Illinois softball prepares for World's Largest Softball Tailgate II

Fire up the grills for the World's Largest Softball Tailgate this weekend
Fire up the grills for the World's Largest Softball Tailgate this weekend

April 25, 2005

Urbana, Ill. - It is likely several years from now the month of April at the University of Illinois will mean one thing -- the World's Largest Softball Tailgate on campus. While sipping on an ice cold beverage and celebrating the passing of another winter, an Illinois fan might inquire about how this all started.

The World's Largest Softball Tailgate was the brain child of Director of Development Shawn Wax and then Illinois senior Sarah Baumgartner.

"Fans love to tailgate; it doesn't matter what it's for," Baumgartner said. "Although there are plenty of chances to do so during football season, there's not a lot of that during the spring, so we thought we would give fans the opportunity."

In case you're wondering, the Guinness people, you know the one's that keep all those records, were called. "They said it wasn't unique enough" Baumgartner said.

Like the guy who stacked ten bowling balls without adhesive or the guy who tied 39 knots in a cherry stem with his tongue in three minutes.

Never the less, it is not known of any other endeavor quite like this, so the estimated crowd of 1,500 from last season stands as the mark to beat. "Our goal this year is to at least double that number," Baumgartner said.

Last year, RVs from people who had never been to a softball game but heard there was a tailgate going on to the Eichelberger Family Reunion to a fire engine, donned the parking lots around the fields off Florida Avenue on April 24, 2004 prior to Illinois' game with Ohio State.

For Baumgartner, a starter on last year's team, "It was awesome to see so many people show up and have a good time. It re-emphasized the support our community has for us and how popular softball has become in the area. For Ohio State, I'm sure it was an intimidating factor."

"Everyone on our team appreciated the efforts of our marketing and development staff in establishing such a premium event during the spring," said Illinois Head Coach Terri Sullivan. "There's no doubt our team fed off that energy."

Although last year's event was certainly a success, plans were laid out to make the 2005 edition even better. First the date was set early for advance planning. The event this year will be April 30 prior to the Illini game with Minnesota. Baumgartner, now a graduate assistant in development, has chaired a committee to help plan the event.

Busey Bank is on board as the sponsor of the event. The support from Busey will help offset the cost of entertainment and games for the kids and help give the event a "big time" feel. Several more inflatable games will also be added for kids.

Illini men's basketball coach Bruce Weber will throw out the first pitch.

One of the major emphasis this year was to make the day a social event for the U of I students. Contact with residence halls, fraternities and sororities and other groups on campus started early and engineered by another student -- Jacob Lawhead, the brother of softball player Molly Lawhead.

"We're selling it as the last big weekend of the year prior to finals starting," Baumgartner said. "We've worked with MTD to get buses that would drop off close to the stadium and encourage a contest to see who can get more people out."

For the first time, there will be celebrity judging with prizes given in three different categories.

Much the same as football games, radio stations and other groups are being encouraged to entertain guests at the Tailgate.

WPGU (107.1) has already planned a tent and will give away tickets to the event on air in the weeks leading up to the Tailgate.

Music is key to any party and this year, the World's Largest Softball Tailgate II will have the pleasure of having Todd Thomas, who entertains fans at Busch Stadium, as the deejay for the event.

For Baumgartner, this is just one of the many roles she plays in the Office of Development. In addition to her duties in the office, Baumgartner is a student assistant coach with the Illini "I love it," Baumgartner says of her assignments. "I have found that people are much more aware of softball these days."

The gates will open at 7 a.m. on April 30 with judging starting at 11:30 p.m. First pitch for the Illini and Gophers is set for noon.

"We promise plenty of sunshine and blue skies," Baumgartner said with a smile. "It is a fun day for every one and a great home field advantage."