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Softball teammates and friends play on…and on
Fantasy camp
LONGTIME FRIENDS and fastpitch softball team-mates Roger Thompson, Brad Bay, Al Gillingham and Jerry Gillingham have won a lot of tournaments over the years.

BOSCOBEL - Since 2007, Boscobel’s Kronsage Park has been the place to be on the second weekend of June for anyone in southwest Wisconsin who enjoys the game of fastpitch softball.  On that weekend each year fans of the game are treated to a men’s fastpitch tournament featuring area teams, and at the same time a high school age girl’s fastpitch tournament brings parents and grandparents to the park.

However, the real draw to the park is not really those games. As entertaining as they can be, the real events of interest are on Sunday afternoon prior to the men’s championship tournament game.   It is at that point that area softball legends (real or imagined) take the field in the Old-Timers game.  The game reminds all in attendance that youth springs eternal, if only in our minds, for a short time. 

Men ranging in ages from their late 40’s and early 50’s to mid-70’s show flashes of the players they once were.  It makes for some smiles, some laughs, some sore joints, but more than anything it offers a splash of nostalgia and fond memories of years past when they were younger and played the game with youthful exuberance, simply for the joy of playing and competing. 

Following the Old-Timer’s game each year, an induction ceremony is held, in which selected individuals are honored and enshrined in the Southwest Wisconsin Fastpitch Hall of Fame. A beautiful stone wall monument near the diamonds in Kronsage Park lists the names of those area players and “Friends of the Game” who have been honored—their names engraved in stone and a picture bearing their image to acknowledge their unique abilities and commitment to the game of fastpitch softball.

The idea for honoring players in such a manner was spawned by the late Al Gillingham, himself a legendary pitcher and competitor.  Working with good friends and teammates who shared a deep love and appreciation for the game—Brad Bay, Roger Thompson, and Todd Fischer—the concept came to a reality in 2007 and each year has grown a bit bigger.

A new Hall of Fame class gains induction each year.  Gillingham himself, was inducted in 2008, Bay in 2010, and Thompson was honored in 2013.  If spending the weekend at the Hall of Fame event, or any men’s fastpitch event in southwest Wisconsin, one is likely to find Brad Bay and Roger Thompson.  Until 2015, it would have been likely that Gillingham would have been with them.  Unfortunately, Gillingham lost a battle with cancer in 2015 and the game and those close to him lost a loyal friend.

Bay and Thompson, however, have carried on, sponsoring teams through Bay’s business, Sand Prairie Construction, encouraging younger players throughout the area, offering advice, and playing on.  After each began playing the game in their late teens, their careers are now approaching five decades as Bay, 64, and Thompson, 66, continue to compete at high levels!

Much in common

What is interesting about the two veteran players is the many things that they have in common off the softball field.  Both men were born to large farm families near small Wisconsin towns. 

Thompson grew up as the fifth child in a family of eleven, and was a three-sport athlete at Gilman High School, where he graduated in 1971.

Bay is the fourth child to a family of nine, and raised on farm east of the famous “Hog Back” just north of Steuben.  Bay attended elementary school in Steuben and graduated from Wauzeka High School in 1972.  According to family rules, the Bay boys were allowed to play just one sport per year, and could not play football until their senior year.  Therefore, Brad wrestled as a freshman, ran track for two years and then played football as a senior.  

Both credit the work ethic gained from growing up on a farm for much of their success in long careers and as their skill and notoriety in softball grew.

Thompson retired in 2015 after 42-plus years, beginning with Boscobel Telephone Company and ending with the local Century Link.  Thompson entered a government sponsored pre-employment program offered in Rice Lake after graduating.  He was offered a job based on an interview process by Northwest Telephone, in which just one of those who completed the program were selected.  The job depended upon his being willing to move to Boscobel. Thompson accepted the offer, and has now lived in Boscobel since 1972. 

Bay, after working for several years in the concrete business for Boscobel’s Oscar Welsh and Chuck Otto, both of whom he credits for his understanding of the business, joined with a partner to begin Sand Prairie Construction in the late 1970’s.  He bought out the business in 2002, and has owned and operated it since. 

Both men have four children who graduated from Boscobel High School, and all of the boys, two for Roger and three for Brad, played fastpitch with their fathers at one time or another.  Even Brad’s daughter, Dana, played occasionally when called upon.  Both have loving wives to whom they are deeply devoted and thankful for. 

Brad and his wife Donna were married in 1985, and Roger married Rita in 2004. Both women are supportive of their husband’s commitment to softball and attend many of their games. 

Donna is a bit more reserved, having attended countless games of both her husband and her four children, all of whom were three-sport high school athletes. 

Rita on the other hand, is an active, all-out cheerleader for Roger and his teams. Both gentlemen are quick witted and enjoy a good laugh, often over an occasional Miller High Life or two following a game. 

Faith is important

Finally, as you get to know Roger Thompson and Brad Bay, you learn that each are men of deep faith and active in their church communities.  They each display down-to-earth qualities of honesty, integrity, and commitment that come from their common roots.  When they are present at a softball event, community event, or any other social setting, those who know them know exactly what to expect from them.

Their paths toward softball teammates, accomplished playing careers, and strong friendship, unfolded slowly but surely.  Thompson remembered his father being in uniform saying, “Each summer dad would clear off an area of a field on the farm, and that was the playing field. Sometimes it was just us, sometimes there were other kids with us, but there was always a game.” 

Once Thompson arrived in Boscobel, he found his way on to local fastpitch teams, of which in the 1970’s were numerous, and they competed in leagues in Boscobel, Blue River, Eastman, Mount Hope, and Livingston among others. Thompson recalls playing for Dick’s Supermarket, the Boscobel Hotel, and the Corner Tap in those early days.  He began to gain other player’s attention for his range in the outfield, extremely strong and accurate throwing arm, and his consistent hitting. 

Bay began playing fastpitch along with his brother Mark for Len Richter, proprietor of Boscobel’s Fin N’ Feather tavern.  At first, Brad was an outfielder with little experience and his brother Mark often played catcher.  However, fate intervened one night in Blue River when Mark was called upon to replace an ineffective pitcher.  Richter’s first question was, “Who is going to catch?” Mark’s quick reply: “Brad will do it.”  Brad had never been behind the plate before, but what he found quickly was that he loved it! Thus, a long and rather brilliant softball career as a catcher began. 

In 1979, Brad’s uncle and Wauzeka taxidermist, Harlan Bay, who himself had two boys who enjoyed the game of fastpitch softball decided to start his own team.  Brad and Mark joined their cousins Gary and Greg, on Bay’s Taxidermy, a team that would in short time challenge some of the better teams in the area.  The key to the team’s success was its pitching and solid defense.

The team landed not just one, but two of the area’s better pitchers in Seneca’s Bruce Biggins and Boscobel’s Al Gillingham.  Brad Bay credits both men for their mentorship in the game of softball, and Brad quickly shed his rough edges as a catcher and became one of the better ones in the area over the next few years. 

It is the bond that formed between Gillingham the pitcher and Bay the catcher, that became the key to the lengthy careers of Thompson and Bay.  Al was deeply committed to playing softball and competing at a high level. His passion for the game was not questioned by his teammates or opponents, who were only half joking when they would note that “Al was not going to let little things like work get in the way of playing softball.” 

Gillingham began to use Brad more and more as his personal preferred catcher, thus Bay began to travel to league games two or three nights per week and tournaments, often times more than one, on weekends.

Jack Slack of Livingston routinely called upon Brad and Al to play tournaments throughout the 1980’s and early 90’s. Grinning, Brad admits that on more than one occasion he left special events, such as weddings he was attending with his wife Donna, to join a team in a tournament. 

In 1988, Gillingham’s team, Al’s TV, won the Class C State Tournament, largely with local talent such as Brad and Mark Bay, Kevin Clark, Brian Pitzer, and Jeff Novinska among others.  In 1988, Thompson joined Al’s TV to play in the first National Class C Tournament, held in Tucson, AZ, and the small town team from Wisconsin went 2-2.  From 1988 to 1992 that team finished in the top three at the Class C Wisconsin State Tournament.

Tournament MVP

At a State tournament, hosted in Muscoda, Roger Thompson earned Co-MVP honors of the tournament for his play.  When asked about his performance in the tournament he smiled wryly and simply said, “I didn’t make many outs in that one.” 

The year 1991 marked the beginning of playing in NAFSA (North America Fastpitch Softball Association) tournaments for Brad, as he joined Gillingham on an age 40 or Older team from Dubuque, Iowa.  Bay was 37 years old at the time, but rules allow a three-year leeway. The tournament was in San Antonio, Texas.  Brad and Al drove to the tournament in Bay’s van, at their own expense, in order to compete.

Brad has now played in 28 National Tournaments, often times playing in two, or even three age brackets of the same tournament.  Catchers capable of handling top-notch pitchers are a valued commodity. Thompson estimates the number he has played in at approximately 15. It hasn’t all been softball tournaments for the two.
ROGER THOMPSON AND BRAD BAY had a great time with Bob Usecker and friend at the 2008 Milwaukee Brewers Fantasy Camp in Arizona.

Brewers Fantasy Camp

In 2008, Donna Bay and Rita Thompson treated their ball playing husbands to a trip to Arizona and participation in the Milwaukee Brewer’s Fantasy Camp. Both men are huge baseball fans and the experience is something they each look back on with wonderful memories, among them recalling the no-holds barred stories of former Milwaukee Brave’s shortstop Johnny Logan.  The ball was a bit smaller, but they took to the game naturally.

Brad of course worked as a catcher and Roger showed off his outfield arm and steady bat.  For Bay, perhaps his most memorable play was catching a “major league pop-up.”  For Thompson, it was one of his Brewer coaches identifying his wife Rita’s voice as she cheered for a team on another diamond. “She can get a little excited,” Thompson said.

Thompson was also proud of the triple that he hit of former Brewer closer Mike Fetters.  Thompson said he lined it passed Gorman Thomas, who was playing first base and into the right field corner.  As he was coming into first base, Thomas told him he thought he had called timeout. Thompson didn’t fall for it and continued on, rounding second and headed for third.  As they had no coaches, Brewer third baseman Don Money left the bag and moved into the coach’s box to hold Thompson up.  As Roger pulled into third he told Money, “Don’t worry, I couldn’t have made it any further.”  Thompson did note that in the end Brad’s batting average for the camp just slightly edged him out.

Why do they do it?

The question becomes, why do Bay and Thompson continue to play?  The key is of course their relationship with Gillingham and the years spent traveling and competing at high levels.  Competition drove them to play, and the longer they played together, the closer the bond.

Watching Brad catch Al, for those who know the game, was a classic example of a pitcher and catcher in sync.  Knowing the hitters and how to attack them, Al would often turn and move a fielder a step or two in one direction or the other. He would then turn and get his sign from Brad, who would then set his target.  Rarely shaking him off, Al would deliver the selected pitch on target and often the ball would go right to the fielder Al had just re-positioned. 

Roger, often playing centerfield and looking straight in at the two battery mates, mentioned how he could shift his positioning based on the count, what he knew Al liked to throw, and the location of Brad’s target.  In so doing, he could get a jump often before the ball left an opponent’s bat.  Of course there were occasional glitches.

Both men laugh aloud recalling how Gillingham, after giving up a hit, especially a homerun, would snap at Brad, “Why did you put your target there?”  In later years the three began to coach and mentor younger players, and promote the game they each love with great passion.

Gillingham coached various boy’s youth teams beginning in the mid-1980’s and helped several young men develop their pitching skills to keep the game alive. In 2006, Gillingham took over the Boscobel girl’s high school softball program.  Two years later, Thompson joined him as a volunteer coach and stayed with him in that capacity until Al passed in December of 2015.  Thompson then continued with the new coaching staff for three more seasons. Serving as a volunteer, he was the primary hitting instructor, coached the outfielders, coached first base and was a trusted advisor to the new head coach.

In 2012, Gillingham and Brad Bay coached a men’s 23 and younger team that included Brad’s oldest son Lawrence, and Boscobel’s Brennan Clark, to a second place finish in the World Tournament behind a Japanese team.

The three continued to play league and weekend tournaments to tune up for the National Tournaments in late summer.  Gillingham continued to pitch into his 70’s, pushing Brad and Roger to continue.  Gillingham inspired many younger players by his passion for the game. 

On one memorable night in a league game in Eastman in 2013, Al, at age 72, combined with the 24-year-old Lawrence Bay to complete a no-hitter!  Not coincidentally, the catcher was the then-58-year-old Brad Bay, and the first baseman, 60-year-old Roger Thompson. 

Playing at the National 60 Year Old Plus Tournament in 2014 for The Insurance Center out of Onalaska, their coach Bud Olson put Gillingham in the championship game at first base for the final two innings.  It was the last game Al Gillingham ever played in.  Roger and Brad were on the team with him and the team won. 

In December of 2015, Al was gone.  Brad Bay and Roger Thompson continue to play on, in large part out of respect for their long-time teammate.  In reviewing their participation with The Insurance Center at the National 60 and Over East Masters Tournament, their team is not just there to fill in bracket spots.

In 2013, Brad and Roger played on the championship 55 plus team.  In 2015, they were part of the 60 plus championship team.  In 2016, their team finished as the runners up, and in 2017, they were champions again of the 60 plus division!  The 2018 tournament scheduled for Houston, Texas was rained out but the two are gearing up for another run in 2019.

Typical of how the two have become inseparable in the game of softball, Insurance Center coach Bud Olson called Brad to see if he was ready to play in 2019. Brad Bay’s response: “I don’t go without Roger.” 

And so, the two friends, teammates, loving husbands and fathers, men of faith, play on, for their departed friend, and for the game they love to compete in.  Perhaps they are searching for another championship medal, but more importantly for more memories to share with teammates and those who also love them and the game of softball that they so admirably represent.