When the world comes to Easley


As the Big League World Series (BLWS) approaches its 16th year in Easley, many people have asked themselves, “Why? Why Easley?”

With a population of a little more than 20,000, Easley could be considered an “average” American city. But up until 2001, it lacked something. It lacked a recognizable event, an event that would draw people from all around the world. Greenville has its spectacular downtown and Main Street, while Charleston has the history and the beaches that surround it. Columbia and Clemson have high-profile college football teams, but Easley lacked something.


Kerry Gilstrap/Courier
As city council members and tournament director Jon Humphrey, left, look on, Easley mayor Larry Bagwell throws out the ceremonial first pitch at last year’s Big League World Series at the J.B. “Red” Owens Complex in Easley. Bagwell will once again toss the opening pitch when the series returns to Easley for its 16th year later this month.

In the mid-’90s, the city of Easley decided to build a community recreational complex, which would eventually open in 1999 as the J.B. “Red” Owens Recreational Complex. While the complex was still in the planning phase, four men — Gregg Powell, Forrest Thomas, Doug Brooks, and Dave Watson — developed a vision to bring a major Little League event to the future complex.

In 1996, they packed their bags and headed to Williamsport, Pa., home of the Little League World Series. Many thought they were crazy and questioned why they were wasting their time and money, because a lot of people misunderstood the purpose of the trip. Some thought they were bidding to host the Little League World Series, which as most know would never be feasible due to its successful legacy in Williamsport.

Instead, the four men had their sights set on the Senior League World Series, which consisted of players aged 13-16. After arriving in Williamsport, the four met with all kinds of people trying to market Easley and the complex that would be opened three years later. They met with Little League president and CEO Stephen Keener and did everything they could to convince him that Easley was the right place for a tournament. They packed gift bags full of “southern” items to pass out, cooked a “southern” meal of shrimp and grits, and brought different signs that would one day decorate the field, all in hopes of wooing Little League. Once the presentation was complete, the waiting game began.

Easley heard back from Little League in 1998, but it wasn’t the answer they were hoping for. Instead of hosting the Senior League World Series, they were asked to host the divisional round for the Big League World Series, the division for players 16-18. The good news is Easley was on the radar — the bad news was that the divisional round preceded the regionals and the World Series itself. But Powell and friends didn’t let it get them down — instead, they viewed it as a stepping stone.

In 1999, they took another step in the right direction when they hosted the Southeast regional. Fortunately, the regional ended up producing the BLWS champion! The winner of the regional was a team out of Florida, and they ended up going on to win the BLWS later that year. This definitely went a long way with Little League. Finally, after four years of waiting and hoping, they received the call they had been dreaming of, granting them permission to host the BLWS. Immediately after that November call, they got to work, and in January they had a ribbon-cutting ceremony at City Hall. In July 2001, the Big League World Series kicked off for the first time in Easley.

Fifteen years later, the World Series is still a hit in Easley and the entire Upstate of South Carolina. It attracts teams and fans from Germany, to Guam, to California, to Chinese Taipei, and all across the world. ESPN began broadcasting the championship game in 2007, moved it to primetime a few years later, and has featured the game since. For a week, Easley is the baseball capital of the world.

Today, the city of Easley continues to enhance the experience that fans have while visiting the World Series. New this year, the city has added permanent bleachers behind home plate, a new ticket office down the first-base line, and a new “Baseball Wall of Fame.” The Wall of Fame will honor some of the best players to play at the BLWS. One of those players, Chris Coghlan, is in the Majors right now playing left field for the Chicago Cubs. Other players include Taylor Harbin, who made it to Triple-A before taking a coaching job with the Clemson Tigers and now the Furman Paladins, and Jay Jackson, who is a pitcher in the San Diego Padres organization. Future plans at the complex include awnings over the bleachers, a revamped press box, and replacing bleachers with actual seats around home plate. Looking further into the future, the complex would like to add dorms onsite so that the players won’t have to stay at another campus and travel back and forth to games. As you can tell, Easley is not resting on its laurels, as big things are in store as a result of the Big League World Series!

Powell — manager of the S.C. District 1 host team for the last 13 years and a man who was instrumental in bringing the BLWS to Easley — had one idea in mind when he journeyed to Williamsport 19 years ago. His one goal, in his own words, was this: “20 years later, maybe you (Little Leaguers) could make this team. That’s the whole reason why we do this is for the kids!”

The Big League World Series has fulfilled the vision of giving Easley a signature event. It’s great for the city, for the residents and for the thousands who visit the series each year. But Powell put it best. Ultimately it’s about the kids, their commitment and their passion for the game. And it’s summed up best in the words they repeat before each game — the Little League pledge:

“I trust in God

“I love my country

“And will respect its laws

“I will play fair

“And strive to win

“But win or lose

“I will always do my best.”