Annual Toys For Tots Keeps on Growing and Giving
by Judd Spicer
The annual meeting of giving and grounders again coalesced at the Big League Dreams replica fields in Cathedral City, Calif. for the 31st annual Toys For Tots Tournament.
And the playing field, along with the event’s backbone of philanthropy, continues to produces wide smiles across the SoCal desert amid the holiday season.
As with each year of the ever-popular event, every participating player is required to bring a donated toy or $10 donation, all of which is distributed locally via the regional U.S. Marine Corps’ annual Toys For Tots drive. The gifts help ensure that less fortunate valley kids don’t go without during the season of giving.
Evidencing the event’s growth: In 2017, for the first time, the tournament was played across three separate December weekends; the enhanced scheduled and added flexibility allowed for more players, more teams, more time at Big League Dreams and, of course, more toys.
The new schedule saw the Men’s E and Rec Divisions play the first weekend of December, the Men’s and Women’s Open and Men’s and Women’s D Divisions play the second weekend of the month and the Senior and Coed Divisions play Dec 16-17.
All told, the 2017 Toys For Tots included a record-breaking total of approximately 240 participating teams, with players coming from all across the country.
“The thing that we’re trying to create is that it’s a very, very popular tournament; not just locally and regionally – but with players and teams from all over the country,” says Sean Melvin, USSSA California State Director for Slow Pitch Softball and Toys’ tournament director. “It’s a national event, and one that everybody wants to play. By splitting into three weekends, we can offer multiple programs so everybody can experience Toys For Tots.”
In 2016, Melvin saw the success of splitting event into two weekends, which showed growth in the number of teams for the second consecutive year under his direction; for ‘17, the tri-weekend split resulted in far less pressure on staff and the host site, while allowing teams to get games played in a more timely and organized manner.
“By doing this, it’s taken a lot of stress off of all the weekends, and provided a better flow for the games and better product for the teams,” adds Melvin.
The move to three weekends wasn’t done without due diligence.
“I did a survey to all the Men’s E teams, because they were the ones who were pulled out and put by themselves,” Melvin explains. “And one of the factors for that was because the Men’s E, when they’ve played here historically, never got to see the better fields; they were always on the outskirt fields. This year, 90% of the Men’s E games were played at Big League Dreams.”
For the host site, Big League Dreams’ officials were thrilled by the augment.
“This was a different format than we’ve tried in the past, going to three weekends, which definitely helps everything even more,” says Ed Farmer, regional manager with Big League Dreams. “We end up with more teams, and, as the tournament hosts, it all adds to that economic boost while also helping us with more exposure.”
The event in Cathedral City – the first-ever Big League Dreams’ facility (1998) – continues to awe in its charitable element.
“We had some early years that we didn’t think it (the toy count) could be topped,” Farmer adds. “But this year, with the three weekends, we had a complete storage unit that was totally filled with toys. So, it’s such a great opportunity to be able to give back. The first weekend we collective 30 huge bags of toys and on the second weekend, I don’t even know yet how many toys were collect. Across all three weekends, the kids are really the big winners.”
A 2017 event omission noted by some was the absence of Marines from the nearby Twentynine Palms’ base. The reason? Well, these dedicated men and women were especially active with deployments and in assisting with the rash of fires across the SoCal region.
“We’ve been really lucky in recent years to be able to have the Marine presence,” Farmer says. “And when we started making those calls this year, there was so much going on with deployments and all of the California fires, they just didn’t have people available. And we certainly weren’t going to push the issue.”
For players, sponsors and vendors alike, Toys For Tots continues to be a huge annual draw.
“Being here, being part of the crowd is 90 percent of the adventure,” says Zack Page, Operations Manager for GS Sports out of nearby Lake Forrest, Calif. “This is known as a lively tournament; people come out here for the warm weather, so it’s always a festive, party atmosphere. It’s competitive, sure, but everybody knows it’s a charity tournament, so everybody leaves a little of that ‘game face’ back at home.’
Page, in his sixth year at Toys For Tots, sees the gathering as something of an annual reunion.
“This is our backyard, but people travel from all over the country for this tournament,” he says. “So, you see a lot of your friends out here, along with other vendors. It’s like seeing family, even though some of these people you may only see once a year. And since it’s the holiday season, it’s like you’re spending it with your family.”
Adds fellow vendor Leonard Magallon of Premier Athletics out of South El Monte:
“It’s a great environment. The tournament is always run well, and people are always having a good time,” Magallon says. “It’s always good people here, and everybody gets along. And you also have the big time players come out here, so everybody enjoys watching them hit bombs all day.”
For some, the lure of Toys For Tots is too great to miss out on.
“We’ve been out of the tournament for about five years now; kinda’ lost the angle on it. But we’re commin’ back and plan to be on top,” says USSSA legend Eddie Menosse, co-sponsor of Dan Smith Menosse out of San Jose.
Some itches just need to be scratched.
“It was like a ‘Seven Year Itch’ after a while – we just missed it,” smiles Menosse. “We love the game, we’ve won a lot of championships. We’ve met a lot of nice people throughout the years, and that’s what drives us. That and the competition – we love the competition.”
Menosse’s partner-in-crime was simpatico in the desire to return.
“You get that desire to compete. You know, you get out of it for a while, you start talking to guys, looking around and you want to get back out here,” says Dan Smith, co-sponsor of Dan Smith Menosse. “This is a good tournament, and a time of year to start getting ready for the next softball season; you can look at your talent, evaluate people. And with all the toys and everything, it really can’t get any better.
Along with the hunger to duel on the diamond, Smith sees the event’s charitable element as paramount.
“The toys and donations are really what it’s all about,” Smith says. “We play our game, we have our fun out here. But with this tournament, we get to help the kids out here this time of year, especially with all the stuff that’s going on out there in the world.”
Finding on-field glory in the event’s first weekend was Men’s E division victor, THEM!
“It’s such a great cause,” says Anthony Martinez of THEM! “Whenever I bring teams out to the tournament, the guys are so excited to be a part and some of the guys even bring multiple toys; it’s such a great vibe, a holiday spirit and it’s special to be a part.”
Playing on its own weekend was, old told, a boon for Martinez and his cohorts.
“I enjoyed it from the fact that the games were moving faster; there was a great flow and there were no big delays like we’ve seen sometimes in past years,” says Martinez of the new three-weekend format. “We do enjoy going out to see the Open guys play; that’s a great draw, but that was the only downfall of three weekends.”
Come Toys’ second weekend, the Open Division was claimed by the Bay Area Legends, who outlasted CDZ Apparel in the Big Boy final.
The Women’s Open crown on the second weekend was grabbed by PTB.
“We kinda’ kept it simple. It was a mix of talent, and we really just has a good time,” says PTB’s Tara Salcedo, whose roster brought in players from Las Vegas, Phoenix, California, New York and Kansas. “A lot of times when teams are just enjoying the game, enjoying each other – you’ll find a lot of success.”
Of the new, tri-weekend format, Salcedo added:
“I didn’t mind it. You don’t get some of the same atmosphere of having all the teams; but, for me, it wasn’t a huge change because there are so many teams that it gets spread out a bit anyways. I saw that both the Women’s upper and lower divisions did get to play a lot at BLD, so that was nice; sometimes, in the past, the women’s divisions get put in different spots where they’re not at the host site.”
All told (and trophies aside), Salcedo and her crew embrace the tournament’s potent philanthropy.
“It’s really cool to see the community come together and provide all these toys,” Salcedo says. “Softball, as a whole, isn’t always a cheap sport to play; so it’s nice to see people from all over the country coming in and providing all these quality toys at Christmastime.”
The Men’s D Division on the second weekend was grabbed by SoCal-based Bash Bros / Datta Bro.
“I was a little worried about how everybody was going to click – but that ended up being our biggest asset,” says Mitchell Downing of Bash Bros / Datta Bro’s fresh mix of players. “In the championship game, we were about to get mercied, but nobody got down, nobody thought we were going to lose.”
Downing was akin to others in enjoying the new event format.
“It worked out really well for us, and was a lot more convenient. And for me, personally, it was a lot easier to run my team because I was able to play on two different weekends.”
Finding victory in the Women’s D Division was the Inland Empire-based Black Diamond Ladies. Concurrent to the championship, the Ladies’ Nori Thomas and her teammates took personal pride in helping make a better holiday for others.
“My team is full of moms, and I think we can appreciate the opportunity that we can give to those who aren’t as fortunate,” Thomas says. “Having our own children, we know what it means to have a great Christmas and to able to provide something to a child in the holiday season.”
Thomas was in further concurrence on spreading out play.
“I think it was a lot better,” she adds. “The Men’s E Division is so large, that having them on their own weekend was really nice.”
For Sean Melvin, the near year-round project of coordinating Toys proves a great challenge that he and his staff meet with meticulous care and continual enthusiasm.
“For us, it’s just continuing to fine-tune the operation of the tournament, to make it as seamless as possible for the teams,” Melvin concludes. “So when the teams get here – whether it be the locations that we use or just trying to put on a seamless tournament. For me, for my staff, over the three weekends, it’s the biggest event that we do all year.”