By Nick Hampton
If you drive by the Love-Hatbox sports complex today, it may just look like another bunch of kids out having a good time at the ball park
But Marie Gassaway and city officials see today’s activity as another step to resurrecting Muskogee to a place of prominence and a destination location for hosting spring and summer tournaments.
Kids and parents are in Muskogee today for the United States Specialty Sports Association Oklahoma All-State Games, for kids ages 6-14, which brings back memories to Gassaway of a time not so long ago.
Gassaway, who has ramrodded youth baseball in Muskogee for nearly 20 years, took over the program in 1994 with a few baseball fields at Hatbox Field. She has seen the complex grow with more baseball fields, the addition of softball fields, expanded youth football and soccer fields and the addition of the water park.
“From about 1996 and over the next decade, we would routinely have 50-75 teams a weekend in here during the spring and summer for tournaments,” said Gassaway. “But between the poor economy, higher gas prices and a couple of new complexes in Tulsa, we lost a lot of those tournaments over the last three or four years. People just had the notion that Muskogee was too far out of the way to go for a tournament.”
As usage at the complex declined, the facilities also started showing their age. But as the USSSA gained strength in Oklahoma, Gassaway and the city began efforts to rejuvenate the complex and get the word out that Muskogee was back in business.
“The city has done a lot to restore the complex in the last year or so,” said Gassaway.
Gassaway convinced the USSSA to hold its state tournament for even-aged kids 6-14 here earlier this year which brought in teams from across the state. The 12-year old division was won by RealTree AAA from Edmond coached by Clint Ellis. He and many of the coaches who attended the tournament were complimentary of the facility and the community.
“It was our first trip to come to Muskogee this year,” said Ellis. “All in all it was a great experience. Our team had players from western and central Oklahoma and it was the first time many of those players and parents had seen the facility here. Our parents noted how nice the park is, how well run it is and the field quality is top notch. It ranks up there in my mind with any of the fields in Oklahoma.”
While some of the facilities in Tulsa may be newer, Gassaway feels Muskogee has some advantages over the metro parks.
“In addition to a great complex, we have all our motels and eating places within five or 10 minutes of the ball park which gives us more of a small town, local feel,” Gassaway said. “In the metro areas, you have to fight the traffic and go greater distances to get from place to place.”
There’s still work to be done. Ellis noted that the new parks have better amenities such as rest rooms and concession areas. Those are some of the areas that Gassaway and the city hope to work on in the near future.
“I’m excited that the city wants to keep improving the complex,” Gassaway said. “I think the complex will be a big drawing card for the city in terms of sales tax and motel tax revenue in addition to bringing in more people to our eating establishments.”
What might be in the future for Muskogee?
“This year we went from 190 to 275 kids plus parents for this USSSA All-State Games,” said Gassaway. “Arkansas routinely draws 500 kids for their tournament and Iowa nearly 1000. So as the USSSA continues to grow in Oklahoma and we continue to improve our facility and get the word out through word of mouth and social media, we’re hoping for a lot of growth in the future.”