Don Dobina will be remembered as a man who left his players and the sport of softball better than he found them.
Dobina, the founder and president of Louisville Lady Sluggers club softball program, passed away unexpectedly on Nov. 12 at age 63, sending shock waves through the local and national softball communities. Through his teams, Dobina helped sent more than 100 athletes to more than 70 colleges on softball scholarships over the past 20-plus years, and he helped build a program that’s respected throughout the country.
In speaking with those who played for and or coached alongside him, Dobina could be described many ways. He was a father and husband to his wife Susan and children, daughter Shae and son Brad. He was a businessman who served as CEO of MPC Promotions, a promotional marketing company in Louisville.
He was described as full of life, selfless, caring, and a jokester off the field, while on the field being as serious as anyone.
Dobina was a pioneer, and more than anything, one who gave opportunities to players hoping to achieve their dreams.
When Dobina started Louisville Lady Sluggers in the late 1980s, fast-pitch softball was still catching on in the state. The Kentucky High School Athletic Association didn’t sanction the sport until 1995, and the University of Kentucky didn’t even have a fast-pitch softball team until 1997. The University of Louisville followed soon after in 2000.
But in those early years, even without a softball-specific background, Dobina, who was recruited to play football at Louisville by former coach Lee Corso and played semi-pro baseball in the Cleveland Indians’ organization, believed that his players were as good as any in the country.
“He was just forward thinking,” Male softball and Louisville Lady Sluggers 16U coach Josh Bloomer said. “It’s not about being the best in Kentucky. We want to get our kids and prove that our kids in our state can compete with everyone across the country. And he believed that before anyone else truly believed it in this state. If we take our kids to California, Arizona, New Jersey and Texas, our kids can play with their kids.
“For the longest time people would look at Kentucky and just laugh, and he’s the reason Kentucky softball has gained respect nationally.”
Dobina would regularly take his teams to tournaments and college showcases in California, Colorado, and New Jersey, putting his players up against some of the best in the nation and showing his players the bar that they had to reach. And according to his former players, unlike other organizations that require a pay-to-play format to survive, Dobina financed the organization himself, pouring his own time and money into it so that finances wouldn’t get in the way of one of his players not being able to suit up.
Former player Lisa Pinkston and current Assumption softball coach remembered how playing for Dobina’s teams felt like playing in the big leagues.
“Playing for him was like showtime,” Pinkston said. “He did everything on a big scale. He just really gave players that confidence to play at a very high level because of the tournaments we entered and stage he put us in.”
Thanks to Dobina’s connections with UofL softball coach Sandy Pearsall, Pinkston was able to get a scholarship and play for the Cardinals.
In addition to taking his players across the country to play in tournaments, Dobina also recruited the top players in the state to play for his teams. He invited players to try out and even made home visits on occasion to speak to prospective players and their families.
That’s how Krystal Lewallen met Dobina. She joined Louisville Lady Sluggers as a 15-year-old and she parlayed that experience into a scholarship at Northern Kentucky University.
“I had never met somebody as competitive as myself until I met him,” Lewallen said. “Everything we did, it was never just try your best and that’s OK. Even playing games with my family, that was never acceptable to me, so to find a coach with the same mindset as me completely changed my life.
“From that point on, my whole game changed. He taught me more about the game, how to play smarter. He didn’t know about pitching for girls, he just knew I needed to learn a changeup and he just demanded those things. It wasn’t even an option. That’s what I needed, that push, and someone who was as competitive as ai was to feed off of, and that took my game to a whole new level.”
Lewallen went on to star at then-Division II NKU, becoming a two-time all-American and leading her team to two straight Division II College World Series appearances. She held an ERA of 0.27 her sophomore season and won 55 consecutive games to start her junior season on her way to winning the Honda Award, given to the top female collegiate athlete.
Griffin Joiner tells a similar story. Before winning the Kentucky Softball Gatorade Player of the Year Award, before leading Kentucky to the College World Series, and before being drafted and playing professionally for the Akron Racers, Joiner was invited to try out for the Lady Sluggers as a 15-year-old.
“He had invited me and another girl from my hometown to try out for a team,” Joiner said. “So we drove to Louisville and showed up to the field and got there really early and showed up outside. This man rolls up, whips his truck into the parking lot, gets out, goes over to one of his players on the team and says, “Hey, is there another team practicing here today?” And me and my friend were like, ‘Well, we’re going to have to prove ourselves’. When he found out he said, ‘Oh no, welcome’, and he ended up keeping us on the team and it was life changing from then on.
“He just had a way where he would push you to limits you didn’t know existed,” Joiner said. “He’d get in your grill. He’d let you know what you needed to do better if you wanted to be what you wanted to be. Personally, he told me I could be more than what I could have ever imagined. He saw potential in every single player and helped us realize our potential. At the same time, he’d get on to you, and 10 minutes later or when the game was over, he was joking around with you. He had so much joy. He had such a great balance of being demanding and loving you like you were his own.”
Dobina’s coaching methods weren’t always appreciated or understood by some fellow coaches. But after watching Dobina and coaching alongside him for the last 10 years, Bloomer has an appreciation for everything Dobina stood for.
For me, having started early in my coaching career to where I am now and being able to see things differently now than of 10 years ago, I have such a better understanding of why he did what he did,” Bloomer said. “The thing I will take from him and will always go with me is let (the players) know you’re on their side, and if you do that, there’s more than one way to do something.
“His way wasn’t always my way and vice versa, but I know for me as long as I keep it about trying to help those kids and push them to be their best, in the end, and I think this week it’s been clear to see, the kids understand in the long run what it was all about, whether they get it right then or a few years later. They’re going to understand they had you’re best interests at heart. Whatever your technique to coaching is, as long as it’s about the kids, it’s going to be OK.”
As loyal as Dobina’s players and coaches were to him, he was equally, if not more, fiercely loyal to them, often going out of his way to give them the experience of a lifetime or help them in their time of need.
There was the time when Dobina took Joiner’s travel team into New York City, taking them to Little Italy and Chinatown, and even bartering with some street merchants to buy a player a purse she liked.
After three years of playing at Northern Kentucky, then in Division II, Lewallen told Dobina while helping coach one summer that she was looking to finishing her college career at a higher level. Within two days, Lewallen said, coaches from UCLA, Georgia, and Louisiana-Lafayette all contacted her after learning of her availability from Dobina.
In addition, when Lewallen’s father was diagnosed with cancer and the family needed to raise money for an expensive procedure, Dobina stepped in and not only donated to the cause but passed it around to others to help the Lewallen family reach their goal.
“I sent him an email saying how much I appreciated it and he said we gave to you like you gave to us, our heart,” Lewallen said. “He said, ‘I’ve always thought of you like a daughter and I love you and the loyalty that you and your dad had for us we will never forget.’ For him to step in when something like that was going on, he would come to my work with his wife and see me and make sure everything was OK, and we’re talking 16 years after softball, and he was one of the first people there for me and my family, that just shows how great of a person he really is.”
This past fall, Dobina said that it would be his last season coaching travel baseball full time. He invited Griffin Joiner’s dad, David, who coached alongside him while Griffin played for Lady Sluggers, to coach with him once more.
“He’s so full of life and such a free spirited and driven person. I had been with him a few days before he passed, I just couldn’t believe it because he’s always so full of himself,” David Joiner, a former minor league baseball player in the New York Mets’ farm system and former softball coach at Christian County High School said. “The last day I was with him he was just his normal self, so I was just shocked.”
In the days of Dobina’s passing, countless former players, coaches, and individuals have paid tribute to his family and on social media, and even USA Softball has sent its condolences. The family held a visitation and service on Nov. 18 in Louisville.
In the years to come, the Lady Sluggers organization will continue to operate and give local girls the chance to play against some of the best teams in the nation. It won’t be the same without Dobina in charge, but those remaining will look to impart some of his wisdom upon the next generation.
“I basically told my (players) that we have to leave the program better than how we came,” Pinkston said. “That’s our obligation to Don. We’re not only playing for ourselves now but playing for those that came before us and all the players that will come through the system in the future. To live out his legacy of continuing to set the standard high in Kentucky.”