braatz who gave lessons to girls of the Oro Valley Fast Pitch Association at Riverfront Park.
As the two women gave their lessons on fundamentals and techniques, the only people more amazed than the girls may have been the coaches.
"I wonder why they (the girls) don't listen to me like that," said Mike Celaya, President of the Oro Valley Fast Pitch Association. "We teach them the same stuff."
What baffled both coaches and players the most was the demonstration Walker put on by throwing strikes to home plate from the wall in center field.
This summer the Heat have arranged for two different youth teams from all over Tucson to play at Hi Corbett Field prior to home games. To date, nearly all 30 of the Heat's home appearances have a youth game scheduled before it. According to the Heat's Media Relations Contact, Kandice Machain, the girls playing in these games will be afforded every essential the professionals are granted.
Fans and family of these teams get in the park for free that day and are allowed to stay to watch the ensuing Heat game.
The 29-team, 320 girl, Oro Valley Fast Pitch Association may get its shot at Hi Corbett in the weeks to come when the Tucson citywide championships are held at the converted baseball ballpark.
The Heat is making every effort to branch out to every league in the city. Heat owner, Jim Tiggas was on hand along with pitcher Erica Beach to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on the opening day of the Oro Valley league.
"They've been great," Celaya said of the Heat's involvement with the league. "We are so impressed with them coming out here to help.
"The girls see someone they can aspire to be like, maybe not to be a softball player but at least they see that the opportunity is there."
Ironwood Ridge High School High School Athletic Director and former Canyon del Oro head softball coach Dee Dinota sees the impact the Heat has already had on the young girls.
"You ask any 12-year old with a glove on her hand and she knows who the Tucson Heat are," Dinota, a softball coach for 11-years said. Although former Arizona and current USA pitcher Jennie Finch remains the most popular player to just about everyone of these girls, it's the interaction with the members of the Heat that is leaving an indelible image in these girls minds.
The message is getting through to the younger kids and the testimonials speak for themselves.
"Playing rough and getting dirty," says 12-year old, Savannah Verdugo when asked what she loves about playing softball. The only way to pry the Golden Sluggers' shortstop off the field is by injury, which unfortunately felled the youngster in the Sluggers' semifinal match up; not surprisingly by sliding hard into home plate.
"I want to play at the UA," Verdugo says, "I just got to get there first." For now, she'll have to concentrate on starting the eighth grade in August, right about the same time the Fall Softball league in Oro Valley will start.