On May 14, 1999, Carla Brookbank-Schaal delivered the first pitch in Akron Racers’ history after weather forced the game from its scheduled date the day prior. Much like many of the tires produced in the Rubber City, the Racers and professional softball have traveled a circuitous journey. That trek culminated in the celebration of the team’s 15th season earlier this month. While other teams have been a part of stretches of the NPF’s journey since 1999, Akron is the only team that’s been a part of it all. Well over a dozen teams have come and gone in that span.
In truth, the journey to Akron’s 15th season started well before that first pitch. Initially, the Rubber City was supposed to have a team in 1997. Ultimately, it was decided that the teams would be geographically based in the southeast at the request of AT&T Mobile, the sponsor of the league, who wanted all the teams to be based in its geographic markets.
— Akron Racers (@AkronRacers) July 17, 2016
“We kind of sat back for awhile and then they invited me to some of the (league) meetings,” Racers general manager and co-owner Joey Arrieta said in an interview with Excelle Sports. “We ended up having the first exhibition game, which was between the Carolina Diamonds and the Georgia Pride in 1997…I wanted to keep us on the forefront of the possibility of getting a team whenever they were going to award a team to someone in the midwest.”
Akron kept at it the following year and volunteered to host the league’s all-star game. The two-day event drew about 3,800 attendees. On the second night of the event, the league awarded Akron a team for the 1999 season with Arrietta at the helm.
Arrietta knew that trying to carve out a place for professional softball would be a huge challenge going in, citing attracting sponsorships and generating awareness as major obstacles the program would face. She credited the city of Akron for its commitment to the game in helping drive her efforts. Akron invested four million dollars in renovating Firestone Stadium for the Racers.
[More from Excelle Sports: Racers’ Sami Fagan is mentally tough in the NPF]
“There was a huge commitment on the part of the city of Akron that was very encouraging,” Arrietta said. “That kind of fueled my energy to be able to deal with the challenges knowing that they were totally behind our team, our program and professional softball for girls and women.”
The following season would bring its own unique challenges. Consolidation by the league forced Akron to play host to two separate teams at Firestone Stadium, the Racers and the Ohio Pride. Arrietta served as the general manager to both teams. She found it was like trying to divide your time between your first and second child.
In the winter of 2001, the league entered a three-year hiatus as it reorganized, regrouped and changed its business model from a single entity to a franchise model. While the lights went out on professional softball at Firestone Stadium, the lights didn’t go out completely.
“Between that announcement and the emergence of the Racers again in 2004, I focused my attention on grassroots,” Arrietta said. “As a matter of fact, the program was called ‘The Grassroots to the Pros’ in hopes of someday kids being able to do that again. We just kept the fire burning here and I owe that to our fans and the city of Akron.”
The groundwork laid during those years helped generate awareness for the team once professional softball resumed in 2004. The Racers hosted tournaments every weekend, ranging from the youth level to high school state championships, the MAC Championship and some small college championships.
Anniversaries are obviously a time for celebration, but they are also a time of reflection. It didn’t take Arrietta long to give her top-three moments in Racers’ history, thus far. The top moment for her is opening night, with Akron native Brookbank-Schaal in the circle. That moment is followed by the Racers’ lone NPF championship in 2005, with a hard-fought battle to get to the finals in 2014 rounding out the top three.
It’s also a time to reflect on Akron making it to the 15-year mark and recall those other teams that did not. With teams coming in and then folding rapidly between 2004 and 2014, a huge criticism of the league was that teams lacked staying power. These days, however, talk throughout the league is about expansion, not contraction.
[More from Excelle Sports: Racers’ Alex Hugo on fast start in the NPF and more]
“I think the thing we learned from the past is you have to make sure that it’s not a one and done (team) because that has been a criticism that we cannot afford any longer,” Arrietta said. “We got to get that commitment from the ownership of these teams and it is a huge sacrifice for people to do this.
“I look back and wonder if all of us had stuck it out, where we’d be today, but I think the future is probably as encouraging as it has ever been since I’ve been in this league. I think we are in a right moment at the right time for this to resonate and stay positive for the future and add teams every year.”
Arrietta’s positive outlook, of course, extends to her own team as well. Akron’s rookie class has come in and contributed in a major way. The newcomers are putting up numbers that are impressive, not just for first-year players, but across the board. Infielder Sami Fagan is currently in the top five in seven offensive categories and pitcher Jailyn Ford is currently second in the league in wins. Arrietta lists getting back to the finals this year and building off the outstanding 2016 rookie class as goals moving forward.
Off the field, the Racers are the subject of an upcoming documentary on the 2014 season entitled, “Burn The Ships.” Over 100 hours of interviews were conducted for the film spanning from October 2013 through the 2014 playoffs. While Arrietta hasn’t seen the film yet, she hopes it will shed light on the hardships players face to be a part of the league.
[More from Excelle Sports: Racers rookie Jailyn Ford is adjusting to the NPF]
Long term, ultimately, the goal is to have a league that provides athletes with the opportunity to earn a living playing softball.
“We are going to continue to try to lead as an organization to demonstrate that we have staying power because that is a critical dimension of whether the league will sustain itself,” Arrietta said. “No team is going to do it on their own. We got to do it together, and we want to just continue what we are doing and continue to let people be witness to something pretty incredible every night.”