Chuck Williams

Chuck Williams: College softball’s a hit; so is Columbus

Auburn Coach Clint Myers, left, shakes the hand of Arizona Coach Mike Candrea on Sunday. Candrea won one of his national titles in Columbus 20 years ago.
Auburn Coach Clint Myers, left, shakes the hand of Arizona Coach Mike Candrea on Sunday. Candrea won one of his national titles in Columbus 20 years ago. Special to the Ledger-Enquirer

It was 20 years ago almost to the day that the University of Arizona beat the University of Washington for the NCAA women’s softball title.

It happened in Golden Park, a short walk from downtown Columbus.

It’s a distant memory, but it serves as a starting point for a much broader discussion about Columbus and softball.

Back in May 1996, Columbus was the dog that caught the car. And it has turned out to be a magnificent thing, even if it has not gone exactly as planned.

The NCAA World Series was an event traditionally played in Oklahoma City; the de facto capital of softball because the Amateur Softball Association is based there. Columbus stole the World Series in 1996 as a test event for the first-ever Olympic softball competition that would be played in Golden Park six weeks later.

Back then, fast-pitch softball was in its infancy in the Deep South. Most of the girls here played slow-pitch and for the most part the Southeastern Conference schools did not field teams. Many of the girls now dominating the game were not even born, or still in diapers.

The teams in that tournament, in addition to Arizona and Washington, were Cal, UCLA Michigan, Iowa, Princeton and Southwestern Louisiana.

Not a lot of regional flavor; and, as a result, it was not a huge fan draw.

Play the 2016 World Series in Columbus next week and see what would happen. Georgia, Auburn, Alabama and LSU will all be making the trip to Oklahoma City for a tournament that is dominated by SEC teams. Florida State is also in the field. Half of the schools are a three-hour drive or less from Columbus.

You couldn’t put enough seats in the stadium to handle the crowds that event would attract.

Part of the point for playing the hypothetical card here is the balance in college softball has shifted. That point was made clear last weekend when Alabama eliminated Washington and Auburn beat 1996 champion Arizona to earn trips to Oklahoma City.

Which brings us to what has happened in Columbus since then.

Columbus wanted to be the Softball Capital of the World. The idea was ahead of its time. After years of a civic inferiority complex, the city was dreaming big and the world was coming here to help us live that dream. But it wasn’t the Columbus of today. And, while we were willing, we were not ready.

There are many reasons that Columbus didn’t become the world’s softball hotbed, not the least of which is Oklahoma City fought back. ASA used Columbus and its dreams as a bargaining chip to get a better deal in Oklahoma City.

About the same time, Columbus economic developers played Georgia against South Carolina to get TSYS a new corporate headquarters.

But, I would argue right here and right now that Columbus won. If Columbus had built a fancy new headquarters for ASA and met their demands, the organization would have always had a hand out.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s take look at it 20 years later. You remember what downtown Columbus looked like two decades ago?

Bring the world to Columbus today, it would be a much different game. You have white water rafting in the Chattahoochee.

Back then, we did not even have the chain restaurants to accommodate an influx of visitors. We have that plus the local flavor downtown.

It would be an interesting experiment to bring the women’s World Series here this year.

But we can’t do that. That is just a dream.

The reality is just as college softball is not the West Coast dominated affair it was two decades ago, Columbus is far from the same place it was back then, too.

And that is not a dream.