Thousands of country music fans gathered at Nashville’s Greer Stadium Sunday afternoon to cheer on their favorite stars participating in the 10th annual City of Hope Celebrity Softball Challenge. Despite sweltering heat and humidity, the fans screamed with delight at the antics and good-natured pranks of the artists who gave their time to help raise funds for the City of Hope National Medical Center, the Beckman Research Institute and the humanitarian efforts of the “Spirit of Life” endowment fund for Middle Tennesseans who need the medical services of the City of Hope. Highlights of the Softball Challenge were taped for a TNN special, to be aired Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET/PT).
Dubbed, “the unofficial kick-off of Fan Fair,” the event has helped raise over $1 million for the City of Hope. Some of country’s top stars were on hand to play some softball in between water fights and hamming it up for the fans. The contest divvies up the stars on the teams of two competing Nashville country radio stations — WSM-FM and WSIX-FM. It’s sometimes more silliness than sport, but the fans love it — even in the 90-plus degree heat. At one point, country newcomer Craig Morgan began throwing water balloons into the crowd and they begged for more.
Artists participating in this year’s event included Vince Gill, Mark Wills, Charley Pride, Chely Wright, Neal McCoy, Ronnie Milsap, Andy Griggs, Brad Paisley, Eric Heatherly, Paul Brandt, Pam Tillis, Montgomery Gentry, Cledus T. Judd, Phil Vassar, Alecia Elliott, Sisters Wade, Craig Morgan, Trini Triggs, Marty Raybon, Highway 101, Lisa Stewart, Rebecca Lynn Howard, South Sixty-Five, Billy Dean, Coley McCabe, Lee Greenwood, Chalee Tennison, Doug Stone and Ricochet. Immediately after the game, Ricochet performed a free concert for the crowd at Nashville’s Wildhorse Saloon.
As team captain for the WSIX team, Vince Gill’s athletic prowess earned him Most Valuable Player honors for his ready-to-rally crew that broke the WSIX losing streak of five years, to win 11 to 10. Gill was all smiles for the fans and happily signed autographs and did numerous interviews with the media that included several members of the foreign press.
Mark Wills pleases the fans with autographs.
This is Fan Fair week, and each year the spirited softball game gets country artists ready to meet and greet their fans from all over the world. Gill became emotional upon reflecting on one fan from Boston, Shaun Perilan, who passed on this year.
“I came to Fan Fair in ’84. Nobody knew who in the heck I was,” Gill chuckled. “I stood in the booth and wound up spending more time passing out Alabama records and Charley Pride records — all the free stuff for everybody else. I didn’t mind doing that. I understood the drill. He (Perilan) came and wanted my autograph the very first year. We’d have a picture made together every year. He was from Boston, and I took him my Boston Celtics jacket. We kept in contact. We knew we’d see each other every year, but (Gill paused) he won’t be here this year.”
Neal McCoy is always a crowd favorite and was proud of the turnout of stars for a great cause. “That’s what’s so wonderful about the country music industry, we all help when we can.” Brad Paisley said he is very familiar with the good works of the City of Hope and plans to tour the facility. The Softball Challenge gets him jump-started for Fan Fair. “I really get geared up for this. I wind up being so excited about everything and meeting people. It’s one exhausting and exhilarating week,” Paisley said.
Mark Wills said he’s impressed with the efforts of the fans to make this annual trek to Nashville. “This is one week of fun where we get to hang out with all the people from around the world who take their week of vacation to come out and hang out with us. That’s really cool.”
While the temperature was far from cool, some of the stars demonstrated some cool and daring maneuvers on the field. Doug Stone, who has survived a heart attack, heart surgeries and a plane crash, risked it all to steal second and third base and slide into home to score for the WSIX team. Wills, who had to be stitched up last year when a base runner collided with him, came prepared — wearing a Nashville Predator’s goalie helmet.
Cledus T. Judd, not known for his skill with the sport, also came prepared with his “secret weapon.” Judd’s good luck charm turned out to be playing the game with a cold light beer in his overalls pocket. When asked if they had been living up to their “party boys” reputation, Montgomery Gentry admitted, “If we’re here, you know there’s beer.”
“Home run king” Phil Vassar was voted Most Valuable Player for the WSM-FM team, and while his team lost by one run, they clearly won the water fight competition. The big winner for the afternoon was the City of Hope National Medical Center, cancer victims and thousands of country fans who helped support a worthy cause and had a great time doing it.