LAS CRUCES — It's October and for many sports fans, that means it's time for the World Series.
That is how players and organizers describe the massive 264-team Whole Enchilada Fiesta slow-pitch softball tournament. Teams from as far away as Ohio are in Las Cruces this weekend to swat it out in five divisions of competitive and recreational play.
"It's the world series of softball because of how big it is," said James Garcia, a 26-year-old player with D's Fellas, a Las Cruces team that has played in the tournament for years. "I love it, and as a team, we look forward to it. If you don't play in any tournaments, you're going to play in this one."
Garcia added players and fans feed off of the energy created by about 5,300 players and several thousand more fans who watch the tournament. The Hadley Complex, which includes Hardy Field and Paz Park, effectively becomes a city within a city as recreational vehicles, pop-up and conventional tents, campers and other types of outdoor camping vehicles sprout up along the four-block complex.
Games begin at 5 p.m. Friday and continue nonstop through Sunday's 5 p.m. championship games. So, whether you're a player, fan or casual observer, don't be the least bit surprised to see the lights on at Paz and Hardy the next two nights.
"We play our first game at 5 a.m. (Saturday)," said Garcia, who has played all of the 10 slow-pitch softball positions, but likes playing shortstop and left-center field most. "Even with that starting time, there won't be any problems getting up for that game.
The tournament, which is not affiliated — except through name — with the city's annual The Whole Enchilada Fiesta, began almost 30 years ago as a 14-team event. But tournament director Bert Frederick said the word is out among slow-pitch softball players that this is a fun, exciting and unique event.
"We're the largest tournament in the region, and nationally, we're right there," Frederick said. "It's a fun tournament. We select MVPs (most valuable players) after every game and we give away all kinds of stuff. Considering that you're really not playing for anything, like a berth in a national tournament or anything like that, players have told us they like coming here just because it's fun."
The event typically draws teams from New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California. This year, a team from Mason, Ohio, near Cincinnati, is entered.
"We could have had more teams if we had the (playing) fields," Frederick said. "There was a waiting list of 70 teams that wanted to get in this year."
Some players have planned family vacations around the event.
"We heard about it being a well-run tournament, with a lot of good teams and some good facilities," said Jaime Gallegos, who drove with his family from Las Vegas, Nev., and will camp in the Paz Park parking lot. "My wife and I have played competitively for almost 15 years, and when both of our teams decided to enter this year's tournament, we said why not just pack up the kids, the whole family, and take our vacation to Las Cruces."
When Garcia is playing, his wife, Grace, will have their four kids in tow. When it's Grace's turn to play, Jaime will be her biggest cheerleader, along with the kids.
"It's actually kind of nice to be in place like this," Grace Gallegos said. "We can keep an eye on them because there's not a whole lot of other places they could wander off to. In a lot of ways, it's like going camping; only now we'll be able to play a little softball, too."
The growth of the tournament prompted city officials several years ago to consider charging fees for camping and other city services provided to visiting players. Frederick said he considered moving the tournament to Midland, Texas, but was urged by many Las Cruces and New Mexico softball players to keep the event in the city.
"This is good for the community," said Frederick, of the estimated $3.2 million economic impact the tournament brings to Las Cruces. "The players here, and around the state, take a lot of ownership in this tournament. They're proud to call it their own. We hold 30 spots in this tournament just for the local teams; otherwise, they would never get in."
As old as the tournament has become, Frederick said he's now seen generations of players come and go.
"We've got a lot of players now whose fathers played in this back in the early years," Frederick said. "There's still some teams, like Bros and Others, from El Paso, and Chop's Rhinos, from Las Cruces, that have played here pretty much since the very beginning. Bros and Others wasn't going to come back because the dad of one of the players had a massive heart attack and died right there on the field. But somebody reminded them that the dad probably would've wanted them to keep playing, so they keep coming back.
"Chop's Rhinos are all former players who played on (Jimmy) "Chopper' Abalos' teams, and they're here in his memory."
Garcia said his team plays under similar circumstances.
"Our team is named after the wife of one of the guys, Juan Lara, who formed the team," Garcia said. "Her name was Diane, and she died of diabetes. At her funeral, all of the fellows on the team were her pallbearers. After that, we became D's Fellas, in her honor."
Steve Ramirez can be reached at (575) 541-5452. Follow him on Twitter @SteveRamirez6.
•The Whole Enchilada Fiesta slow-pitch softball tournament will be played from 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday's 5 p.m. championship games.
•There are 264 teams entered in the tournament; with as many as 5,300 players and potentially several thousands more in fans supporting the teams.
•Of the 264 teams, 90 will be women's teams.
•The tournament has an estimated $3.2 million impact on Las Cruces' economy.
•Games will be played for 49 consecutive hours, primarily at Hardy Field and Paz Park, both on Hadley Avenue.
•Tournaments will be played in five divisions, including competitive and recreational classifications.
•Teams in the tournament will come from as far away as Ohio.