Las Vegas Fire Games
By Softball West
Eighty-three Fire Department slow pitch softball teams came from all over the United States to play in the 3rd Annual Vegas Fire Games and National Fallen Firefighter Memorial Tournament. Firefighters have been meeting in Las Vegas for 25 years to play softball, but it was only three years ago that softball became serious business with the advent of the national invitational, which began in 2002. As the decision was being made to host a national tournament in Las Vegas, tragedy struck on September 11, 2001. It was easily decided to celebrate the lives of our fallen heroes through the newly formed National Fallen Firefighter Memorial Tournament.
For consistency, the tournament takes place the first week in May of every year in Las Vegas. Russ Van De Mark, the Tournament Director and a retired firefighter, believes the games should encourage camaraderie, good will, and mutual respect. "In addition to strong competition," Russ says, "having fun (is important) too. Firefighters come from all over the country to participate. Even though they come from different areas, firefighters understand one another. Only another firefighter understands what it is like to fight fire in almost unbearable heat, unable to see, with the possibility of running out of air, and understanding, that at any time, this could be the end." Van De Mark adds, "Afterwards, back at the station house, a firefighter knows that this will probably all happen over again, because that's what we do. That understanding alone forms the firefighter brotherhood. There is a teamwork attitude in fighting fire and teamwork in sports is merely an extension of that firefighter brotherhood."
The Memorial tournament also includes golf, bowling and softball and is a great opportunity for camaraderie and good competition, on a national scale. In addition, $100 from each team's entry fee is donated to the National Fallen Firefighter Foundation. This foundation helps defray the cost of burial for families of firefighters lost in the line of duty. "We played 10 games going 8-2. We always have a great time and it's all for a great cause and the memory of all fallen firefighters, especially at the FDNY. We had two members lost on 9-11, Ken Watson of E-214 and Thomas Casoria of E-22. We also lost a super player in Lou Valentino, who lost his life in a fire in 1996. We pray and play for those brothers every game. Thanks," says Stephen Mundinger, manager of the Brothers 4 Ever FDNY softball team.
The Vegas Fire Games happen over 4 days. Golf is on Monday in the morning. Van De Mark does a shotgun start with many award holes. This year's top golfer was Tom Thurm from Oklahoma City, shooting a 73. The Bowling tournament is in the afternoon. All the four-man teams are made up from the softball rosters, and the event has been a fun addition to the softball tournament. This year's winning team (of 29 teams) came from Providence, R.I.
Softball starts on Tuesday. The games are played during the day, leaving the evenings free to experience Vegas. Three divisions are played, masters, division 1, and division 2, and all play pool play, which is followed by a double elimination. Division 1 is the largest division (above 350 manpower); Division 2 (manpower up to 350) includes teams that combine players from different departments to form regional teams, and Masters Division, players 39 years old and older. This year there were 36 teams in division 1, 36 teams in division 2, and 11 teams in the masters division. John McGee, from the Rockford, IL fire department adds, "The true brotherhood of firefighters can be seen throughout Las Vegas during the first week of May every year. No matter where you are at or who you are with, if you are wearing a Fire T-shirt in Vegas that week, you are bound to get a hug from someone saying thank you."
Tuesday is four team-pool play with everyone playing a "round robin" three game format. The top eight teams from the previous year are seeded in each pool. The team's win/loss record in the pools determines where they are seeded for the double elimination tournament starting on Wednesday. At the close of Wednesday, six teams from the masters division, eight teams from division one, and eight teams from division two advance to the final round on Thursday.
In the masters division, New York Fire, from NYC, NY, came into the tournament as the defending Champions. They lost one game in pool play on the first day, before going 5-0 in the double elimination on Thursday and defending their championship in a very competitive division. "The competition is so good that if you simply make it to the last day, you have done very well," stresses Van De Mark. Second place went to Cleveland, OH, third was taken by Tampa, FL and fourth honors went to Montgomery County, MD.
In division 1, the tough San Antonio Fire was the only team of all 83 to go undefeated throughout the competition, going 3-0 in pool play and 6-0 in the double elimination bracket. They beat the second place team, New York Fire, twice the last day, 17-13 and 11-5. Third place was held by NY Brothers4Ever, NY, and fourth went to Metro Fort Worth, TX
It was all Ohio, in division 2 play, with Norwood, OH Fire taking first place and the Northern Ohio Firefighters taking second. Norwood lost one game in pool play, before going undefeated in the double elimination bracket, winning the final over Northern Ohio 17-15. They scored two runs in the top of the 7th to break a 15-15 tie, then held Northern Ohio scoreless in the bottom of the 7th inning. Northern Ohio went 3-0 in pool play, and 4-2 in double elimination. Their only losses in the tournament were to Norwood the final day 11-7 and 17-15.
The 2005 Vegas Fire Games will be May 2-6. "The competition is good, the camaraderie is great, and everyone has a good time," reminds Van De Mark. Joe Gerace, from Cherry Hill Fire Department, NJ reiterates, "This event is all about the brotherhood that firemen share throughout the world. Just log onto the Vegas Fire Games web site and read how this all came about. It brings water to my eyes just thinking about it. I hope this provides a sense of what it means to be a proud member of the best organization in the world." If you have a fire department team interested, contact Russ Van De Mark at 949 496-8052, or e-mail him at email@example.com.