Let the games begin

Members of the Quad City Firebirds dance to music Sunday at the opening ceremonies for the 2007 NSA Class A Girls Fastpitch World Series.
Members of the Quad City Firebirds dance to music Sunday at the opening ceremonies for the 2007 NSA Class A Girls Fastpitch World Series.

FORT MILL -- What would possess two hairy, brawny men to don red, white and blue starred and striped jester's caps with dangling baubles and matching starburst tie-dyed T-shirts?

They must be dads.

Dads who departed Quad Cities, Ill., on Friday and drove 900 miles in a caravan just for the National Softball Association Girls Class A East Fastpitch Softball World Series. Their little girls are playing in it.

"We just do it for the girls so they enjoy themselves," said Quad Cities' Ken Grawe, whose daughters Destiny, 12, and Mariah, 9, are Quad Cities Firebirds softball players. "Plus, this is our team colors."

He and his buddy Lolo Molina, who also had a Firebirds insignia reading "We are in it to win it" attached to his forehead, were among about 10,000 garishly attired people who sat unselfconsciously in the Carowinds Paladium for the weeklong tourney's opening ceremony. Games will be played in Rock Hill, York, Charlotte and Gastonia, N.C.

Moms, dads, grandparents and siblings outnumbered players 2-to-1.

"Go, Firebirds," shouted Molina, whose daughter Erica, 13, is a Firebird.

Three-time Olympic softball gold-medalist Leah O'Brien-Amico was featured speaker at a two-hour spiritual ceremony that included a Christian rock band. She urged the girls to have passion, purpose and perseverance and to surround themselves with people they can respect.

"Be leaders," she said. "Stand up for what's right."

Across the stadium from the Firebirds, the Indiana Shockwaves sported red hats, shocking pink T-shirts and flip-flops adorned with red, pink and white cotton ribbons.

Shockwave Sydney Payne, 11, said they play the Carolina Curves today and expect some competition.

"Everybody's good here," she explained. "There are no bad teams."

The Brantford, Ontario, Bobcats tucked small Canadian flags into their ponytails and sang the Canadian national anthem out loud with heart when it was played. Catcher Carly Cameron draped a Canadian flag around her shoulders.

The Bobcats were Canadian Pee-Wee national champs last year. Last weekend, they won the Ohio title after playing three teams who only scored one run each. "They mercied all three games," a mom explained. That means the games were called in early innings because the Bobcats were so far ahead.

But while winning is great, it's not really what softball is about, the girls said.

"We are really close like family," said right fielder Vanessa Squire, 14. "We are always together. It's like a second life where you can get away from your problems."

"Winning is nice, but being together is best," said center fielder Tori Taylor, also 14.

Their coach, Dave Bourne, played semiprofessional men's fastpitch softball in Canada until he was 35. Then, he coached men's teams for a decade, then girls' teams when his daughter started playing.

"Teenage girls have a different approach to it," he said. "Girls have to be happy to play. Boys play to feel happy."

And the team pin exchange is different for girls. They like to have fancier pins with rhinestones and such, he said.

The big team pin exchange is Tuesday night at Knights Stadium, although some girls were already exchanging Sunday.

After a Sunday afternoon of Carowinds rides and food, they get down to business today.

Play ball.