If you ever drove by what used to be Ducks Stadium and wondered just what exactly happens there, Sunday is a great chance to experience it.
From early February to late October and even some winter events in between, U.S. Baseball Park has become an attraction and an economic fixture in northern Ozark. College and high school teams play in Christian County throughout the spring and fall months. If you happen to be in line at Lambert’s Cafe on a Saturday, there is an excellent chance someone in a baseball uniform will be in line with you. That’s a small illustration of a larger economic impact at work.
The staff at the Ozark Chamber of Commerce thought enough of U.S. Baseball Park’s potential as an economic attraction that the park received key mention and praise at the Ozark State of the Community Dinner.
In the fall for nine Sundays from August to October, the adults take over. The Grip’N’Rip Baseball League, now in its fourth year of existence, is a blend between modern entertainment and the amateur town team baseball of years gone by.
“We’ve got a rare opportunity, especially people my age, to go out and play a kid’s game and have fun doing so,” Scott Weis told me on Sunday.
Scott Weis is a 41-year-old teacher and coach from Republic who played all nine defensive positions, pitcher and catcher included, in a single game on Oct. 13.
In the interest of full disclosure, the Grip’N’Rip league is my second job. I work as the online radio play-by-play announcer, mostly sharing accounts of the games with friends and relatives of the players. It’s my second year working this seasonal second job.
We wrap up the season Sunday, Oct. 20, with a consolation playoff game at 1 p.m. and the league championship game at 5:30 p.m. The Henry’s Towing High Rollers and the A&L Electric Shockers face off for the league title and the Howard Bell Trophy.
All six of the teams are site specific, just as the summer teams of the Show-Me Collegiate League are. That means they play all of their home and away games at U.S. Baseball Park.
The real stories are not found at the park, but in the people who play the game. In the days of minor league town teams, fans would cheer on sluggers and hurlers who doubled as factory workers, farmers and salesmen. Like the ballplayers from the days of yore, there are Grip’N’Rip players of all types, each with his own unique backstory.
There’s Schuyler Carter, a 28-year-old Ozark High School graduate, warehouse worker and Christian radio show host who covers center field like water covers the earth’s surface. In November, Carter is headed to California to report for basic training to join the U.S. Marine Corps.
There’s my good friend Ethan Bryan, an author of 10 books who was featured in the pages of this very newspaper on his quest to play catch with a different partner every day for a full calendar year in 2018. Bryan, 45, was successful in that quest and is finalizing a deal to publish a book about the experience. He hadn’t played organized baseball in more than 27 years, but landed on the CY Sports Cyclones and went 2-for-5 on the season as a backup outfielder.
The players have to be at least 21 years of age to compete and must have exhausted all college eligibility. This year’s group ranges in age from 21 to 59. You read that right, firefighter Dayne Shoff of Lamar is an ageless wonder who still plays the game he loves, and he drives many miles each weekend to do it.
Shoff isn’t the only Sunday commuter to the Grip’N’Rip league. Players drive from places like Independence, Missouri, Fayetteville, Arkansas and Lebanon, Missouri for a one-of-a-kind opportunity to continue their careers on the Ozark turf.
In addition to firefighters, there’s also a police officer. Pitcher Tanner Allen, originally from Mansfield, had to be pulled from a game in the fourth inning early in the season so that he would have time to change into his other uniform and report on time for his overnight shift as a trainee with the Springfield Police Department. Allen’s fastball exceeds 83 mph.
If you only care about cheering for locals, you can do plenty of that. Local favorites like Nixa’s Ben Van Gorp and Jacob Karlson, Spokane’s Brandon Freeman, Billings’ Chris Hall and Sparta High School girls fast pitch softball coach Troy McPherson are among the many Christian County natives who make up the 90 athletes of the GRBL.
So if you’ve ever driven by the ballpark on a Sunday and wondered, “What’s going on over there?” consider this an invitation. Check out the last game of the season on Oct. 20 and experience baseball like it was meant to be felt.