It’s not too hard to find a ball field around Indiana County.
Several are well-maintained. Others have sat dormant for years, weeds overrunning what used to be infields, dugouts and outfield fences.
There was a time when the sandlots were thriving, when there were enough young players available and interested that forming a game wasn’t difficult at all.
These days, that’s not always the case. The difficulty in drawing players together was presumably part of the Indiana County Softball League’s demise in 2007, but, thanks to the efforts of Shawn Baird, the league is up and running again, and the fields at Saylor Park in Black Lick are active most nights of the week.
A Robinson native, Baird spearheaded efforts to bring back the once-popular softball league to Indiana County after traveling to play softball in Westmoreland and Cambria counties the last few years.
The Indiana County Softball League, 10 teams strong, began play in May after a five-year hiatus.
“There are a lot of young people and a lot of old people that I’d never met before that used to play and are glad to see the league come back,” Baird said. “That league was very popular. They did a lot of tournaments and everything back in the day, and that’s what I’m slowly bringing back to Indiana County.”
Baird, 34, played in the old Indiana County league for a few years before it eventually disbanded. When he wanted to get back into softball, he had to travel to leagues in Johnstown and Westmoreland County. It was a similar situation for several players Baird knew, which gave him the idea of reviving the Indiana County circuit.
“We were driving more than we were actually playing,” he said.
“A lot of the guys had to travel, and it wasn’t really practical for a majority of the team,” said Alex Snyder, a teammate of Baird’s in the Johnstown league last summer and a member of the Indiana County league’s board of directors. “Shawn had said about wanting to get this started again, and when he put feelers out, the interest just kind of took off.”
Of course, it took a lot of legwork from Baird to get the ball rolling.
“I had to find money to even start the league,” he said. “We did a strip ticket to get money rolling into the league. And I had to find fields for us to play on. All the fields around here now have been reduced to girls’ softball, and the fences are a lot shorter than men’s softball, so I couldn’t use a lot of the fields. I had to find a field that we could actually use.”
“He threw the idea around and I told him the biggest hurdle, to me, was getting fields,” said Dean Banko, another board member. “I told him, if he gets fields, let me know, and I’ll help with whatever else he needs. Because we played in Johnstown last year, and even though there are like 30 fields in Johnstown, there’s only like one available for use.”
Baird ended up at Saylor Park with more ambition than reality. With some elbow grease and a nice dose of help from Burrell Township, the park’s two fields are back in commission.
“The upper field, as of February, was all grass,” Baird said. “There was no dirt on the field at all. So myself and the Burrell Township supervisors and the Burrell Township recreation board had to cut all the infields out, redo all the bases, remeasure everything, get everything back up to a baseball field. … I spent probably every day at the fields from the beginning of March until the end of April. I was at the fields doing something, either picking rocks out, cutting grass out, measuring something. I know I spent probably five, six hours a day down there, so pretty much for two months I lived at Saylor Park.”
Through playing contacts and outreach efforts, the league got together 10 teams of about 20 to 25 players. One team, Kiewit, is comprised of players from various backgrounds who are working at the Homer City Generating Station. The rest of the players come from around Indiana County and areas nearby, skewing south.
“I’m one of those people that hates sitting around, especially in the summer, because nobody wants to do anything anymore in my age bracket,” said Banko, 29, of New Florence. “This is one of those things where anybody can play, not necessarily competitively, but have fun.”
But competition isn’t out of the question with the new league, either.
“I think it’s a lot more laid back. It’s more competitive, but at the same time more relaxed than the leagues in Johnstown or Westmoreland County,” said Snyder, who lives in Indiana and is originally from Ligonier. “The people seem to be generally more thankful that the league is around again, whereas those leagues have been around for so long, people are getting to the point where some teams are just taking the better players off other teams and they’re combined into two really good teams, and the rest of the teams aren’t very good. It’s not very competitive, whereas in our league the talent’s really spread out. Most of the teams have guys who used to play in the Indiana County league before, and now that it’s back, they’re excited because they have a chance to play again.”