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Creekside Sports has been in the horsehide-swatting business since Gerald Ford was president. Softball in Denver has been around in one form or another since bell-bottoms were hip -- the first time. And Crestmoor Park Softball Association opened its doors when John Travolta was dancing in white leisure suits.
Now the City of Denver is looking for a piece of the old ball game.
Earlier this week, the Denver City Council approved a plan to start its first city-run adult softball league, putting Denver government in direct competition with the handful of private companies that for the past several decades have assumed the headaches of organizing games, finding umpires, buying softballs and fielding complaints from the several thousand players who take to the city's diamonds every spring, summer and fall.
City officials insist that everyone can play together without a bench-clearing brawl. "Our goal is not to push anyone out of business," says Tiffiany Moehring, public-information officer for the parks and rec department.
Denver's competitors in the bat-and-ball biz don't see it that way. "It may put us out of business," complains Steve Esses, who co-owns Softball in Denver. Adds Dave Moysey, owner of Crestmoor Park Softball Association (CPSA): "With no Denver fields, I'm not gonna be able to do it. I'll have to stop."
Despite these protests, the city's move into the ball game makes some sense. After all, Denver owns the fields the games are played on. Yet there's also no question that the department was lured onto the diamond as much by the promise of profit as a love of the game. Managing adult softball leagues will never be mistaken for running Microsoft or Wal-Mart. But the private companies "can make quite a bit of money," Moehring says. Adds Stu Bader, who handles field permits for Denver, "We think there's a way for us to make money on this. We can generate some revenue."
The city's interest in softball highlights an anomaly in Denver's recreation programs: Nowhere else in the metropolitan area are adult softball leagues organized privately.
The city has farmed out the job to a handful of small organizations for at least the past quarter-century. Ernie Perez, who started organizing games more than three decades ago, says he recalls overwhelmed parks and rec officials asking players to help them organize leagues in 1972.
The players eventually formed a board of directors, organizing into a non-profit company called Denver Softball. At its peak, Perez says, the company managed up to 700 teams in the city's spring, summer and fall leagues.
About five years ago, however, the city began making it more difficult to operate in the softball business. For example, Denver increased its field-rental fees, then added a $160-per-team surcharge to the registration fees. "During the past five years, Denver has dramatically raised fees -- over a 1,000 percent increase to CPSA Sports, so that these [private] organizations can no longer make a profit and stay competitively priced with leagues in the suburbs," complains Moysey. Faced with a field shortage, the city also began restricting the fields on which the adult teams could play.
Concluding that such pressures made it too difficult to continue, Denver Softball called it quits in 2001. The following year, however, Esses, then a city worker, reckoned he could revive the company and perhaps make some extra income in his spare time. Last summer he organized about 250 teams under the new company, Softball in Denver.
Crestmoor Park Softball Association began operations in 1977 as a six-team petroleum men's league at Crestmoor Park, near Alameda and Monaco. According to the group's Web site, "Besides the annual summer men's leagues at Crestmoor Park, nearly thirty coed oil-company teams participated in CPSA leagues and tournaments at Crestmoor Park on Sundays in the early '80s."
When the oil business tanked in the mid-'80s, organizer Moysey says, he began seeing the league as a way to supplement his income, so he opened Crestmoor to teams outside the oil industry.
Stan Janiak initially started Up the Creek Sports in 1975 as a readership promotion for the weekly newspaper he published. Last year, Creekside Sports organized softball games for just over 100 teams. The business has not exactly made Janiak rich. "I earned $13,000 last year," he says, "but I'm retired and receive Social Security, so this income was very important to me."
The newcomer to the Denver adult-softball scene is a national adult-recreation company called SportsMonster, which moved into the local market in 2000. Last year, it arranged games for about 200 softball teams during the spring, summer and fall seasons. Still, says SportsMonster founder Bart Fitzpatrick, due to the high cost of using Denver's fields, it's not a huge moneymaker. "It's a little tricky here," he says. "We have very low margins."
Bader says city parks officials started looking at moving into the softball business about four years ago. But, he adds, several embarrassing scandals in the parks department made the political climate inappropriate for the city to make any sudden moves into private enterprise, and then-mayor Wellington Webb recommended shelving the plan. This fall, however, with Denver in a serious budget crunch, profits were suddenly a topic of interest. When Bader and others dusted off the plan to start running softball this time, officials were ready to listen.