AUSABLE FORKS — Everything is coming up golden in AuSable Forks.
The annual fast-pitch softball tournament turns 50 today and shows no signs of slowing down.
Tournaments and special events do come and go — the PBA Basketball Tournament and the Champlain Valley Marathon come to mind — but not the AuSable Forks Fast-Pitch Softball Tournament, which only gets better with age.
“It doesn’t get any bigger because we’re limited to a 10-team field, but it can get better,” acknowledged Tom O’Neill, who helped launch the summer showcase in 1962. He has served as tournament director for 35 years, including the last 10.
O’Neill readily admits the key to success has been the tremendous support of the greater AuSable Forks community and the hard work of the volunteers. Everyone, it seems, gets caught up in the excitement.
“Bobby Meconi said it best when he called it a festival. Everybody marks their calendars to be in AuSable Forks the second weekend of July,” O’Neill said.
The tournament will get under way at 6 p.m. today by paying tribute to its glorious past. The annual old-timer’s game, featuring Canadian stars of yesteryear —Fred Goneau, Ray Hurley, Yvonne Goneau and Brian O’Neill — taking on local legends Tim Snow, Bobby Douglas, Bill Meconi and Bob Meconi, to name a few. Old-timers interested in playing are encouraged to attend.
Opening-night festivities will continue with the dedication of the new Billy Mitchell Memorial Field sign at the West Church St. complex and a tip of the cap to this year’s honorees, Randy Douglas and Jon Gordon, who have devoted countless hours to the tournament over the years.
The American Legion Post 504 Color Guard will be introduced, and Susan Richards will sing the Canadian and American national anthems.
Then it’s play ball!
The first two games in the three-day, round-robin tournament are slated for tonight with Razzano’s Trucking, combining players from Johnstown and AuSable Forks, opposing the Broadway Barrhaven Blues of Ottawa. The nightcap will feature Mountain Brook Lodge/Blitz of Wilmington and Ottawa facing the CPI Classics of Oswego.
Music and mayhem
The band Organized Chaos, featuring Chris Wilkins, will play between games and again after Game 2 and prior to the fireworks display sponsored by Fuller Excavating/Harmony Golf Course and presented by Alonzo Fireworks of Saratoga.
It will be a short night for tournament officials with play set to resume at 9 a.m. Saturday. Fourteen six-inning games are scheduled for two fields. Pool play will wrap up Sunday with the two teams with the most points from each pool advancing to the championship round Sunday afternoon.
Pool A will consist of Razzano’s, Broadway Blues, Scooters of Forestport, Knoxville, Pa. and the Donnacona (Quebec) Blue Sox. The Pool B lineup lists CPI Classics, Mountain Brook, Team Quebec City, Carp (Ontario) 14C and Gordon Oil of AuSable Forks.
Each team is guaranteed four games in pool play.
“We went from single to double elimination in the early seventies,” explained O’Neill. “The travel distance was a big factor. Teams didn’t want to come all the way to play one game.”
For O’Neill, who just recently completed successful treatment for prostate cancer, the tournament offers a sense of excitement and a feeling of nostalgia. Most of his contemporaries from the early years of the tournament have passed on, leaving the 78-year-old Irishman with some bittersweet memories.
“I absolutely miss them,” O’Neill admits. “Guys like Tommy Douglas, Sam Bailey, Bobby Kyea … so many of them are gone. They provided the color and character of the tournament. (Joe) Black Cat Zeno was my pool director. He sold 35 pools for our 25th tournament, and the record still stands.
“The younger guys are always saying, ‘Abby, you’re one of the last ones left’ and I just say thanks for reminding me.”
The tournament was a natural for the fast-pitch hotbed back in 1962. There was no slo-pitch softball to speak of in the area, and fast-pitch was the game of choice for the city of Plattsburgh and Plattsburgh Air Force Base.
“We didn’t have any problem getting 16 teams, but we needed to weed out some that were over-matched,” O’Neill recalled. “The word got around that you needed pitching. Fast-pitch is 75 percent pitching. If you don’t have a good pitcher and good catcher, you’re in trouble.”
O’Neill believes the present-day teams are the equal of past outfits, but he isn’t sure the pitching is of the same caliber.
“I think pitching was better the than it is now. Guys like Bud Matthews of Plattsburgh Air Force Base, Jim Smith of Berard’s Construction, Rick Messier, Ray Hurley, John Dineen and Billy Gilmore of Massena. Gilmore was a big lefty with a great rise ball.
“They had some great hitters back then, too,” O’Neill continued. “Al LeBlanc, a Canadian catcher who played for (Plattsburgh American Legion) Post 20, was an unbelievable hitter.”
The influx of Canadian teams in the seventies raised the bar for AuSable Forks.
“They said ‘You can’t get the Cardinal Pats to come here,’’’ O’Neill added. “They were from Cardinal, Ontario. And one of the best teams in Eastern Canada.
“But we did get them to come here, and they won the tournament three out of four years. Ontario teams dominated from 1978 to 1988, and then the competition from New York State teams improved.”
This year’s field will include two teams from Quebec City, who will be traveling more than 250 miles one way.
“The competition will be fierce,” reasons O’Neill. “The teams always play hard and party hard!”