PLANT CITY – It has been years in the making, but a permanent tribute to the sport of softball may finally be rounding third base.
The International Softball Federation has talked about creating a hall of fame and museum ever since it moved to the Plant City Stadium complex in 2000.
A series of setbacks, including the economic downturn and the exclusion of softball from the Olympics, stalled the project.
Fundraising is now under way, and federation Honorary President Don Porter has been presenting artists renderings and other plans to government and business groups.
Porter thinks the dream is finally coming true. He hopes to open the doors in mid-2015.
“We think the timing is right,” said Porter, who was federation president for 26 years until his 2013 retirement.
The federation’s $1.6 million project is coupled with plans for a softball training academy headquartered at the stadium and surrounding complex. Porter foresees the complex hosting activities including tournaments and drawing crowds not seen since the days when the Cincinnati Reds held spring training there.
Porter said he doesn’t intend to ask for government backing, instead relying on money from foundations with an interest in the sport.
The project will get a major boost if the International Olympic Committee decides in December to include softball in the 2020 summer games in Tokyo. If that happens, funding from the Olympics will be available to help pay for the project, he said.
The federation moved its operation to the 75-acre stadium complex for a token $10 per year for 20 years from its former headquarters in Oklahoma City. It leases 16,000 square feet that the Reds used for spring training for 10 years, ending in 1997.
The federation estimates 9,500 players, coaches and others from 130 countries have visited the complex for tournaments and other events since it took over in 2000. The museum, along with the academy, would dramatically increase the facility’s use, Porter said.
Most of the former clubhouse space would be remodeled into a museum of softball memorabilia and a hall of fame. The federation has a vast collection of historic items, from a softball that was carried into space by NASA astronauts to replicas of Olympic medals.
Mayor Rick Lott said he likes the idea of more use of the 6,700-seat stadium and complex, which opened in 1988. He’s asked the federation for more information about what it has planned.
“I liked what I have seen so far. It looked like a great addition to the Plant City recreation and parks department. I just want to hear more,” Lott said.
The mayor said he’d like to see a return to the days when crowds thronged to the stadium complex. The stadium and the adjacent complex were converted to softball after the Reds left town, and its fields are occasionally used for the sport.
The federation is making its move as the city is paying off the last of its debt on the stadium; the final $390,000 annual payment is due in 2019. The city has long struggled with the future of the stadium and once pondered tearing it down and offering the property for industrial development.
Softball is the only international sports federation headquartered in the United States, Lott said, so he’s hopeful that Porter’s organization can be the answer to the city’s dilemma over the stadium.
Softball traces its roots to the late 1800s when the first game was held indoors at a boat house in Chicago. Its popularity spread beyond the U.S. through missionaries and soldiers who served overseas during World War II, Porter said.
The sport is now one of the most popular in the world, played by millions around the globe. As part of its mission, the federation helps fledgling teams in foreign lands with gifts of softballs, athletic shoes and uniforms.
It’s only fitting that a sport with such a following would have its own museum, Porter said. He said besides tourists who trek to Plant City for the museum, the softball academy would also attract thousands of players, coaches and others who will stay in local hotels and eat in local restaurants.
“We want this to be the place where people come from all around the world to learn about softball and play softball,” Porter said. “We think this would be a tourist draw like none other.”