WE ARE HOMETOWN NEWS.

AGAWAM — With six courts open at Borgatti Field, the founding fathers of pickleball in Agawam are looking back with pride on what they’ve accomplished.

This summer is the first season of play on the two newest courts, but the park on River Road has long been a destination for pickleball players. The first two courts were opened in 2015, shortly after Richard Dudek, now 85, came home after a winter in Florida, and told then-Agawam Mayor Richard Cohen about a new sport he’d picked up there.

Richard Dudek, left, stands with Doug Paquette outside the John Bakos Pickleball Courts at Borgatti Field in Agawam.
Reminder Publishing submitted photo

“No one around here was playing pickleball, so I designed the exact specifications of a pickleball court on several sheets of paper, and when I went to the mayor, he said, ‘What the heck is pickleball?’” Dudek told Reminder Publishing.

Dudek urged the mayor and City Council to invest in pickleball courts. He told officials if they built it, people would come.

“He really laid out a nice packet for the Town Council, so everybody could see what a court looked like. Back then, if you said ‘pickleball,’ they looked at you like you had two heads, because nobody knew what it was,” said Doug Paquette, Dudek’s longtime friend and pickleball pal. The pair play the game at least four times a week, said Paquette.

Pickleball is now well known as one of the fastest growing sports in America. Much like tennis, players use a racket or paddle to hit a ball over a 34-inch-high net, but pickleball is less strenuous and thus better suited to older adults. The sport became an instant hit in Agawam, and town officials quickly discovered they needed to build two more courts at Borgatti Field.

“We realized the need was severe, that the sport was growing,” said Chris Sparks, director of parks and recreation in Agawam. “When we first started, we thought it was a sport for seniors, but it’s truly a sport for all ages and abilities.”

Agawam opened its second two courts in 2017, funded in part by a $35,000 donation from town resident John Bakos, who paid for more than half of the $70,000 project. Bakos has since died, but he wrote about his love of the sport in a 2017 pledge letter to the town.

“I am a passionate pickleball player, have enjoyed frequent play at Borgatti Field and worked hard to build the program now involving nearly 100 players. Due to the rapid interest and growth of the sport, these courts have become very overcrowded,” Bakos wrote at the time.

There are now six pickleball courts in Agawam, after another two opened this spring. The town spent $277,000 on a major upgrade to the park that include two courts, a new 24- by 36-foot pavilion, four metal picnic tables and a 400-foot-long sidewalk connecting the area to nearby softball fields.

Most of this latest project was funded by $240,000 from the Community Preservation Act. CPA funds come from a 1% surcharge on local property taxes, and matching funds from the state budget. CPA income is kept separate from the town’s general budget and can only be spent on affordable housing, conservation, historical preservation and recreation projects.

The remaining $37,000 came from an account funded by annual gifts from Berkshire Power, which operates a power plant in Agawam.

“The demand for the courts is growing, the sport is growing locally, nationally and internationally. Pickleball is taking over, so it was time for us to add two more courts,” said Sparks.

“With all of our parks, not just pickleball but the dog park, skateboard park, ballfields, it’s important to have the amenities for people of all generations and different interest groups, to give them a place to exercise, socialize and enjoy themselves,” Sparks continued.

There isn’t much room to build more courts at Borgatti Field. If demand continues to grow, Sparks said engineers will have to figure out what to do. But pickleball courts have sprung up across the Pioneer Valley, and that is relieving the pressure on Borgatti Field, which traditionally drew a lot of regional players whose own towns did not have pickleball facilities.

“I don’t see any immediate need. When we first built our courts in 2015, we were the first ones in Western Massachusetts. Now, almost every community around us has courts, so the extra burden has been taken off of us,” said Sparks.

Dudek is a former teacher and assistant superintendent of schools in Agawam. He was also a national sales manager for a major paper producer. He began playing pickleball 30 years ago in Florida, where a national champion of the game taught him how to play.

The 85-year-old said he eventually became very good player, ranked number seven out of 100 players in Florida.

“Every day I would practice and practice, until I got really good at playing the game,” he said.

These days, when he plays on the asphalt courts, people who know him, or who he is, thank him for bringing the game to town when pickleball was largely unknown in Western Massachusetts.

“A lot of people tell me, when they see me at the court, ‘Richard, you did a great job.’ I enjoy hearing that,” said Dudek, who hopes to play pickleball for at least another five years.

“It all stems back to the insight of Richard Dudek,” said Sparks. “It was his vision that brought us to where we are today.”

The pickleball courts are open dawn to dusk at Borgatti Field on River Road. Courts cannot be reserved, and are available to all on a first-come basis.