QUINCY — Youth baseball had a different look when Darin Dodd was a player.
“Traveling” for competition then meant driving from the family home in the Hickory Grove subdivision on the eastern edge of Quincy to play Little League games at Maranatha Park on Einhaus Lane, just west of North 12th Street.
Fast forward to today, and there are tens of thousands of travel baseball and fast-pitch softball teams around the country, their popularity exploding over the past two decades, including in the tri-state area.
Teams — and families — often travel hundreds of miles or more on weekends from April to mid-July in search of competitive tournaments as players try to hone their skills while enjoying the game.
Quincy, finally, has become a destination for those teams thanks to an initiative Dodd, now a father and coach, launched in late 2019 to stage youth tournaments locally: QTown Tournaments.
To wit, 24 teams, including one from Tennessee, participated in a wooden bat baseball tournament played Friday night through Sunday at the three turf fields at Wavering and Moorman parks.
It was the seventh of eight baseball tournaments scheduled this year in Quincy under the umbrella of QTown Tournaments, which also hosted six fast-pitch softball tourneys.
“It drove me crazy that we had to go to towns half our size like Burlington, Iowa, or Jacksonville, Ill., to participate in competitive tournaments,” said the 51-year-old Dodd, who has coached travel teams for his two sons and serves as tournament director.
“Competitive teams are (now) coming to Quincy. We still go to other places to play, but local teams don’t have to travel every weekend to find tournaments. Parents appreciate those weekends when they don’t have to book hotel rooms out of town.
“Hotels are seeing a boost in rooms. Restaurants have entire teams coming in for dinner and drinks. The (Quincy) Park District is getting consistent use out of its turf fields every weekend and a big boost to concessions and activities at The Batting Cage. It’s a win-win for everybody.”
It’s what Dodd hoped for when he started QTown Tournaments, although he admits to some initial apprehension.
At the time he was armed with only a vision, his experience as a coach, a tourism grant from the Oakley-Lindsay Center that helped pay for a website and a presence on social media to help recruit teams.
Little did he know COVID-19 would erase most of its first season in 2020, resulting in just three tournaments being played, some in nearby Hannibal, Mo.
“I was worried about little things like rainouts or what if no one comes, never thinking a global pandemic would wipe out April, May and most of June,” Dodd said. “The first year was a good learning experience. The writing was on the wall that there had to be a better way to get Quincy out there.”
So, last year QTown Tournaments expanded its marketing reach by partnering with Game 7 Baseball, a suburban St. Louis organization that offers and promotes baseball tournaments for ages 7-16, primarily in Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky.
The increased visibility and ability for a larger audience to register teams online enabled Quincy to host seven baseball tournaments and one unsanctioned softball tournament.
This year, QTown Tournaments also partnered with the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) to sanction and promote softball tournaments.
At least 18 teams have either played or will play in eight of the 14 baseball and softball tournaments, with the wooden bat tourney producing the largest field. Dodd says more than 220 teams will play in Quincy this year.
“We’re on the map as a competitive tournament destination,” Dodd said.
Holly Cain, executive director of the Quincy Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, estimated before games were played that the economic impact of Quincy hosting the youth tournaments this year would be $1.8 million, a number she now admits is low because of the increased number of teams coming to town.
“As the mother of a traveling athlete, I know where our money goes,” she said. “We know what is spent out of our own wallets. You’re always going out to eat and fuel up, and it’s usually a two-night stay in most places.
“Youth sports have a huge economic impact. You’re not only bringing in teams, but Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa. We have sponsored (QTown Tournaments) with cash donations because we see an amazing value. Hopefully, this will continue to be a great relationship.”
Some local businesses, restaurants and hotels also have provided financial assistance to QTown Tournaments, which otherwise is dependent on entry fees to cover expenses.
One of the primary selling points for QTown Tournaments is an accessible location that can easily draw teams from across Illinois, Missouri and Iowa. Another is the Park District facilities and other amenities in Wavering and Moorman parks.
There are three existing turf fields, which reduces the chances of rainouts and offers players a rare experience.
There also is the Batting Cage, putt-putt golf, disc golf, paddleboat rides on Moorman Lake, walking trails and plenty of greenspace for families to enjoy time between games without leaving.
“It’s different from a lot of complexes,” Dodd said. “Many of them are like a four-leaf clover, with a central concession stand, all concrete and no shade, and people on top of people. We’re more spread out and there are shade trees.
“One kid brought a fishing pole this year because he didn’t know the lake was there the first time he was here. Other places have more fields and can accommodate more teams than we can, but no other ballpark complex is offering what Quincy parks offer.”
The Park District, which sets each field and pitching mound depending on the age group playing, benefits because it receives rent on the fields and the money from concessions and other facilities in the parks.
Rick Lawson is the director of the Gem City Bombers baseball program for ages 8-16, and coaches two of the teams and helps with a third. He was the director for the wooden bat tournament last weekend.
He said “facilities are the key to getting teams” and having three turf fields has “made Quincy a destination” because less than a quarter of other fields his teams play on are turf.
“We’ve had a lot of teams come back multiple times, which speaks for itself,” Lawson said. “Coaches have come up to me and Darin and talked about the great facilities and customer service. They like Quincy as a town and what it offers.”
Dodd also credits the work of Mike Willis, who oversees lining up umpires for each weekend of play. About half of each entry fee a team pays to play in a tournament goes to paying the two umpires for each game.
“(Willis) has done a fabulous job of recruiting the best umpires in the area,” Dodd said. “The umpire shortage is real, and baseball is harder to find than softball, but we get good, IHSA-certified umpires.
“We also pull some umpires from out of town, and one of our hotel partners will put them up for the night at no charge. Our umpire crews have been a tremendous asset.”
Dodd, a district sales representative for Kohl Wholesale, believes there’s room for continued growth.
USA Today reports between 2013 and 2018, the number of U.S. kids playing baseball and softball increased by nearly 3 million, according to surveys by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
More than 25 million kids played baseball or softball in 2018, the last year figures are available, and nearly 15 million of those were “core” players who played 13 or more times in a year.
“I can see us attracting more teams, especially if more fields are developed,” Dodd said. “My goal was never to make money off this. My goal was to bring this to the community, to do something for Quincy and Quincy businesses. For the kids, it’s all about the experiences and memories they get.
“It’s a win-win across the board.”
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