Progress: The test of time: Southwest Athletics still thriving as it celebrates first 60 years
Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 20, 2023
“The one constant through the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field. This game. It’s a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.” — Terrance Mann (James Earl Jones) from the movie “Field of Dreams.”
Sixty years looks really good on Southwest Athletics, formerly known as Southwest Little League.
You can hardly see any signs of aging on the complex situated off Idols Road, but you can certainly see the growth. You can smell the clean-cut grass on a spring day just as easily as you can smell the corndogs being made in the concession stand.
Baseball gives you those aromas. It provides great sights — that seeing-eye double that splits the gap between center and right field, the perfect slide into home — and even better sounds — the perfect thump of a ball in a catcher’s mitt, the crack of a bat — or ping as the case may be these days.
Barry Leonard has seen it all and heard it all. Leonard has been the president of the Southwest board for 32 years now, more than half of the program’s existence.
He has seen a little bit of everything during his tenure — budding future high school, college and professional players, the establishment of travel teams, expanding the operations of the league, adding fields and a 10,000 square foot indoor complex at Wilson Park — to name a few.
But even Leonard still gets just as amped up for opening day of the recreation league at Southwest, the program the organization was built on, every year.
“It’s always a special day,” Leonard said. “You come in and see all the hard work and it’s the culmination of a lot of effort from a lot of people coming back to life. It’s pure. The kids in our recreation league want to be here to play baseball. They love it, and they want to learn. That’s what this facility is all about. That’s what it has always been about.”
Leonard knows. He got involved with the organization when he was 20 years old, helping coach a team that his younger brother, Steven, who was 10 at the time, was playing on.
“When I came out, everyone was so welcoming,” Leonard said. “There was a position open on the board when I started. I think it was as equipment manager. And I started making all these friends from it. I realized pretty early on how special a place Southwest is.”
Leonard grew up in Alta Vista, Virginia. He played little league growing up and it’s where his love of the game blossomed.
Even when he moved to Greenville, South Carolina in 1997, Leonard would still return to Southwest on the weekends to coach.
His dedication to the program was rewarded in 1998 when he became the president. Other than the two years he stepped away when his daughter was born in the early 2000s, Leonard has been a constant presence.
“We’ve gone from a two-month out of the year program to a 10-month program now with fall ball and travel teams and running tournaments from February to November,” Leonard said. “We’re much more of a year-round organization now. There’s not a lot of down time anymore. The budget is a lot bigger now and when you look at the top baseball and softball organizations in North Carolina, we are probably near the top.”
Leonard said that the number of participants in the league has remained fairly steady throughout the years at around 500.
“I think we spiked to around 700 one year when we went to the Little League World Series in 2002,” he said.
Leonard also helped shepherd the change from being affiliated with Little League to Babe Ruth/Cal Ripken in 2016.
“That wasn’t easy the first few years, but my role here and my fiduciary responsibility is to the entire program, and we made the best decision for us at that time,” Leonard said. “We felt like it was the right time to make that change and it was a very hard decision to make. But because of the rules and regulations Little League operated under at that time, it made it hard to run a large-scale operation like we wanted to. We have a strong presence here and we came through it without too many scratches. It was a tough decision, but it was also the right decision.”
Leonard praised the efforts of those who have helped along the way, people like Larry Walker, Jack Bullard Senior and Junior, Joe Mullen and David McIntosh, among others.
McIntosh got involved with the program in the early 1980s when his three sons were playing in the program.
His role grew from coach to board member to jack-of-all trades, even helping construct the current concession stand and helping the rebuild the grandstands after they were burned down by arsonists.
“Our involvement with Southwest changed my life,” McIntosh said. “Our family lived and breathed to be down there every day. My wife, Pam, was the player agent for two or three years. She ran the concession stand for three years. Our three sons played. Coaches were strongly encouraged to help everywhere. You worked the concession stand, you mowed the fields, you dragged and lined the fields, you picked up the trash. “
McIntosh was also instrumental in bringing softball to the complex in the early 1990s. The softball teams had played their games at Joanie Moser Park in Lewisville before McIntosh stepped in.
“I felt like they needed to be brought over and be a part of the program, playing at our complex, and feeling like they were a part of our program,” McIntosh said.
McIntosh said that he still has grown men approach him and tell him ‘Thank you’ when he’s out in public for everything he did for them when they were younger.
“Most of the time, I have no idea who they are,” McIntosh said with a laugh. “But it does mean a lot. You think of the impact Southwest has had on this community and the thousands of families that have participated in the program. Hundreds of kids have gone on to play college baseball. I think they are up to 20-30 that have played professionally at some level. I think that says a lot.”
McIntosh has grandchildren playing in the league now.
“I was out at a game (recently) watching my grandson and Joe Mullen told me I had a permanent parking spot inside the gates, that I didn’t have to park in the parking lot,” McIntosh said with a laugh. “It’s been a special place for our family and still is.”
Brad Bullard, the current baseball coach at West Forsyth, grew up playing at Southwest and now has a 5-year-old son playing Quick Ball.
“That’s where I literally grew up,” Bullard said. “My grandfather played a part in getting the league started. I was out there every weekend from age 5 to around 16 playing, hanging out with my friends all day, watching games. I won a state championship on the big field there. My dad grew up there and coached me. It’s incredible how it has come full circle for our family.”
Bullard said a lot of his teammates from the state championship team at Southwest also went on to play at West Forsyth with him.
“A lot of those guys played for a high school state championship in 2002 with me,” Bullard said. “It’s always been a great feeder program for West Forsyth. I am still benefitting from that now.”
Bullard, who teaches sports marketing at West, said that Southwest is a frequent topic of conversation.
“We talk about the community impact it has had on everyone who comes through the program and for all the kids who have played there, but there is also a financial component to it now that they are running these tournaments. You can have 40 teams coming to Clemmons any given weekend now and they are staying in hotels in Clemmons, eating in restaurants in Clemmons. From a financial standpoint, that’s also a huge impact.”
Leonard said that Southwest still faces challenges — recruiting volunteer coaches is the biggest.
“We used to have coaches send in their applications in December every year, before we even started registration, just so they would be among the first to be considered,” Leonard said. “Now, we are having to draft teams and find coaches after the fact. That’s definitely the hardest part.
But the good parts outweigh any negatives, which there really aren’t many. This facility has played a role in the lives of thousands of kids and their families. I hope that it has been a beacon of good for this community. I know that this has been a proud spot for Clemmons over the years. I love seeing the dads who are coaching their kids now that grew up playing in the league. I just love Southwest. I really do. I tell people all the time that I am where I am in my life, in my business, because of the time I have devoted here. I really feel like you get all that back and more.”