By Peter Fischetti
Aaron Haney will be leaving his home in Canton OH in the next few days—it’s a 15-hour drive—for a week of fun and games here. What makes him so special? After all, we will probably be welcoming 70 million other visitors that weekend.
Well, first, let me ask you another question: What is going to replace March Madness, with all the early-round upsets, last-second heroics and games that humanized the Gonzaga men and Connecticut women? Certainly, no sporting event could possibly surpass it in pure emotion and heart-pounding finishes.
To that I say, good-bye March Madness and hello Pickleball Pandemonium! You won’t want to miss the first-ever Pickleball Turtlement this weekend (April 17-18) at the Lyndell Center in Panama City Beach. The event benefits the Gulf World Marine Institute, whose primary mission is to rescue and rehabilitate sea turtles and other marine mammals, and to serve as an educational and research tool for the community. Matches begin each day at 8 a.m. The courts are located on Lyndell Lane, between the library and senior center. Admission is free.
Aaron, 69 (wearing the orange shirt in photo), won’t be missing it. He’s driving quite a distance to play doubles with his son, Dustin, who is an electrician in the Air Force and stationed at Tyndell. The tournament will give them a chance to spend some time together. Dustin married last year and has a home off the base.
His father learned about pickleball while watching TV. “I saw the evening news showing old people in Florida playing the game,” he said. In 2018, he started a club in Canton that now has almost 300 members. “The sport has really grown fast.”
For the uninitiated, pickleball is played on a court a quarter of the size of a tennis court. Doubles is more popular than singles, probably because of those “old people” it attracts. Like tennis, the idea is to whack a ball over a net with a paddle to the opponents’ side until someone hits it out of bounds or into the net. Unlike tennis, it is a very sociable game with lots of chatter and isn’t likely to wear you out.
Panama City Beach had two outdoor pickleball courts until a neighbor and good friend of mine, Bill Caravello (shown serving at the Lyndell courts), became a regular at city council meetings. That was three years ago. During the public comments portion, he would make the case for more courts and to have them lighted. He pointed to the revenue that pickleball tournaments generated in small cities in Georgia and Alabama that had no beach as an added attraction. With maybe a dozen new courts, Panama City Beach could rival any city as an ideal place for a tournament. Snowbirds, who are very important to the city, are drawn to the courts, and comprise 30 percent of the 160 names of players that Bill has collected.
The city council listened, and even though it seemed to move with the speed of those sea turtles who benefit from the tournament, two courts were installed in March 2020 and the lights six months later.
What Bill accomplished is what the cynics in this town claim can’t be done: Approach the council members with something that makes sense and actually convince them to approve something that they hadn’t even thought of. It just doesn’t happen overnight; few good things do.
Speaking of good things, a lot of people in addition to Bill have made the tournament possible. Sue Peipert, who works at the senior center, volunteered to babysit the building both days so that players and visitors can use the restrooms rather than those dreaded port-a-potties. Donations for the raffle included four beautiful bowls made by Ralph Thurston, who was my instructor during the woodworking sessions at the center. Margaritaville contributed three $100 gift cards at its restaurant in Pier Park and a paddle, and Gamma Sports donated a paddle and balls. Carousel, Fresh Market, Salt Shed, California Cycles and others have also pitched in with prizes.
And maybe best of all, the spots in men’s and women’s doubles on Saturday and mixed doubles on Sunday sold out in a matter of days. That will ensure a nice profit for the sea turtles.
You know, from the pandemic and mass shootings to local traffic congestion, there’s no shortage of bad news that columnists love to embrace. But I really enjoyed sharing some good news about individuals and businesses putting on this “turtlement” (yes, I made that up) for a worthwhile cause. It happens all the time in one form or another, but is rarely recognized.
It’s no wonder Aaron Haney is driving 15 hours to be a part of it!
Peter Fischetti is a retired journalist from Southern California, which he hopes you won’t hold against him. He lives in Panama City Beach.
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