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BEHIND THE CURVE
With 'new philosophy', Clayton softball hopes to catch up

By Brian Paglia

bpaglia@news-daily.com

Scott Lowry cringes every time he drives by Riverdale's softball field. He sees the foliage climbing up the fence right next to the home dugout. Or the weeds crawling along the first baseline and coming in from the outfield, slowing gnawing at the infield. Or the bleachers pushed back from the field until they're almost exiled to the parking lot.

But the most he can do is sigh, keep driving home in his heating and air conditioning company van and wonder.

"I questioned whether what I did was worth the expense," Lowry says.

IT WASN'T WORHT IT.

All the hours Scott Lowry spent in front of school administrators, the ones sitting in an authoritative row at board meetings or the ones with intimate offices shadowed by Tara Stadium, getting three minutes to stand at those board meetings and plead his case to get softball some attention, any attention.

Calling the county athletic director about getting softball in the middle schools, giving his best campaign pitch with a vision of a whole league of teams with pristine fields and crisp uniforms and girls out in the sun playing ball, only to have the athletic director tell Lowry, " 'Well, they're girls,'" Lowry remembers him saying. "'You know, about once every five or six years you buy them uniforms. They're more worried about messing their hair up or breaking a nail. They don't dive and get dirty.'"

Lowry didn't flinch. When Jonesboro unveiled plans to upgrade the lights around its baseball field, those were more hours spent reasoning with school administrators to turn the old lights around so they could illuminate the softball field, more hours listening to administrators tell him, 'No, we're going to have to sell the lights to make up the difference in the money putting up new lights.'

On and on it went, a frustrating chase to give softball a chance in Clayton County that felt like it was going nowhere.

So Lowry started to accumulate the ammunition he needed. A report by a newspaper that found a $37,000 imbalance between spending on boys and girls sports at Mt. Zion created by the football program, an imbalance administrators explained away to Lowry by saying, 'Well, we don't offer football for girls.'" An attorney in Tucker who handled Title IX cases all across the Atlanta metro area. A message board on the Internet for the softball community that gave Lowry mounds and mounds of Title IX case law from around the country that gave him steps to follow to bring balance to Clayton County sports.

Suddenly, everyone was listening. Suddenly, the school board's calling Lowry with a plan to build softball fields for all the high schools that had to use recreational parks as their home fields.

It was supposed to be the great spark for Clayton County softball, the moment when it exploded and created a vibrant softball culture that could rival the decorated ones of neighboring Fayette and Henry counties, changing the lives of little girls and their families the way it changed Lowry's.

But then Lowry saw signs that the spark was fading. The time his daughter Heather's Jonesboro team, the one she powered into respectability by pitching every single inning of every single game in her high school career, missed going to the state playoffs because her catcher couldn't close her glove around one last strike.

The time East Paulding bunted nine straight times against Heather, preferring to test her third baseman's arm instead of Heather's, and reaching base each time. The time Northside-Warner Robbins came up to play Jonesboro in a tournament and marveled at how Heather would field a ground ball and run down the batter, unable to trust in her first baseman's glove. The coach told Lowry later, "That's the funniest thing I've ever seen. It was like T-ball."Then Jonesboro changed classifications. More games were played against Clayton teams, more games Heather won 13-0, 20-1, not the heated battles against Henry and Fayette teams she used to throw.

Then Heather left and Jonesboro slipped into anonymity right along with the rest of the county's teams.

The spark had gone out without anyone noticing.

IT WAS WORTH IT.

All those hours Scott Lowry spent selling concessions out of the back of a van at J. Charley Griswell Park at Rum Creek at his daughter Megan's high school games. The hours with shovels digging up the bases at Mt. Zion's baseball field, moving them in so Megan's team could have a real home field, leveling the mound with a tractor, boiling over the baseball coach's fury enough that he saw his baseball field turned into a demolition zone and quit.

The hours in Lowry's backyard, behind the faded picket fence guarding a pool, a narrow patch of grass long enough to let him crouch down and give Heather a target when she told him she wanted to be a pitcher.

"She was so bad," Lowry laughs. "I mean, she would reach back and throw the ball in the pool, throw it over the fence. We'd go out in the yard and the cats and dogs would scatter. I used to have a trampoline back there. We took the trampoline and turned it up sideways, put a tarp on it and used that as a backstop. She would still throw balls into the neighbors' yards."

Those were hours spent honing Heather's control, father and daughter learning a game together, a game that would absorb them completely. So completely that Lowry drove Heather to Fayetteville to play travel fast-pitch softball with the Atlanta Vipers since Clayton had no fast-pitch recreational or travel leagues.

Soon he was driving to Henry County, taking Heather to pitching lessons with Dan Wallace, the man behind every great pitcher in Henry County. To practice with the travel ball team Lowry started, Georgia Extreme. Then they were flying. To Indiana, Colorado, Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey. To Oklahoma City, Okla., for the Amateur Softball Association of America national championships where droves of college scouts hunted for talent.

That was their life. Lowry behind the wheel and Heather in the passenger seat, Lowry in the dugout and Heather on the mound, both so consumed by softball they couldn't help but become something more than just father and daughter.

That was a bond only another softball father on Lowry's team could understand, when his daughter went off to play at Florida State and Heather accepted a full scholarship with Virginia Tech and he told Lowry, 'You know, Scott, it's not my daughter going to school. I'm losing my best friend.'"

That was the spark of this game that ignited Lowry's obsessive nature. It was worth paying $1,000 player fees for travel ball. Paying $5,000 in travel expenses. Buying the $300 bats and the $175 gloves. Paying for the pitching lessons with Wallace in McDonough or hitting lessons in Duluth.

Meeting California teams at nationals every summer and throwing street parties, showing girls from across the country this fruit that looked like nectarines with fuzz.

His daughters were worth trying to balance a heating and air business he'd started right out of high school in 1978, a travel ball team that began the explosion of travel fast-pitch softball in Henry County, a batting cage business on the side that became another family harbor for softball and a vision to bring all this joy and opportunity to Clayton County.

"I wanted to give back," Lowry said. "I felt like I owed something to the community."

Now, sitting in his leather recliner, resting his back and his mind from years of raising his family on softball diamonds across the country, Scott Lowry wonders if his community will ever feel the same passion he felt for this game that changed his life.

"I kept thinking," Lowry said, "what a great way to get kids involved. You play a game and you get a college education. But it hasn't worked out that way."

BUT WAIT.

Did you see it?

Another spark's gone off.

It was the same spark that lit up Henry County into a furnace of softball success, fueling teams like Eagle's Landing Christian Academy (ranked No. 1 in the state in Class A), Luella (No. 8 in Class AAAAA) and Union Grove with collegiate talent.

That spark was a decision to transition the softball rec leagues from slow-pitch to fast-pitch in the 10-Under division, extinguishing the past and embracing the sport's future.

Funny thing about a spark. Some people see it and panic, wondering where it could lead, fearing what it could destroy.

Dan Wallace watched it all unfold. The parents who one year were thrilled to watch this new sport rush through the county and sweep their children along into the future. The parents who the next year feared for their childrens' lives with that ball rocketing toward homeplate as 10-Under went back to slow-pitch. The mass exodus of softball players going to rec leagues in other counties, suffocating the parks and recreation department of precious resources, threatening the chance for Henry County to build a softball machine.

Wallace warned the community. He told them a cursory decision based on fear would stunt their children's athletic development, leave them behind when they reached the older fast-pitch leagues and distill the county's potential.

"I told one of the parents," Wallace said, "that if they did this, when their children got to be 11-years-old they were going to be two years behind everyone else."

That was the parent who came up to Wallace four years later, after the league had felt the pains of smaller rec participation and reversed course, and told him, "Dan, you were right. We should have stayed at fast-pitch in 10-Under."

Morrow softball coach Candice Jones can't wait to watch it all unfold. The new crop of softball talent she'll coach one day. The day when she won't have to take a freshman player on her team that doesn't know how to throw or catch or swing a bat. The day when she won't feel so helpless when her team plays schools from other counties like East Coweta and Chapel Hill and lose 16-0 and 12-0 like the Lady Mustangs did this season.

Those days could be here soon, because of that latest spark. Clayton County parks and recreation decided recently to begin the transition into fast-pitch, instituting a modified version of fast-pitch in its softball program.

"That'll help all the high schools in Clayton County so much," Jones said. "Where they start them out, little girls, playing fast-pitch, even though it's not very fast, but they learn the game a bit. As they get older they can keep up with the other counties around here that have been doing that for several years."

It could lead to everything that Scott Lowry dreamed. The spark could light a fuse that bursts into a thriving travel ball community, high school teams stiff in battle with those decorated counties, girls taking the power in their arm to colleges all over this country.

Or it could simply fizzle and fade, leaving nothing but a faint trail of smoke.