MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Sports

June 8, 2014

For the fun of the game: At 75 years old, youth baseball still provides outlet

In 1938, a man named Carl Stotz hit upon the idea for an organized baseball league for the boys in his hometown of Williamsport, Pa. Stotz had no sons of his own, but he often played ball with his young nephews and wanted a way to provide an organized program for them.

A year later, Stotz recruited two brothers and their wives, respectively, to form the first Little League board of directors. Seventy-five years later, and among multiple other organizations that spawned from it, Little League Baseball stands as the sport’s premier organization serving children.

Muskogee isn’t a Little League town. Muskogee Youth Baseball Association has been affiliated with United States Specialty Sports Association since 1996. But the product, like those in virtually every community across the country, is the same, an enduring testament to a family’s vision.

Tim Downey, the coach of the Fort Gibson Tigers’ 12-under team, gets to watch his son Trent play up close and personal. Outside of being able to watch kids be kids, the elder Downey said there is a more rewarding experience associated with youth baseball.

“The most fun I get is watching the kids learn,” Tim Downey said. “And watching them grow as players and as teammates.”

And when the time comes for Tim to switch from dad to coach?

“It’s what’s best for the team,” he said. “It’s not that hard of a decision.”

Games are played on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, starting at 6 p.m. at Love-Hatbox Sports Complex. The divisions are t-ball (ages 4-5), coach pitch (6-8) and kid pitch (9-12).

Get there early enough and you see kids acting like Major Leaguers – playing catching in the outfield, swinging bats to get loose. The difference is in some of the swings because the lengths of the bats are in some cases as tall as the players.

But for some parents, it’s hard to watch. They can be seen pacing back and forth behind the bleachers and biting finger nails to the bone.

Chet Walker, whose son C.J. plays in the coach pitch league, is not quite as nervous watching his son perform, but he does become anxious when his son steps to the plate. Walker just stands there and strokes his chin as his son steps up and rips a single into centerfield.

“He looks forward every day to playing,” the dad said. “Where he got his talent from we’re still trying to figure it out. My hope is he will stick with it. He enjoys playing right now, but if he wants to stop, I’m not going to push him.”

Some kids who have played in the league have continued on through high school and beyond, like Archie Bradley, who is currently playing for the Reno Aces, the Triple-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Most kids, however, will not make it that far, some even to the high school level, so the objective is to have fun. Lance Mitchell, in his first year as league director, had kids who played in the league and believes that should be top priority.

“Just watching your kids succeed is a thrill,” Mitchell said. “If I could pass on one thing to others coming up is to make sure the teams have fun. That’s the important thing – to learn the fundamentals and have fun.”

Mitchell says while the league is affiliated with USSSA, it modifies its rules to accommodate its uniqueness.

“We are a Muskogee League – not just absolutely a USSSA league. Some of the rules we’ve modified to help with time constraints and stuff, especially when the kids are still in school because we don’t want them getting out of here at 10:30-11 p.m.,” he said.

Marie Gassaway, who’s been associated with the league for 20 years, feels that youth baseball helps young kids become more physically fit.

“It keeps them busy during the summer,” Gassaway said. “It gives them an opportunity to get outside and get exercise and have fun.”

Gassaway also said that changes in the league have allowed kids to improve their self-esteem.

“The biggest change we’ve had in the last 20 years is that every team doesn’t have to play every team,” she said. “We have different divisions so the teams that aren’t quite as good as the others don’t have to play the very best in the state. We tried to make it where all kids can compete at the different levels.”

One player who participated in the league has decided to remain part of the league, but in another capacity. D.J. Spann is now a junior at Muskogee High School but can still be seen at the facility -- not as a player, but in an umpire’s uniform.

Spann feels his time in playing helped him learn more about the game and that same learning experience is passed on to the new kids in the league.

“You become a brotherhood with your teammates,” Spann said. “You get a better understanding of the game at such a young age.”

He also now has a better understanding of what an umpire has to go through, especially when it comes to developing a thick skin.

“I did it pretty fast,” he said. “I got thrown on to 10-under my first day out here and the second day, I was behind the plate. Coaches like to argue – it’s part of the game. You just have to take it and go with it.”

The current membership is between 50 and 60 teams, down from 100 in 2005. According to Miles Thomas, a member of the league’s board of directors whose kids played in the league as well, the reduction in participants is directly related to the rise in popularity of other sports.

“The volume is still about the same in the younger divisions,” Thomas said. “But as you get into the older divisions, the kid pitch, the numbers are getting smaller. It just seems that the kids now are not as committed as they were before.

“We really haven’t done anything different. We’ve tried to make it convenient for them. You know that every time you play, you’re going to play on the same field.”

The league is also working on making the facilities more appealing to teams from the surrounding area.

“We have teams from Oktaha, Checotah, Tahlequah, Fort Gibson, Wagoner, Haskell, Okay, Warner and several from Muskogee,” Mitchell said. “It is kind of hard for some of the smaller teams to compete with towns like Jenks. It’s not that we don’t have the talent, we just don’t have as big of a talent pool. It kind of brings more of the surrounding towns here to help out a little bit.

““I could name a field, but I won’t, that teams will go to and play but there’s nothing around it – no restaurants, no hotels. You’ve got to travel a ways to find a place to stay. Here, we’ve got all these restaurants on the highway and several hotels that are right here real close.”

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