From July 7th to 16th of 2023, Surrey, BC (a city just south and east of Vancouver) hosted the Women's Softball Canada Cup tournament. National level teams from around the world converged on 4 baseball centres in Surrey to see who would win the Softball Canada Cup. Concurrently with the national-level Canada Cup team tournament, and at the same baseball diamonds, the “Futures” teams, (Under 19 (U19) and Under 18 (U18) National Junior Teams also competed. In total, in the two tournaments, “National” and “Futures”, this year's edition of the Canada Cup included 104 teams and over 1600 athletes. An explanatory note to readers: the “softball” played was “fast-ball” and not the “slo-pitch” we old-timers gravitate towards. Countries represented at the two tournaments included: many teams from the USA, quite a number from Canada, Italy, Mexico, Japan, Taiwan, Israel, Australia, to name a few. And a U19 National Junior team from Ukraine.
The Ukrainian team faced a roller coaster of emotions: firstly, because of the war, team members were scattered among several countries, principally Poland and Czechia; nevertheless, the team expressed an interest in participating in the “Futures U19 and U18 Juniors” tournament and had raised sufficient funds to travel to Surrey; however, the government needed to allocate those resources to the war effort and the girls advised the tournament organizers that they had to withdraw because of lack of funds. This news greatly concerned the Canada Cup organizing committee. According to Canada Cup chair, Greg Timm, “Each year our committee reaches out to the international community to bring world-class teams to our event. When we learned that the U19 junior national team from Ukraine desperately wanted to participate in the Canada Cup, but didn’t have the resources to do so, we saw it as our duty to simply do the right thing. Our understanding is the team has a great deal of enthusiasm and have a great desire to represent their country – so we are going to make it happen.” And did they ever make it happen! They appealed to Surrey and White Rock citizens and corporations and lobbied local municipal governments and in 8 days(!) they raised $60,000 to fund the team's travel to Vancouver, and then on to Surrey, to participate in the tournament.
The Ukrainian team played all of its games at one of the 4 centres, Surrey's Softball City, a large multi-sport complex featuring 4 separate baseball diamonds radiating out from a central restaurant and admin building. The Ukrainian team's first game was scheduled for Monday July 10 at 3:30 PM and when the team arrived for lunch, I will quote the Canada Cup chair, Greg Timm, to tell you what happened next, ” The game on the first field they walked past stopped, with the two teams taking a timeout to give them a round of applause when they noted the Ukrainian uniforms. The same thing happened with the second field they went by and the restaurant deck at the centre of the four-diamond complex in Surrey. It was impromptu. It was absolutely from the gut. Nobody knew they were coming except the core organizers who arranged the transportation. It was right from the heart.” According to one of the players, Tetiana Zhuk, “When we came out onto the field everyone was clapping and we were crying, it’s so amazing.” The players on some of Ukraine's opposing teams wore blue and yellow ribbons in their hair, as a show of support. And the organizers declared Tuesday, July 11 to be Ukraine Day at the tournament. The girls also met with the mayors of Surrey and White Rock. In short, the girls were treated like rockstars!
Although the Ukrainian team did not do as well as we would have hoped, they did win two games, remarkably, one of which was via the “mercy” rule, where, if a score is too lopsided, the umpire will end the game and declare the leading team the winner. Watching the games was quite entertaining; it definitely wasn't some rag-tag team thrown together. Our girls did everything that you'd expect a baseball team to do: make double plays, send signs from the coach to the batter and pitcher, try to steal bases, try to tag an opposing runner stealing a base, extra base hits, cheer for your own batter and (mildly) trash talk the opposing pitcher: “BBB – AAA – Double LL” to encourage the opposing pitcher to flub the pitch and throw ball four to the batter. In one game, what almost did them in was multiple errors due to throwing inaccuracy, but, in the end, they did win that one by 2 runs. The girls were excellent ambassadors for Ukraine, acknowledging with big smiles their fans' words of encouragement, posing for pictures with other teams and overall making a wonderful impression on the other players, the officials and their hosts.
To play in this type of tournament, I am sure, was both a thrill and an eye-opening experience to see how other elite teams play and it could only do wonders for the development of these girls' baseball skills (see previous paragraph re throwing accuracy, but, importantly, keeping in mind that some of the girls are as young as13) and for development of baseball in general in Ukraine, especially after the war ends.
The generosity did not end with the aforementioned Surrey-based, pre-tournament fundraising. Back home, prior to the tournament, the Saskatchewan Prairie Renegades players raised funds through bottle drives and, following their game against the Ukrainians, donated $1400 to the Ukrainian team to help in team development. Prairie Renegades’ head coach Alana Armstrong says her players came up with the idea to raise money for Team Ukraine all by themselves, “The girls felt it was very important to do something for these brave Ukrainian women after learning more about what they were going through to play the sport they love.” She added that the opportunity to share the donation was “very emotional and there were lots of tears.” And the generosity continued: before the conclusion of the tournament, the Israeli national team also donated $4000 to the Ukrainian team's development program and that amount was matched by an anonymous donor.
For the Ukrainian girls, perhaps the “cherry a'top the sundae” was that prior to flying home, they were given a tour of Vancouver (by helicopter, no less) and then were able to spend some time experiencing the Midway (the roller coaster, Atmosfear, Pirate Ship, The Beast, …) at the Pacific National Exhibition's Playland.
To conclude this review, I will first turn to the Canada Cup chair, Greg Timm, “These are 17-year-old kids that want to play. They don’t want to be involved in an armed conflict. These kids have moms and dads and neighbors that are off on the frontlines of the war and these kids are trying to still play and still be children.”, and then to Tetiana Zhuk, “I would like to say to all Canadians who are supporting Ukraine, thank you so so much”.