OSU softball fans

Oklahoma State softball fans have made the area outside the outfield wall the place to be during games during the past few years.

When Chris Bahl backed his black 2014 Chevy truck up to the left field wall of Cowgirl Stadium, he knew he was starting a party. 

There was only one problem.

No one had shown up yet.

Bahl parked in a grassy area. The only thing separating him from the Oklahoma State softball field was the 6-foot outfield wall painted black.

Taking in the OSU softball game that drew just a handful of spectators from his truck bed, Bahl had just one companion on that cold day.

“It was awkward,” Bahl said. “It was me and my dog. I’m sure there’s photos out there of just me and Bo in the outfield. But you know what, we weren’t going to give up.”

The year was 2016. Now, five years later, Bahl’s truck, like the space it was parked in, looks much different on softball game days. 

The party, now, is in full swing.

•••

When Marlin Trissel walked into the office of OSU softball coach Kenny Gajewski in 2015, he was not expected.

Trissel did not know Gajewski. Few in Oklahoma did. Gajewski was in his first week of coaching softball at OSU when Trissel, a rancher weathered by years in the sun, walked in wearing a cowboy hat and greeted the new coach in his deep southern drawl.

“We drink coffee at Aspen every day at 7 o’clock,” Trissel told Gajewski. “Love for you to come by.”

Gajewski was hesitant at first, yet decided to stop by one day and greet the handful of Aspen regulars.

“They welcomed me and I’ve been going there for the last five and a half years every Monday through Friday, sitting down with some really successful guys in town,” Gajewski said.

Trissel and the other regulars are sometimes the first to arrive at Aspen, opening their day at a sturdy, dark wooden table in the corner. It is a diverse group, with people including an attorney, a fabricator, a chiropractor, a rancher and a softball coach. They have grown close.

The group may seem out of place – an unnatural pairing – but the friendship’s beginning was organic and a bit spontaneous. Exactly like the left field softball fan group they are a part of. 

•••

When Matt Fletcher heard the thud, he knew it was time to go to Lowe’s.

Fletcher remembers the moment he decided to build wooden platforms for the burgeoning fan base developing outside the fence of Cowgirl Stadium. The incident, after all, was hard to forget.

It was 2017, right before Vanessa Shippy –  Fletcher’s now-wife and then star OSU softball player – began her senior year. Fletcher’s friend, Winston Watkins, took a tumble when walking across trucks pulled up to the outfield wall for a game. Watkins’ flip-flops betrayed him and he disappeared between two trucks, hitting the ground hard.

“He face planted, busted his lip and chipped a tooth,” Fletcher said. “He stayed the rest of the game and then went to the doctor for stitches.”

To increase safety and enable fans without trucks to see over the wall, Fletcher went to Lowe’s by himself. He knew little of woodworking, but sketched a quick design and went to work in his garage on building benches.

“I put the first one together, and it stood and was level,” Fletcher said. “I got the first one done and said, ‘Hey, that kind of worked’ and went back for more.”

Each bench cost about $100, and was long enough to fit six or seven people. Fletcher’s friends and mother-in-law pitched in to build two more and Watkins, fittingly enough, offered his truck to transport their builds over to the stadium.

With places to park and stand, the left field fan group exploded. 

•••

The idea to park in the outfield originally came to Bahl in a game meeting while working for OSU. A college baseball player, Bahl made his love of sports into a career by overseeing softball at the University of Minnesota before taking a job with the OSU athletic department. 

Bahl declared in the meeting he was going to park his truck in the vacant area between the left field fence and the intersection of Duck Street and McElroy Road.

Few were convinced it would be a success. The people in the meeting thought Bahl was mostly joking.

“You watch,” Bahl said. “It’s the best seat in the house and it’s going to take off.” 

One year after that meeting, in 2017, the jury was still out on whether the left field fan section would take off. The movement was not affiliated with the OSU ticket office, but was growing. Bahl was there every game, and even recruited his son Christian, a wrestler at OSU, to join in.

Christian brought fellow truck-owning teammates to softball games and soon a substantial part of the OSU wrestling team came out to games. Not everyone had a truck, though, and without portable toilets or electricity, the scene was not for everybody. 

They needed more people to follow. That’s when the pied piper came along.

Fletcher was known around OSU for attending sporting events in spirited costumes and his love for athletics. With Shippy doubling as the star player of the team and Fletcher’s fiancé, his enthusiasm for the program boiled over.

“I don’t know if you want to call (Matt) a once in a lifetime person, but he’s special from a fan’s standpoint,” Bahl said. “He truly is a pied piper.”

After the benches were built, the mass of people behind the fence started growing.

The first time a stranger approached Bahl asking if they could park in the outfield, Bahl was elated.

“Hell yeah.”

People were coming to the party.

“Pretty soon, we start winning games,” Bahl said. “And not only winning games, but the softball team itself did a fantastic job of connecting with other student athletes. They started wanting to come out and watch the girls play softball.”

Fans brought out cornhole boards, smokers, grills and coolers. The tailgates behind the trucks started kicking off hours before the first pitch.

Fans helped others parking in an effort to squeeze in as many trucks as possible. Bahl recruited fans lining up to purchase tickets to bring their pickup trucks and come to the outfield for free. Every fan counted in the effort to make the best atmosphere in the nation.

“There’s something about the trucks,” Bahl said. “At the end of the day, we’re Oklahomans. All we need is a truck and a 12-pack, and we can have a party anywhere.”

By 2019, during the Cowgirls’ run to the Women’s College World Series, there were dozens of trucks lining every section of the outfield wall. The atmosphere was electric.

“It reminded me of Party Cove over at Grand Lake, where people walk from boat to boat,” Bahl said. “Well, we parked our trucks as such that when we put down the tailgates, everybody was just walking from truck to truck.”

With places to park and stand, the left field fan group exploded. 

•••

“We lost.”

The text Bahl received from Gajewski after the 2019 season was not about a game or series. It was about a beautification project.

The construction slated for the corner of Duck and McElroy had been on the books for a while and brought mixed feelings. The improvements were needed. OSU would replace the billboard and ditch that served as the backdrop for Cowgirl stadium with a new dike complete with a fancy bridge.

It was not about what the fans would gain, though. It was about what they would lose. The newly freshened area behind left field was, well, beautiful. The trucks that tore up grass would have to go.

“I didn’t want to lose the trucks,” Bahl said. 

He was concerned that if the university swooped in and took over, the blossoming fan base formed organically would suffer. 

Bahl said Gajewski fought the proposal for a little bit, but eventually lost out. The fans got a consolation prize, though. A giant, wooden consolation prize that may be better than the thing they wanted.

“It was really cool that with this they found a better solution and built the decks,” Fletcher said.

The sizable fan base now has a permanent home at Cowgirl stadium in a pair of recently constructed decks. The spacious two-tiered decks have room for dozens of fans, storage areas for tailgating equipment and space for coolers.

“The decks did help,” Trissel said. “And they were probably more safe. There was getting to be too many people trying to sit in one pickup truck.”

OSU is still hands-off with the structures. They are ticketed, but the regulations stay very similar to the past arrangement. Fans are welcome to bring their own food and drink and largely self-police themselves. Although his dog, Bo, must now watch the games from the parking lot, Bahl is content.

“We created a product that now has value, to where people will buy those spots on the deck,” Bahl said. “I buy one. We took a product and grew it. No one ever thought we could sell seats out in the outfield. We created a revenue opportunity to help softball and that makes me feel good about that part.”

•••

Now, though neither Bahl or Fletcher work for OSU, they are there for every game. They leave the tailgate held just north of the stadium about 20 minutes before first pitch to claim their spots in the outfield. 

Bahl still drives his 2014 Chevy to games, though the glossy black paint is now marred with a softball-sized dent in the middle of the roof courtesy of a Samantha Show home run ball. On game days, Bahl takes the tote bags filled with tools out of his truck’s metal toolbox and packs tailgate essentials – cups, koozies, coolers, sweatshirts and lots of blankets.

When OSU hosted Campbell in the first NCAA regional game last week, he chatted with the security guard at the entrance of the decks before entering. Bahl does not have to show his ticket; a good thing considering he carries a bag of ReddyIce in each hand to refresh the coolers stocked with beer, water and seltzer.

Like neighborhoods in a community, three groups have sprung up in the decks to watch games. 

There are dozens of people who have made the outfield experience into what it is today. 

Bahl helps lead the wrestler-filled “Cauliflower Corner” – although he appointed frequent guest and OSU wrestling legend John Smith as mayor. 

Fletcher helps with his group, “The Social.” Before every game, he googles the visiting team’s roster and gives their left fielder an introduction. Fletcher unearths heckling ammunition buried deep in their biography page like what the player is majoring in and how many times they were tagged out stealing a base their freshman year.

“We draw a line,” Fletcher said. “Don’t make fun of physical appearance. Will never body shame or cuss at the other player. … Being right there on them, we know they can hear everything. “

Amiable opposing left fielders who take it well can win the decks over and even earn cheers when they’re up to bat.

“I’d hate to be the left fielder for an opposing team,” OSU junior centerfielder Chyenne Factor said. “That would suck. They’re on them all game long, but they also cheer for them, too, when they go up to hit. I like being out there. It’s a good time.”

Trissel, who hangs around the softball program so much he’s been mistaken for an assistant coach, is a key cog in his group, “The Outlaws,” who mix with the parents of players in the right deck.

The parents have a Facebook group which they invited Fletcher and The Social to join. Working out the logistics of the decks, from who is bringing water cannons to fire after home runs to who is bringing which dessert is no easy task, but is a welcome challenge taken up by many in the group.

Trissel tends to help coordinate food for tailgates and float between the decks making sure everyone feels welcome.

“There’s a lot of really good people that are willing to give,” Fletcher said. “They’ve made it really easy to be a part of, which is cool.”

James Murray, an attorney in Stillwater and member of the coffee group, is one of many to bring food for fans to enjoy. Despite the costs of chicken, grilled potatoes, coleslaw, baked beans, chocolate cakes and Murray’s famous “Gajewski Burgers” – special-ordered hamburger patties with bacon and cheese inside – he and fellow fans self-fund their party.

“(Murray) does all the cooking at the tailgates,” Gajewski said. “Volunteers his time. Buys all the meat. I’m trying to help him out and he won’t take my money. It’s just these guys that are so invested in these kids and this program.”

The growth of the outfield was organic. Fans prompted by passion sank time and money into the experience. Hundreds of dollars have been spent on metal signs, food and beverages. The Social, Outlaws and members of Cauliflower Corner show up hours before first pitch to tailgate in the parking lot. 

“That’s what makes OSU cool,” Gajewski said. “It really is. It’s organic, it’s a little bit cutting edge, it’s a little bit blue-collar and nasty. I love it.”

Reflecting on what he and so many others accomplished, Bahl said he would not have been surprised at what his half-joking comment in a game meeting five years ago has morphed into. 

“It’s a labor of love,” Bahl said. “I cannot wait for softball season. It wasn’t always like that. Oklahoma State has made me a softball fan.”

Bahl likened the outfield experience to a favorite bar. There is good food, like the legendary Cajun Boudin Balls. Julie Tuck’s orange Jell-O shots are a favorite refreshment. All the people you like are in one spot, and everyone get’s along well.

“I’m going to be out there until the day I die, I promise you that,” Bahl said. “I love it out there. Never thought about turning back.”

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