OHIO VALLEY UNSUNG HERO: Bechtel and the sport of softball just go together

WHEELING – If one were to write a history of sports in the Ohio Valley, they should talk to Tom Bechtel.

More importantly, they should listen to him.

‘Bear’, as he’s known to almost everyone, is a treasure trove of information about the athletes, people and places that make sports in this area among the best around.

For more than 50 years, Bechtel has become synonymous with sports in the area as a player, administrator, umpire, etc. You name it, chances are Bechtel has or had something to do with it.

And, at 63, the 1969 Wheeling Central graduate, doesn’t see an end in sight.

”I can’t see myself retiring,” he said. ”My health may tell me differently down the road, but, right now, I’m going strong and I hope I can go strong for a few more years.”

Frankly, Bechtel doesn’t know what he’d do if he didn’t have so many irons in the fire.

”It’s funny, when I do take a day off, I don’t do really well,” he said smiling. ”I feel much better when I’m on the go.”

And the folks of the Ohio Valley, especially it’s youth, are the better for it.

One might see him at a neighborhood park coordinating an event, at a junior high basketball game officiating, at a high school softball field umpiring, or at a football field working the sidelines. In the end, Bechtel’s goal is to serve the youth of the Ohio Valley.

”As long as I keep moving I’ll have my eye on something,” he said.

Bechtel’s job is director of the Wheeling Recreation Department.

”That’s my side job, if you will,” he said laughing.

You’d have to pardon anyone who might think his main job is managing the J.B. Chambers I-470 Youth Sports Complex in Elm Grove. That falls under the auspices of his rec position, but he does operate that, and it’s almost a year round venture.

”It kind of consumes me … it’s like a passion,” he said.

For the past 13 years or so, Bechtel has been involved with the sprawling baseball/softball complex. The first three were spent working on a volunteer basis, but, since the city started operating it, it’s become an almost 24-7 labor of love for him.

”We’ve done a lot during the past 10 years, but we’re still looking to see what we can do in the future.”

Bechtel estimates he’s at the complex every weekend about 12-14 hours a day from March through November.

”I’m really proud of what we’ve done up here,” he said, noting most was done through private donations. ”I figured up the other day there’s been about a $500K in improvements to this facility during the past 10 years.”

And there’s more to come.

”The Chambers Foundation is the one that built this place originally,” Bechtel said. ”And we have a (monetary) request in and we’re hoping they’ll look favorably upon it. We’d like to fix up the big (baseball) field and make it a premier field.

”We have it about 75 percent finished.

The field he’s speaking of is nestled in the back of the facility and is used by Wheeling Jesuit’s baseball team, along with Wheeling Central’s squad, along with Wheeling Post and many others. It’s also used in the annual Edgar Martin Beast of the East Classic.

Colleges, high schools, youth and travel leagues all utilize the complex during the year.

”It’s amazing the growth of youth sports,” he said. ”In particularly, girls’ softball. Though, travel baseball is really coming on the last couple of years. So, we keep this place pretty busy.”

Teams from Pittsburgh, Cambridge, Morgantown, etc. all utilize the Chambers complex.

”I think that says something that teams from Pittsburgh would drive an hour to come here,” Bechtel said. ”We have a nice facility, but we run the leagues pretty good, too.

”I get a lot of comments, especially from the out-of-town teams about how everything is run and they keep coming back. That’s a testament in itself.”

In addition to helping operate the facility, Bechtel umpires a lot of the games there, too.

The complex will again play host to the OVAC Softball Championships this Saturday and Bechtel will again be part of the action.

”If you’ve played girls’ softball in the Ohio Valley, there’s a good chance I umpired one of your games,” he said. ”I’ve umped in every OVAC tourney.”

Bechtel has umped high school softball since it began. He’s also had a distinguished career officiating football and basketball games.

He’s cut back on the basketball officiating, doing a lot of junior high and middle school.

”I get as much enjoyment out of doing a junior high game that I do doing an Ohio state championship game,” he said. ”I still have a lot of passion (for officiating). It’s still as fun to do as it was 40 years ago.”

Bechtel now teaches an umpiring course, mentoring younger officials about the trade.

Through it all, Bechtel has gained countless friends. One of his best – Gene Ammirante – works as his assistant at the rec department.

The two went to school together and have been friends for more than 50 years. That friendship carried over when Bechtel attended what was then Wheeling College and Ammirante attended West Liberty State College.

Ammirante started working with Bechtel in the rec office when he retired as a teacher at Bellaire High School a few years ago. But his work with the rec department goes back years.

In fact, Bechtel said he’s blessed to be surrounded by a plethora of experience and talented people that make his job(s) go smoother.

”We have about five or six people in the rec department that have worked for about 40 years,” he said.

And work is a word he uses loosely.

”It’s fun … it’s just fun,” he said. ”I don’t look at what I as a job. It’s something exciting.”

If you know of someone involved with sports at any level in the Ohio Valley whom I could feature as an Ohio Valley Unsung Hero, drop me a line at rthorp@timesleaderonline.com or via Twitter at @RickThorp1