Every year past as the church softball league started up at the Southampton Church of God the church faced a dilemma. The so-called "mega church" with a membership of just over 18,000 often found itself having to turn away literally hundreds of would-be participants.
"In the past we just didn't have space on the team" said head coach Eric DeVry. "Every year we had all of these people that wanted to play, but we would have to turn them away. And even if we could have put them all on the team, there's no way we could have let everyone play."
For years churches like Southampton with memberships over 5000 wrestled with the problem of what to do with those who so desperately wanted to participate but could not because of limited space. But as this year's softball season began history was made. Southampton and nine other churches in the state of Colorado with memberships over 8,000 began forming "minor league" church softball teams, and the idea has flourished.
The initial concept was conceived by DeVry last year while attending a triple-A Sky Sox game in Colorado Springs.
"I went to watch the Sky Sox play with my family" said DeVry. "And as I was watching the game it just hit me. If baseball has different leagues then why can't church softball?"
DeVry passed his idea along to the church board of directors last fall who immediately embraced the idea. He then passed on the idea to the coaches at a number of other large churches in the Colorado area, all of whom were thrilled at the prospect.
The process for forming the teams worked similarly to how major league baseball teams are formed. Four levels of teams were organized, beginning with A, and then moving up through AA, AAA and then on to what is called the "Mega League." Tryouts were held this past spring, and church members who desired to play came out to see if they would make the cut. After the tryouts the coaching staffs of each church "drafted" players beginning with the "Mega League" coaches.
The idea has been welcomed by the participants.
"I've wanted to play for Southampton for years, but just never was able to get on the team" said Alex Steed, pitcher for Southampton's AAA team. "It's really great to get out there and play now. On any given night we'll have six to seven thousand people out in the crowd, and it really gets exciting. I'm hoping that maybe next year I'll get called up to the Mega League."
Steed's wish could very well come true. The league system also has "scouts" that visit the different league games to watch for rising stars. Those players who perform well in the lower leagues can be called up over time.
"We were in Denver last week" said Gerald Barter, first baseman for the Southampton AA Salvation Sluggers. "Next week we'll be in Colorado Springs to take on the Parkview Prophets. They're really a tough team but I think we can take them. I'm really working hard to get my batting average up so I can get called up soon."
The formation of the various leagues has also generated a tremendous response from the various congregations. With more people from more large churches playing in the league, crowds have multiplied greatly. While the single-A games generally draw a modest crowd of 500-600 from the rival churches, some of the AA and AAA games have at times drawn crowds of almost 10,000 people, and several Mega League games have brought in crowds over 16,000.
"When Southampton played the Barrington Blessings we had 16,897 people there that night" said DeVry. "We had to rent out the Sky Sox stadium just to play."
While only in its first season, the future of minor league mega church softball looks bright.
"If all goes well we're going to add a rookie league next year prior to single-A" said DeVry. "That'll even get more people involved."