Honoring a legend: Escanaba’s Candy Swetkis Memorial Bullpen

ESCANABA, Mich. (WJMN) – For multiple decades, Candy Swetkis has been a name synonymous with the Escanaba softball community and beyond.

“Local legend has it she was a very good softball player and she is just a huge part of softball in Delta County,” said Escanaba Varsity Softball Head Coach Andy Fields.

“Candy was kind of a local softball legend,” said Anne Okonek, a longtime friend of Candy’s. “Over her career, she played ball for 57 years, and over that time played in 1,800 softball games, both slowpitch and fastpitch. She was also a teacher at Escanaba Junior High for 27 years, so she had very deep Escanaba roots.”

Born and raised prior to the passage of Title IX, Candy first began playing fastpitch softball at the age of 20. Throughout her time playing, she was determined not to let a lack of opportunity stop her, nor any girls who came after her.

“Candy played here back in the day when we had women’s fastpitch here, that ended about 2000,” Okonek said. “So she played on these fields, but of course they didn’t look anything like this back then. Candy was a very strong advocate for providing more opportunities for girls, and she did. She worked very hard to always get opportunities for girls, whether it was playing in the women’s fastpitch League, or encouraging the school to establish a softball program for the girls.”

After a battle with cancer, Candy passed away in April of 2022. However, her impact on the community wouldn’t stop there.

“Before Candy died, she wanted a scholarship, in her name, given to an Escanaba senior that wanted to become a teacher like she was,” Okonek said. “So, shortly after she died, I created the (Candy Swetkis Endowment Fund) so that Candi’s Memorial Teaching Scholarship will be awarded in perpetuity.”

She said that recognized her contributions as a teacher, “but I also wanted to do something that recognized her legacy on the softball field as well,” said Okonek. “She passed away in 2022, and because of her being kind of a local legend, it was suggested to me that she should be memorialized in some manner on a softball field. So it was it was natural to look for a place to memorialize her here in Escanaba.”

In 2023, some brainstorming led to another idea for how Candy could be immortalized in the community she was so connected to.

“I talked to Anne and her friend Brenda at my local diner,” Fields said. “We got to talking one morning over breakfast and we started putting this idea in place, probably about last November.”

“We did some brainstorming about some projects that might be suitable for this complex that would memorialize Candy. Because Candy was a pitcher, it seemed like doing bullpens was a natural fit to recognize the contributions that she has made to the community and to the sport,” Okonek said.

“Before, we just had a mound and a home plate and a little fenced in area. Now it’s completely fenced in,” Fields said. “There’s this beautiful sign, a memorial for Candy, and then the backstop and everything that goes with it. The surface area actually has the sports mix on it that our field has, so it kind of emulates our field.”

In May of 2024, the memorial bullpen was publicly unveiled at Candy Swetkis Strikefest Tournament.

“It was Andy that approached me and suggested that they rename their softball tournament after Candy,” Okonek said. “So we held the first annual Candy Swetkis Strikefest a couple of weekends ago. It was a fundraiser. Half of the funds from that event went to the Escanaba Girl’s Softball Program and the other half went to Candy’s endowment.”

“It was great,” Fields said. “I mean, the kids coming practice and seeing that, their eyes lit up. They love it because this is something that just makes our home field that much better, and our home tournament was quite a success.”

Reactions to the bullpen have been all positive, including one interaction Okonek recalled with Escanaba’s catcher, Carly Bowden.

“One of the girls on the high school team came up to me and thanked me for it,” Okonek said.
“Said that the girls really liked having it and thanked me. That was sweet. There were six teams here for the Strikefest, so the place was just bustling with all kinds of activity that day. There were a lot of Candy’s teammates and friends that also came that morning, specifically to see the bullpen get unveiled. So it was a pretty emotional event, but she’s doing continuing to do good things even though she’s not here.”

As the Escanaba Varsity Softball team eyes another deep run in the playoffs this season, they’ll have Candy’s backing all the way.

“Right now, we’re getting ready to sharpen the knife for the postseason,” fields said. “We’ve had, I would say, a rugged regular season. We had a lot of obstacles to get through – injuries, sickness. We’re starting to hit our peak right now, and that’s where we want to be going into Districts, for sure.”

Now a newly-inducted member of the U.P. Sports Hall of Fame, Candy is also set to receive another honor later this year.

“Just last weekend, Candy was inducted into the U.P. Sports Hall of Fame and I just recently found out that she is going to be inducted into the Michigan Softball Hall of Fame in October,” Okonek said. “So she is being recognized for her longevity and her success and her leadership in the sport.”

The bullpen would not have been possible without the work of many people, among whom Okonek highlighted Coach Fields, Todd Milkiewicz and Tim McIntyre, as well as Meier’s Signs for their work on banners and signage. Joining Okonek on the Strikefest Planning Committee were Kristen Bowden, Tara Braun, Brenda Madden, Lorrie Botruff. The event was also assisted by many volunteers, as well as donors and local businesses. The Candy Swetkis Endowment Fund is administered by the Community Foundation for Delta County.

“There was a group of us that made the bullpen happen and made the Strikefest happen. And boy if it wasn’t for everybody that rallied around and helped help make it happen. It wouldn’t have happened. So I’m just really grateful to everybody that played a role in both the tournament as well as the bullpen.”

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