'A softball reunion': After a year away, fans cram into bigger, better softball stadium to watch WCWS

Nick Kelly
The Tuscaloosa News

OKLAHOMA CITY — Hot fried food mixed with crisp summer air doesn’t take long to hug your nose once inside USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium.

Just don’t stop and smell for long. You’ll get trampled.

To reach the source of that aroma, you must hop in the rapid river of thousands of softball fans. It slows once in line for the food, though. By quite a bit.

On Friday night, a cousin of Alabama freshman Kat Grill went quickly to get some snacks and candy during the UCLA game.

“She was gone for two innings,” said Donnie Grill, Kat’s dad. “That’s how bad it was.”

Bad, but welcomed by Grill and many others because of what it means. A couple of months into the pandemic last year at this time, the softball mecca went silent. No hot fried food, no fans, no games.

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Now, softball heaven is back. It’s literally bigger and better than ever, and softball fans in attendance this week aren’t taking it for granted.

“It’s a softball reunion out here in Oklahoma City,” Alabama superfan Emily Pitek Clifford said. “It’s great to see.”

It’s a reunion with a lot more family members who attended this year. This is the first time the WCWS has been played since an upper deck was added to the stadium. That increased capacity to 13,000 fans, up 4,000 with the upper decks.

That had led to more stop-and-go traffic just to get into the complex and lines that span blocks to get inside the stadium. 

"The lines are long as heck," Pitek Clifford said. "I haven’t seen lines this long."

Attendance was listed at 12,337 for Friday night when the Crimson Tide played the Bruins.

“It literally looks like Bryant-Denny Stadium or Yankee Stadium or a major league baseball stadium with an upper deck,” Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said Wednesday.

Fans wait for stadium to open during a weather delay before Saturday night's OU-UCLA game.

The upper decks increase volume not only by allowing more people inside but also because of the echo created underneath as thousands of fans walk and talk.

The best time to take in the view from the upper deck might be about 8:45 p.m. The river of fans also exists in the upper deck, and a quick step outside it offers a prime chance to see the spectacle.

Below a golden orange horizon sit fans wearing all colors. Sure, those who sport the colors of the competing teams are easy to spot, but they make up only part of the vast palette. For example, several fans wearing Missouri softball T-shirts made the trip, even after the Tigers lost to James Madison in the Columbia Super Regional.

Then there are those who aren’t associated with a college team at all. Hordes of travel softball players in town for their own games also attend.

“The cool thing about Oklahoma City is, if you’re a softball fan, you’re included,” Pitek Clifford said.

Pitek Clifford, who has made the trip six times, had just stopped at an LSU tailgate Friday where they hugged her and gave her fried catfish.

“They welcomed me with open arms,” she said. “They’re great people, and they’re pulling for the Tide today.”

Yes, you read that correctly.

Many people are here to root for their teams, but most are just cheering for great softball. Pitek Clifford said she’s met softball fans from Iowa, Florida, California and more spots this week.

Hotels are filled to the brim with softball fans. When there’s a TV that has a softball game on, there seems to always be people watching.

“The whole city embraces this event,” said Murphy, coaching his team in OKC for the 13th time. “The crowd was awesome (Friday). To see the facility like it is, it’s really, really cool for a female student-athlete right now that’s playing softball to be able to take advantage of this facility and this sport.”