Humble sponsor inducted into the NAFA Hall of Fame

Written by Bob on July 17th, 2013

In 2009, the Bar on The Avenue Buzz of Appleton, Wisc. won the NAFA World Series AA championship. The team sponsored by Mark Miller, consisted of front row, Glen Nelson, Brett Kadlec, Tony Hall, Scott Gillmore, Randy Hartkopp, Chance Schmid, Tony Schaaf, and Bruce Pirkel. The back row, Matt Paulsen, Paul Skora, Todd Lubkeman, Jay Gilray, Wayne Gaura, Trevor Gaura, Jason Gerum, Bob Loshek, and Mark Nelson. Missing from photo are Mark Schroeder, Dale Horton, and Al Weidner. Contributed photo by Wisconsin NAFA Fastpitch.

APPLETON, Wisc. – You won’t find many fastpitch softball awards and trophies hanging on the walls of Mark Miller’s tavern, The Bar of Appleton. And that’s just fine with him. As a sponsor he isn’t in the sport for personal glory. In fact, Miller does everything possible to avoid the spotlight.

That’s Mark, agree two of his best fastpitch friends, Darren Derricks and Tony Schaaf.

“He’s extremely humble,” said Schaaf, who manages the Bar on The Avenue Buzz, one of Miller’s sponsored teams. “He would rather sit back in the stands and watch the game than have it be anything about himself. What he does for fastpitch has never been about him, but for the game.”

What Miller has done for fastpitch is both generous and remarkable in its scope. Now 51, he began playing fastpitch at 15 until he was 30 – not a long-playing career as an outfielder. But when he stepped off the field, he didn’t leave the game behind. He continued on as a sponsor.

But unlike most sponsors, Miller took a different route in passing out the bucks as the owner of The Bar in Appleton, says Schaaf.

“Mark believes that instead of combining teams and making one great team, why not take that money and create 12 teams instead of one,” he said. “He would rather sponsor a lot of grass root teams than one that wins titles.”

This year, adds Schaaf, Miller is sponsoring six teams – four in the Kimberly Paper Valley League, along with Schaaf’s team, and as a co-sponsor of the Denmark Circle Tap Dukes.

The numbers of young players that Miller has brought into the sport by sponsoring lower-level teams is substantial. And has had a great impact on keeping the sport alive in and around the Appleton – Green Bay area, says Darren Derricks, who has known Miller for 25 years.

“His impact on fastpitch in unbelievable,” said Derricks, who owns the Circle Tap Bar in Denmark and sponsors the Dukes along with Miller and Andy Dufeck. “He has kept the lower levels and young kids going. He sponsors no less than four or five teams a year.”

The North American Fastpitch Association (NAFA) agrees that Miller isn’t one of the sport’s typical sponsors. The organization appreciates his many contributions – both to NAFA and to the sport in Miller’s home state. And for that Miller will be inducted into the NAFA Hall of Fame during ceremonies at the 2013 NAFA World Series in Des Moines come August.

“He sponsors more teams than any sponsor I know,” said NAFA Executive Director Benjie Hedgecock. “He is a very humble and gracious person and deserves (the Hall of Fame), and NAFA is very proud to induct him.”

But Miller – in keeping with his character – would rather avoid the attention. Instead, he points to other people who have done as much for the fastpitch as he has. There’s Derricks; there’s Schaaf, and there’s Kevin Schumacher of the Osh Gosh area, and many others, says Miller.

“We always encouraged each other to get involved,” he said, with the ultimate goal of increasing the numbers playing the sport in northeastern Wisconsin. But sometimes it gets discouraging, even for the upbeat Miller.

He once counted the players still left who started on his young men’s teams. Of 28 players, only one was still playing.

But that doesn’t deter his efforts or that of other Wisconsin fastpitch supporters in battling for the very survival of the sport.

“(We have to make kids realize) they can play fastpitch softball in addition to baseball or slowpitch or whatever they’re doing,” he said recently at the Boys of Summer tournament in Denmark. “We’re just trying to make kids aware of it, then getting them to play and then sticking with it.”

Maybe the yen for sponsoring fastpitch teams is a gene thing – an inherited trait. It appears that way with Miller.

Mark’s father John Miller, 74, started sponsoring teams in 1967. He sponsored both elite and lower level ball clubs. For his exemplary service to fastpitch, John Miller was inducted into the ISC Hall of Fame in 2012.

Between father and son, they’ve sponsored teams for over 100 years.

And now Mark will join his father as one of the all-time great sponsors inducted into a fastpitch hall of fame. And it’s a very short, but distinguished list.

NAFA was founded in 1993, and the ISC in 1947; that’s a combined 98 years. In that span, just 14 sponsors have been inducted into the organizations’ hall of fames – seven in each.

And now Mark Miller joins them.

“I appreciate (the Hall of Fame honor),” he says. “I’m very grateful.”

But true to his nature, here comes his qualifier: “There have been a lot of guys involved besides me (deserving) the Hall of Fame.” Possibly true. But have any one of them done more for the sport than Miller? Doubtful.

Miller has been bringing ball clubs to the NAFA World Series since the 1990s. His teams have played in nearly every division NAFA offers – including the Open, AA Major, AA, A Major, A, and the age 23-Under. And there’s been a few titles. The Denmark Circle Tap Dukes twice won the AAA crown in the 1990s, and in 2009, the Bar on the Avenue Buzz won a AA championship. But before, in between and after those titles a lot of Miller-sponsored ball clubs played in the World Series.

“One year,” says Hedgecock, “Mark sponsored or co-sponsored 19 teams at the World Series.”

All great deeds deserving of praise and pats on the back.

But that’s not why he does it. For Miller it’s always been about the game – and expanding its presence, so all players regardless of talent, can play. And that’s why he’s a fan of NAFA.

“I like the multi divisions,” he said. “It’s good for competition for teams playing at their level, and it helps promote the game.”

And promoting the game is exactly why Miller finds himself in the Hall of Fame. And so well deserved say his friends.

“This is a great for Mark,” Schaaf said. “He’s not in it for the accolades, but for the love of the game. He’s been very instrumental in bringing new players into the game, and developing and exposing them to the sport he loves. He’s so well deserving of this honor.”

And Derricks seconds Schaaf’s sentiments:

“This is well deserved,” he said. “He’s spent (money) from his own pocket (sponsoring) and time on the organizing part. Nobody takes the bull by the horns like he does. Without Mark, there’s a good chance fastpitch would have died around here already.”

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