by Doug Ireland
The first weekend in March felt like what you hope for from the first weekend in April. Sun-coated, without the heat. The occasional soft breeze. Not a moment’s worry about rain, just a day after another round of tornado-producing waves of storms menaced central and north Louisiana.
It was the kind of weather that requires you to be outside, soaking it in, a God-given privilege not to be wasted.
And with a touch of divine scheduling, there was no basketball to keep Northwestern State, Louisiana Christian or LSUA fans inside. In Natchitoches, the NSU faithful were treated to home baseball and softball, early in the spring sports slate, with 6-8 weeks more to anticipate before those seasons wrap up.
Northwestern is fortunate to have a compact “athletic campus.” The facilities are all within walking distance of each other, bordered on the southeast side of campus by Chaplin’s Lake, good for fishing, sunbathing, and occasional rowing training and competition. Nobody swims there, on purpose at least, but thanks to the Rapides Foundation, hundreds of people from 18-85 enjoy a paved walking track on the west bank.
While sitting in the stands or on the hillside at bucolic Brown-Stroud Field, where Demon baseball has played since at least FDR was in the White House, you can hear cheers erupting from the Lady Demon Diamond, and vice versa. The public address systems can sometimes be understood 250 yards away at the opposite venue. It creates a sense of community that is, at least, unusual. Each ballpark has its own personality, its own space, but they also seem connected.
There’s something else, not unique to the two teams, that is a treasure. Parents and family.
It’s rare with any student-oriented organization, from sports to performing arts and with anything else kids undertake, that the support from parents and family isn’t significant and sustaining. I’m not talking about cheering from the grandstand – which should not be taken for granted – but it’s the deeper engagement with baseball and softball that is extraordinary.
These baseball and softball players have to eat. Many of their family members love to cook. And if they don’t, they have friends who do, or will at least write checks to buy vittles for other good locals to fix.
The Lady Demon softball program was first to the party in the 318. About a quarter-century ago, new coach Gay McNutt had been a young assistant at then USL and the developing powerhouse Lady Cajun program built by Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame coach Yvette Girouard. Some of Yvette’s friends began grilling and ‘villing (blending frozen margaritas) behind the (then) chain-link centerfield fence. They soon bought T-shirts and created the Centerfield Club – no dues, back then, not even a game ticket to buy, but unabashed fun and support to the home team. So, at NSU, the Outfield Club was created along the same principles – food, beverages (a keg of beer each gameday, back in that day) and a small elevated set of bleachers next to the left-field foul pole.
It’s different today. There are memberships, there are no kegs (there still is beer for those old enough), but there’s still food and fun and a close bond with the Lady Demons coaches and players, beginning with the fact that most of their families are Outfield Club members, along with original members like grillmaster Layne Miller and flagbearing – complete with poles and the Demon flags — Dr. Ron McBride.
It wasn’t very long ago that Demon baseball created its own version. A tradition of cooking or delivering postgame meals for the players, sometimes including visiting non-conference opponents, was long since in place. Just a few years ago, the baseball program formalized its Cooking Club, developing a small plaza next to the NSU dugout and near first base where members congregate, grill, and cheer for the home team. At game’s end, players prep the field for future use and eventually make their way over to be rewarded with great grub.
Membership in either group is $100. The ROI is many times that – not just because the food is great, but because the company is, too – and the camaraderie cannot be topped.
That, and the early arrival of spring, are the things that make baseball and softball extra special.