CAMP RED CLOUD -- Although football and basketball are hugely popular within the U.S. Army, make no mistake, softball is alive and thriving here in Warrior Country.
In fact, softball in Area I is not merely popular, it's "definitely, by far, the most popular sport," said Larry Butler, director of Sports, Fitness and Aquatics with U.S. Army Garrison Red Cloud and Area I. Area I is also known as Warrior Country because it's home to the 2nd Infantry Division, known as the Warrior Division.
Softball in Area I is followed in popularity by basketball, football, volleyball and soccer, Butler said.
Area I fields a total of 78 softball teams: 65 unit-level teams and another 12 at the battalion level, all of which compete in Area I softball league tournaments throughout the season, which this year ran from April 15 to July 22, said Butler. That overall number includes an Area I post team that competes with teams from the other three Army garrisons in Korea as well as Air Force teams from Osan Air Base and Kunsan Air Base.
"The nice part is, the softball, it's not just the participants, it's the units," Butler said. "They can have their barbecue, watch their team. The environment is so much different in softball. They just come out, sit on the grass, sit in the bleachers, barbecue, have a good time. Really, softball's kind of a social gathering."
Of Soldiers who turn out for softball here, not a few come to it from a passionate love of baseball, one that often goes back to those knee-high days of childhood and the gift of a first glove.
That passion was plain in recent interviews with Warrior Country Soldiers who took part in Area I softball games this season.
"Baseball is still America's game," said 1st Lt. Daniel Gordon, 24, a platoon leader with Company D, 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment. The unit is on a nine-month rotation with the 2nd Infantry Division.
Gordon was playing first base with the Company D softball team when they competed in the Memorial Day tournament, held May 23 to 26 on Camp Red Cloud.
"I mean, for me, a kid, goin' to a baseball game with my dad, it's kind of like one of the highlights," said Gordon. "Getting that first glove, goin' to that first baseball game."
It was similar for Sgt. Leo Lindell, 28, a Company D truck driver.
"As soon as I could sit up on my dad's lap, we'd be watchin' the game," said Lindell. "When I was knee-high, we'd be watchin.' I said, 'I wanna play baseball.' He went and bought me a glove, bat and ball, the same day, me and my twin brother, both. And brought us both up playing the sport."
Soldiers who play softball are quick to say that while baseball and its softball cousin may look relatively easy, playing is much harder than it looks.
"Having people say 'It's an easy sport' -- that's completely wrong," said Spc. Joseph Silva, 21, an Abrams tank crewman with Company D.
"You have to be able to read the ball when it's in the air," said Silva. "If you can't read the ball, you're not going to be able to get under it. And you have to know where the ball's at but without looking at the ball."
Pfc. Thomas Dyke, 20, a multimedia illustrator with USAG Red Cloud, knows first-hand about that particular challenge, especially after he and some buddies got up a softball team this spring.
"Whenever it would be a pop fly and the ball was coming down -- and at night especially you would lose it when it comes off the bat in the light -- you would just have to kind of guess where it would go," said Dyke.
"So the only thing I would try to remember to do is to close the glove the last chance I saw it, which would be maybe ten feet from when it got to you," he said. "And your heart would beat really quick because you didn't know if it was gonna hit you or you were gonna be lucky enough and catch it. So, just close the glove and put it wherever the ball was."
"You can't just get up there and swing the bat and think you're gonna get on base," said Spc. Garland Barensburg, 23, a wheeled-vehicle mechanic with Company D.
"The ball's not coming straight at you," he said. "It's curving, it's sliding. It's doing all kinds of things. Sometimes they're hard to judge. It's just not easy."
Another part of softball's appeal is that it's relatively age-neutral.
"It doesn't matter if you're 19 or 50," said Butler. "Probably the older they get in softball the better they get. I honestly think the best softball player's around 35. Like in basketball they can't really compete with a 19-year-old, but they can on the softball field."