Softball at the End of the World
Photo via the Junior Men's World Softball Facebook page

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Sports

Softball at the End of the World

Whitehorse, Yukon, is a tourism and softball hotspot with a lot of natural beauty—and some severe substance abuse problems.
August 15, 2015, 1:00pm

This article originally appeared in August 2014.

It's a bright July day in Whitehorse, Canada, and the air, usually quiet and calm and almost crushing in its stillness, is filled with the sound of engines. You can hear the baritone grunt of diesel as pickup trucks and rusted four-by-fours and tiny hatchbacks with busted mufflers file down the street, puffing out exhaust that swirls up from tailpipes and disappears against a backdrop of endless spruce trees.

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The vehicles are heading to the Pepsi Softball Centre, where for the third time in the past eight years the Yukon capital is hosting a major softball tournament. This time around it's the International Softball Federation's Junior Men's World Softball Championship: ten U-20 teams, 170 players, a few dozen coaches, all gathered in this town of 28,000 for nine days.

Inside the ballpark, there are two fields and bleachers behind each diamond with space for a few hundred spectators. Those who can't find seats line up along the foul line, their arms draped against the fence, their necks craned toward home plate. The fans pay $20 Canadian for a one-game ticket or $120 for a tournament pass; T-shirts are on sale for $25.

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The athletes are young and still developing but the play on the field is often impressive. Deep fly balls are ripped out of the sky when they approach the fence, runners are gunned out with throws that sail in the from the outfield. The pitchers, most with their hats pulled low to block out the high summer sun, wind up and deliver underhand fastballs that arrive so quickly and so loudly against the catchers' mitts that fans behind home plate jolt in their seats. A few errant foul balls dent the cars in the parking lot immediately behind the backstops.

The coaches stay perched at the edge of the dugouts, swatting at mosquitoes, shouting out instructions, making the inscrutable hand signals of baseball and softball coaches everywhere. Cameras swivel behind first and third base, tracking the action for a live internet broadcast. The adolescent testosterone is running high: During one game, a runner slides high into second, gets tangled with the fielder, and punches are thrown before the shouting, puffed-up players are separated.

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It might not seem like much to those used to MLB games, but Whitehorse spent $800,000 to host the event, and the city sees softball as a way to drive tourism. The last time the sport came to town was in 2012, when Japan beat the US for the Women's World Championship; a private economic impact study found that the championship had brought $1 million to the territory.

Tourism is one of the main drivers of Yukon's economy, and about 350,000 people visit Whitehorse every year. Most come for the pristine natural beauty, but others come for the bars, where out-of-towners and residents alike spend the summer's long daylight hours sitting and drinking. After the 2012 softball tournament the teams descended on those bars; one American player ran topless down the street after losing a bet and collapsed into the arms of her waiting teammates.

Last year, Whitehorse residents and tourists combined to drink more than 2 million liters of beer, wine, and spirits; Yukon leads all Canadian provinces and territories in alcohol consumption per capita. Alcoholism, drug addiction, and homelessness are rampant in Whitehorse and throughout the territory—one recent government survey that interviewed homeless people on Whitehorse street corners and other popular hangouts found that heavy drinking and cocaine use were common, as were incidents of abuse and victimization. But you don't need any studies or statistics to understand the problem. You can just walk around one morning and see the worn-down men and women lingering in empty spaces or passed out next to empty plastic bottles of vodka.

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The Salvation Army shelter, a crumbling building on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Black Street, feeds more than 100 people a day but only has 14 beds and 16 mats. The people there do their best but it's barely a band-aid for a problem that requires major surgery.

Since December, a privately funded drop-in program run out of a local women's shelter has offered a safe place for women and children to go on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings. It gives people a meal and provides counselling, but it's short on funds and needs $6,000 to stay open through the end of August, money that's hard to come by.

"[The mentally ill in Yukon] aren't treated fairly here from a legislative point of view," said Morgan Ferry, an activist who has suffered from mental health issues since childhood and is currently making his way across Canada with a petition that calls for more resources to be devoted to mental health. "There's no educating the family members about mental health, there's no programs for it. It's all over BC, Alberta, it's all over every province and territory in Canada except here."

Whitehorse was the 12th community he'd visited and, he said, the worst off in terms of resources. And while he was grateful for his bed at the Sally-Ann, he called the shelter what it is—a drop-in center for alcoholics.

According to Statistics Canada, Yukon has a higher rate of hospitalization for mental illness than the rest of the country—787 per 100,000 people, compared to a national rate of 489. The number of Yukoners who end up in the hospital due to self-injury is also higher than the Canadian rate—at 175 hospitalizations per 100,000 people compared to 67 nationally.

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Ferry stood in front of the legislative building in Whitehorse's downtown core for three days, a bullhorn and his petition in hand. By the time he left, he'd collected 12 signatures.

Behind the field, the Whitehorse Correctional Centre rests in a package of gray cement and curled steel and barbed wire—an alien-looking building on top an alien-looking landscape.

The visiting teams know nothing of the city's social ills, of course, and the Whitehorse they experience up at the ballpark is, inarguably, a different one from the town that permanent residents live in every day.

On the field, two American coaches lean up against the fence.

"This is beautiful country, boy," one of them says, before launching into a tale about the quality of fishing available in the Yukon backcountry.

"One good thing about softball is you get to go a lot of places," he continues.

"Bet you can even rent a motorcycle up here."

Behind home plate, the bleachers are split in two. American fans sit in one section, Japanese fans in the other. Their representative flags billow in the wind. They cheer and holler in encouragement. The fields, located at the top of Two Mile Hill, are elevated above downtown and among the fans, there's a communal energy, a sense of belonging. The mood is light.

"Sure is some great country," the American coach says again.

Children run in packs underneath the bleachers, others sit with their backs up against the wooden posts, eating french fries from the concession stand. Players intermittently cut through the crowd on their way to the green outhouses that line the park's entrance. The Americans have built up a 4-2 lead when a Japanese player hits a fly ball into the sky. It carries, briefly rising above the distant mountains, before falling into the glove of an outfielder. Behind the field, the Whitehorse Correctional Centre rests in a package of gray cement and curled steel and barbed wire—an alien-looking building on top an alien-looking landscape.

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The jail also serves as a de facto mental health facility. A high percentage of the prison population suffers from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and there's a handful of mentally ill inhabitants living behind bars simply because there's nowhere else to go.

On the other field Canada is being pummeled by Australia. The Aussies have stretched out a 5-0 lead and Canada's chances of moving onto the playoffs are diminishing with each added run. One of the workers at the ballpark worries about the effect the loss is going to have at the gate.

"Today was a big game," she says. "We needed to win this one." In the outfield, an older women in a Team Canada shirt paces in tight circles, wringing her hands.

In the stands, the Australian fans are raucous, chanting and screaming and waving their home flag. An inflatable yellow kangaroo bobs up and down in the crowd, moving over outstretched arms.

The intensity for the Canadians is palpable, and the men on the field—the boys—crack beneath it.

"It's important for kids to believe they can play on a world stage," one of the Canadian coaches says after the game. "We all want to do well and perform the best we can in front of the people of Whitehorse, their friends and family, but also for the country of Canada. It's a beautiful place to play—the scenery, the nature—the people of Whitehorse have been great hosts."

The Canadians lose, and fail to move onto the playoff round.

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In 2017, the city plans to host the tournament again, this time for the senior men.

More than $100,000 has been pumped into the softball facility over the last few years, the dugouts were upgraded and a second story was tacked onto the utility building. Last October George Arcand, the executive director of Yukon's softball program flew down to Cartagena, Colombia, and convinced the ISF to let Whitehorse host another round.

"We sell Yukon as a destination," he said at the time. "Being part of Canada which is very safe, secure, and hospitable, and all those good things."

As the days of the tournament wear on, the players filter through the downtown streets, taking time between meals to get a glimpse of the city. Some make it to the Yukon River trail, where other tourists in sun hats and visors and white socks and sneakers keep their cameras drawn. Along the trail a First Nations man sits alone at a bench, his back to the path, his gaze fixed downriver. For anyone that's been in the city for awhile, he's recognizable as one of the addicted and homeless men who routinely circulate through the streets. He wears a sun-bleached denim coat, a blue bandanna, and has long dark hair that kicks back in the wind.

He grumbles to himself as the air pushes past. His voice is weathered and dry—like his vocal cords have been stretched thin and hung in a smokehouse. Then he rises to his feet and bellows down the river, the emotion in his voice momentarily overcoming its rasp. The sound cuts through the wind, and some tourists stop and offer a hesitant glance. Most don't.

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