Community comes together; softball players win

Wyandotte Tribe gives young fastpitch players a place to play despite COVID

Tom Tigani

Despite the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s still “game on” for a group of young girls who enjoy playing fastpitch softball, thanks to members of the Wyandotte community.

The Wyandotte Tribe fastpitch travel team was formed over the summer after the pandemic halted the season for the city’s Braves baseball and softball teams in the city’s recreational league. 

Firefighter Joe Chlipala, a longtime rec league baseball and softball coach, has been instrumental in the new team’s formation, though he is quick to share the credit. Team members comprise 96 percent Wyandotte residents, but registration is open to players from the entire Downriver area and beyond.

“Because of the outbreak, hundreds of boys and girls couldn’t play,” he said. “We had been looking at creating a Wyandotte-based a girls travel team, and I just tried to help create some type of normalcy for the kids so that they wouldn’t have missed an opportunity this summer.”

The girls selected the Tribe mascot in keeping with the rec league names; they also chose team colors that honor city traditions. Tribe teams played summer and fall ball in Taylor – pretty well, by all accounts – and recently hosted their first tournament, a four-team “pumpkin smash” at Memorial Park in its hometown. (For those unfamiliar with the term, a pumpkin smash allows members to decorate their own Halloween pumpkins and play the game in their favorite costumes if they want. Winning teams then are allowed to smash the pumpkins of the losing team.)

Chlipala, who runs a side business when he’s not fighting fires, personally footed the bill for new uniforms for the startup 10-and-under team before expanding to the 12-and-under team. He and fellow board members formed a nonprofit organization so they could seek contributions from local businesses and community members to cover part of teams’ travel equipment, tournament play and other expenses.

“Joe Chlipala made it his mission to make sure our kids were still able to play a game they love, so he put a team together and found a league to play in,” said Nicole Baker, whose daughter, Ella, plays on the 10-and-under team.

Chlipala deflects the praise and attributes the Tribe’s formation to the efforts of parents, players and members of the community. Of his board members’ organizational efforts and purchase of the uniforms, he said he is “grateful for the fact that I’ve been able to give back a little normalcy at a price point that they can afford, without adding bills to already stressful times.”

Travel teams can cost as much as $3,000 per player per year because of all the travel and the fact that teams can play in any number of tournaments throughout the country in addition to summer and fall seasons. Chlipala said forming the nonprofit organization to operate the Tribe has brought the cost down to about $300 per player. He said the new organization represents a joint effort by many people.

“We’ve been able to do it because of the community, the parents, the coaches and board members of our organization,” he said. “The community’s backed us. They said, ‛We love what you’re doing.’ We did everything right.”

Part of that includes keeping everyone as socially distanced as possible, which so far has proved successful in avoiding spread of the pandemic among players, coaches and parents.

The entire experience has provided some valuable lessons for players, Chlipala said, including his daughter, Brooklyn, who plays on the 10-and-under team.

“They see people supporting them and will want to work to keep that tradition as a lifelong thing,” he said. We’re planning community events to give back, starting with veterans, and also will be doing things like park cleanups as a way of saying thanks.”

Chlipala emphasized the nonprofit nature of the Tribe organization.

“No one here is out making money,” he said. “We’re just out here making something for these kids that they wouldn’t normally have.”

Even if it all somehow went away, Chlipala said the organization would donate its equipment to similar teams that wanted to use it in order to keep playing opportunities going.

Happily, however, he doesn’t see that happening anytime soon.

“Now we’ve built a name,” Chlipala said. “People have seen our hats and our gear and everybody knows who we are. Usually that takes years, so that’s just incredible.”

The Tribe is open to continued support, he said, and invites anyone interested in helping out to check out the links on the team’s web page, www.tribefastpitch.com, which also lists supporting entities.

“We’re very open about what we’re doing and trying to expand opportunities for kids that they wouldn’t have had in the past.”

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