When Sarasota's Jack Zimmerman discovers a gold mine, he gets busy digging.
In terms of available senior softball talent, Lakewood Ranch is a gold mine. So Zimmerman, the president of the Sarasota Senior Softball Association, has been busy thinking about marketing strategies to attract more Lakewood Ranch residents.
That effort wouldn't be likely to succeed if Lakewood Ranch residents had softball fields and leagues at their disposal, but they don't. So the Ranchers are willing to drive 30 minutes or more to parks in Sarasota. The current summer league has 150 players spread through three leagues.
Thirty minutes doesn't seem like much, unless you are 70-something and, well, your idea of a road trip is driving a mile to the grocery store. If you have wondered why all these strip malls have spread east along State Road 64 ... there you have it.
For potential senior softball players, playing in a league is out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Since Zimmerman's fields aren't getting any drive-by from the Lakewood Ranch residents, he hopes to bring news of the league to them.
"A lot of those guys haven't swung a bat in 40 years," Zimmerman said. "But we have batting practice for them. When we see them, we also rank our players from 1 to 12 with 1 being the best (for league placement). We try to create parity. "
East County's Jack Owens plays in the Sarasota Senior Softball Association because he said it is shorter drive for him than trying to drive to Manatee County's program at G.T. Bray on the west side of Bradenton. Zimmerman knows that is a common thought, so Lakewood Ranch is ripe for the picking.
Zimmerman was asked if he expects to lose players once Premier builds the planned baseball/softball complex at Premier Park, or whatever it eventually will be called (I would suggest Charlie Hunsicker Park for Hunsicker's dedication to Manatee County in terms of building parks and preserving land). Zimmerman's reply was "Huh? Premier?"
Those in the area who don't know anything about softball fields being built at Premier can be forgiven. In December 2017, Manatee County bought the 127-acre Premier Sports Campus from Schroeder-Manatee Ranch and another 36 acres north of the soccer complex. Then in September, 2018, the county purchased another 75 acres from SMR that was adjacent to Premier.
But after county officials talked about that land's potential to host park amenities, the brakes were hit harder than a 16-wheeler coming down a 10% grade.
Planning dragged on and construction costs skyrocketed.
On June 9, the county unveiled its proposed 2022 budget and included was money for an aquatics complex at the site along with a racquet sports complex and a library. No mention was made of the previously mentioned baseball/softball complex, or for that matter, the BMX track, the skate park, the volleyball courts, the gymnasium, the playgrounds, the dog park or the event lawn (bandshell?).
For many of us senior softball players, we might as well sign up for Zimmerman's Sarasota league because the odds of us being alive when the Lakewood Ranch softball complex is completed are dwindling.
For those softball, or BMX or volleyball, enthusiasts, relay your annoyance at all these delays to your commissioners. The aquatics complex, which Hunsicker, director of parks and natural resources for the county, originally had predicted would be built last, and the racquet complex were the result of the squeaky wheel.
If you aren't up to complaining, you can contact Zimmerman at www.SarasotaSeniorSoftball.org and sign up for the summer league, which runs through mid-September (with no play in August). The fall league begins Nov. 1 and runs through the following March. The fall league has 30 to 36 teams.
Then go gas up your car.