Two hours before the first pitch, hundreds of fans line up patiently outside the Hoover Met waiting for the gates to open. They’re upbeat and patient for good reason.
A world title is on the line.
Sixth-grader Addie Whyard wears a sparkling white jersey with crimson numerals of her favorite player, University of Alabama pitcher Montana Fouts, a member of Team USA softball.
Whyard loves the Crimson Tide ace because of her faith and determination.
“She’s very focused whenever she pitches,” Whyard said. “And she’s a great person.”
Welcome to The World Games 2022’s most high-profile event. Softball is a known commodity, and the Wednesday night gold medal showdown, presented by Regions and Medical Trust Properties, features Team USA and Japan in a rematch of summer games past.
Sharon Smith, Whyard’s grandmother, works at Blue Cross Blue Shield, another sponsor of the Birmingham, Alabama-based World Games.
“This is such a huge event, from an economic standpoint and for the chance for the world to come see us,” Smith said. “Seeing so many people from all over the world this week has been eye opening, and it will change perceptions.”
Mark Smith, Sharon’s husband, has seen wide-eyed visitors all week in his retail job in nearby Vestavia Hills.
“I’ve talked to people today who have already been to five or six events this week,” Mark said. “And I met a couple from Australia. But the neatest thing, to me, is to see the city pull together.”
Once the game begins, a packed house at Hoover Met pulls together rooting for gold for the home team. This is an epic battle between the world’s two softball superpowers, and while the crowd clearly has its favorite and knows the stakes, there’s nothing but respect for the competitors.
Among the crowd is Patrick Murphy, the softball coach at the University of Alabama. A fixture on ESPN during the college postseason, he’s merely a spectator tonight. Well, maybe not just a spectator.
“To have two girls from Alabama playing for the gold medal is unbelievable,” Murphy said. “It really shows how much softball has grown here.”
In addition to Fouts, Team USA features former Crimson Tider Haylie McCleney, a Birmingham native and the team’s center fielder. McCleney now plays the game professionally and is a stalwart on the international scene.
The hometown hero will finish the week as The World Games MVP.
“When the tryout invites went out, Montana told me this was the one game she was pointing to,” Murphy said. “It’s the biggest game of the entire summer.”
The game lives up to expectations. Explosions of sound emanate with each pitch. And Team USA manages to hold on for a 3-2 victory.
And World Games gold.
Watching from the stands as a curious observer is Jenny Nain Zhi Wu, an official for Chinese Taipei’s Tug of War team. She watched her country play for a softball bronze medal in an earlier game, then stayed around to watch the battle for gold.
“I’ve been in Birmingham since the day before the opening ceremonies,” she said, “and I’m taking it all in.”
She did her internet research before traveling across the globe, learning that Birmingham was a mid-sized city in the Southeast, where people love their barbecue. To see more of the surroundings, she rented a car when her plane touched down.
“I keep getting lost because a lot of the roads are blocked (for the games),” she said, smiling. “But then I ask the police for directions, and they are always helpful.”
She’ll head back home to Taiwan in a few days having seen another side of the world, making friends in the Athlete Village at UAB and bravely trekking around the city.
Regions Bank is a Foundation Partner for The 2022 World Games in Birmingham and is headquartered in the city. With more than 6,000 local associates, Regions provides a wide variety of community support through sponsorship, donations and volunteers – including nearly 400 for The World Games.
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