SILVER LAKE, Kan. – Should you go searching for Oz, Kansas, good luck in finding it. For it’s a magical, mythical place involving a cast of characters including a young girl named Dorothy, her dog Toto, a scarecrow, a tin man and a cowardly lion, wicked witches and a sham of a wizard.
Most people are familiar with the Wizard of Oz. And by now are scratching their heads asking, “Okay, I’ve read the book and seen the movie, but what does it have to do with men’s fastpitch softball?”
Well, one of the longest running teams in Kansas has embraced the classic fairy tale by spinning it into some good-natured fun and parlaying it into one of the most recognizable names in men’s fastpitch: Wizards of Oz.
HAVING FUN WITH OZ
Many folks believe that a town called Oz does exist claims Wizards of Oz player / manager Jeff Tarwater. And the charismatic team leader does little to change their perception.
“My friend Mike Watson (NAFA Vice President) back in 2009 asked me, ‘why don’t you just tell people we are from Oz?’ I thought about it, and decided to have some fun with it,” said Tarwater. “Of course, that town doesn’t really exist, but it does get conversations started no matter where we go.”
Tarwater started a men’s team with his cousin Rich Tarwater in 1981 known as Tarwater Farm Supply (Topeka, Kan.). Then in 2008, the Tarwater’s changed the name to Wizards of Oz.
The Wizards do have some fun with their memorable name, but when it comes to stepping on the ball field, the team plays some serious fastpitch.
The Tarwaters / Wizards’ success includes several ASA Kansas state and regional championships and top-four standings; runner-up in the 2013 ASA 50-Over national tournament; third place in the 2012 NAFA World Series; third in the 2015 NAFA Wood Bat World Series at Newton, Kan.; third in the 2015 Haskell Indian Tournament in Lawrence, Kan., and the list goes on…
The recipe for the Wizards’ 34 years of longevity and success? Recruiting and a good mix of veteran leadership and youth.
“Three of our core players have been playing fastpitch since the 1970s,” said Tarwater, 53, of a threesome that also includes Gary Starkel, 60, and Ray Foster.
FOSTER TOES THE RUBBER
Foster is the man in the circle for the Wizards. Since the late 1970s, Tarwater, who also catches and pitches, has come to know the right-hander very well.
“Ray is 57 and still a shut-down pitcher,” Tarwater said. “He’s a rise ball pitcher with an un-hittable change-up at times. Most batters know the rise ball is coming, and it can still be un-hittable. Ray is also the best pitcher I have ever caught on hitting a spot. For fastpitch, I would toss Ray in with anyone in that aspect. He never misses the glove. He’s just that good.”
RECRUITING DOWN UNDER
As with many U.S. teams, the Wizards went the imported route to strengthen its pitching staff, and in 24-year-old New Zealander, Kev Papuni, they have found a pitcher with a terrific upside.
“Kev was new this summer and he had some great innings,” Tarwater said. “He is still working on control. Once he finds it, he will be awesome.”
But Papuni is just one of several young players that have helped strengthen the Wizards. Tarwater is also high on Jarrod Lamott, Kyle Starkel, Adam Henry, Shawn Callahan, Niran Buckley, and Mark Whitworth.
“Adam Henry is learning how to pitch, Jarrod Lamott is becoming a great shortstop and long-ball hitter,” Tarwater said. “And Kyle Starkel (Gary Starkel’s son) is a left-handed leadoff, plays centerfield, and is leading the team in batting average that last two years.”
KNOW-HOW AND YOUNG TALENT A WINNING COMBO
Blend those young arms and fast legs with savvy veterans Grady Wray, Norm Hancock, Scott Hall along with Foster, Tarwater and Starkel, and the Wizards’ prospects appear very bright.
It’s a blend that Gary Starkel likes.
“It’s a good mix of older guys that are steady and level headed,” said Starkel, who plays first and third base, “and younger players who have speed and athleticism. You’ve got to have both in today’s game. Experience and youth and athleticism make for a good combination.”
FULL TIME RECRUITER
But finding those youthful athletes, be it from baseball or slowpitch or another sport, is not easy. So for Tarwater, recruiting rides at the top of his “to do” list.
“The team rolls on year after year due to constant recruiting,” he said.
But it’s not always easy persuading the young over to the fastpitch side. With the steady decline of teams, local leagues and tournaments have all but vanished. Meaning traveling long distance for games. Meaning more expense for food, lodging, gas or airline tickets.
“They not only must have a love of the game, but the time and dollars necessary to travel,” Tarwater said, “and the desire to spend weekends in a crowded motel, on a hot dirt field, and away from family a lot from April to September. It’s not an easy sell.”
NO HEART, NO WANT
He will gladly sign the athlete with star power potential – what manager wouldn’t? But on one condition: the thumping in their chest must beat a love for fastpitch. If they don’t have it, forget it; he’ll take a pass and sign the player with less talent, but more passion.
“Without heart, a guy will be a consistent no-show,” Tarwater said. “I also try and remember that this game is about loyalty and friendship, too. If I play all year with a guy who shows up all the time, but isn’t the greatest player, and then in the big games I sit him on the bench too much, he will be gone next year, or worse, I lose a friend.”
The Wizards aren’t just his teammates, but also friends and family.
“As friends and family, they will show up next year as your teammates come hell or high water,” he said. “My players know that on this team my best lineup isn’t always what I put on the field. My friends are though.”
The Land of Oz may be fictional, but the Wizards of Oz are for real.