Bandits don't want softball followers to forget about the game
Abby Ramirez was looking forward to the 2020 National Pro Fastpitch season with great anticipation.
Ramirez and her Chicago Bandits teammates were set to make a run at the NPF championship, and the Bandits' front office was excited to be hosting games against four teams made up of players who would be participating in the Tokyo Olympics later in the summer.
But then, on May 15, word came down from league commissioner Cheri Kempf that the 2020 NPF season was canceled due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We weren't surprised but we were super-bummed," said Ramirez, a 2013 graduate of Trinity High School in River Forest who played at Michigan and was an all-NPF infielder last summer.
"We were trying to do everything to make it work but it just wasn't feasible. There were too many hoops to jump through and too many hurdles."
The major hurdle was the influx of international players who were expected to play for U.S.-based teams this summer.
The Aussie Peppers, based in Mankato, Minn., was basically going to be the Australian National team. The Canadian Wild of Southern Illinois, whose home base was going to be Rent One Park in downstate Marion, was one player shy of being all Canadian citizens. And the Cleveland Comets, whose roster would have included Naperville North product Sammy Marshall, had a fair number of players from the Mexican National team.
Obstacles specifically cited by the league in its May 15 release included an inability to access testing as well as an uncertainty on the cost of that testing; access and allowance inside potential venues; lack of adequate infrastructure required to travel from market to market, live, practice, and compete each day of the season in various markets while maintaining the assurance of player safety and good health.
It was announced prior to opening day, originally scheduled to take place April 10, the Aussie Peppers would be forced to withdraw from league participation due to the fact the team is made up largely of Australian players, and international travel out of Australia had been shut down indefinitely.
That announcement was followed in the span of a couple of weeks by the withdrawal of the Canadian Wild.
Required quarantines for international travelers throughout the world were cited as also complicating issues for the international teams rostering athletes who are also amid training for their respective Olympic teams.
Losing those three teams would have left the NPF with only the Bandits and the Los Angeles-based California Commotion, teams located in two of the country's pandemic hot spots.
"It is not without careful consideration and much thought, that we (made) the decision to forego the 2020 season," Kempf said. "We have always prioritized the health and safety of our players and the global pandemic of COVID-19 places us in a position we are unable to overcome. It is simply not feasible for the league to manage at this time."
Kempf and Bandits general manager Toni Calmeyn are adamant the NPF will return in 2021, but that didn't make the sting of no pro softball this summer any easier to take.
"It hurts," said Calmeyn, who is also a financial analyst for the Village of Rosemont, of losing the 2020 season. "Every year we've been taking our attendance up and doing more and more. It was going to be a great season. We had four of the six Olympic teams coming in. It's disappointing but it was the right call."
For now, the Parkway Bank Sports Complex in Rosemont is shut down. But that doesn't mean the Bandits aren't doing their part to keep softball front and center with its followers. The team averaged about 1,100 fans per game last summer, Calmeyn said.
Led by Bandit Academy director Holly Scott (a former high school state champion at Oak Park and now the pitching coach at North Central College), assistant GM Jourdan Skirha (an Oak Forest High School grad) and Ramirez, the Bandits an have an online "Chalk Talk" each week that has been drawing as many as 100 participants, mostly young players looking for a softball fix anywhere they can find it until they can get back on the field.
"We're just trying to keep everyone engaged," said Calmeyn, who officially took over responsibilities as general manager in 2017, following an ownership change which saw the Village of Rosemont take over full control of the team from Bill Sokolis, who along with Bill Conroy, founded the Bandits in 2005, playing their first three seasons at Benedictine University in Lisle, and their next three at Judson University in Elgin before settling into their complex in Rosemont in 2011.
Ramirez, who is also giving instruction through the Bandit Academy, is hoping to get some personal training on the field after May 29, when Illinois enters Phase 3 of reopening.
For now, though, it's a challenge.
"I'll keep doing the same stuff I've been doing with my workout routine," Ramirez said. "It's tough with the stadium closed and not being able to use the facilities I'm used to. I'll just keep doing the best with what I have."
As everyone is.