A True Baseball Community
By Brad McEwen
While it would be nearly impossible to list all the wonderful things I’ve experienced being a dad, I can truly say with certainty that one of the more cherished has been my son’s involvement in Albany League Baseball (ALB)—what I knew growing up as Dixie baseball.
From the first time we rolled up at the Gordon Complex four years ago for a 5 year-old Bear’s first tee-ball tryouts, to Thursday night’s thrilling 8-5 victory that saw his peewee (coach pitch) Tigers prevail over the previously undefeated Nationals, the McEwen’s count our four years as part of the league as some of our favorites.
Sure, like most parents, a significant portion of that pleasure has been watching our son grow from a first time player with little understanding of the game—who would just as soon do some shadowboxing in right field as charging a grounder or roping a double into center—into a two-time all-star who currently holds down the hot corner and calls out plays to his teammates.
But in truth, a lot of our joy has come from the way league, right from the start, has welcomed us like family. From the afternoon of the first tee-ball Braves practice when coach Dan Hill invited me to help coach and Tay to help in the dugout, we have felt like we a part of something special. And that feeling’s only grown stronger in the intervening years.
Rarely do we go anywhere without running into a member of the Albany League Baseball community, and every time we go to the ball park it feels like a reunion.
Upon the completion of his games you can usually find Bear and his pals lining the fence, hotdogs in hand to watch their growing number of baseball buddies in the late game, while Milla roams the grounds with a crew of other older sisters who were once dragged begrudgingly to the field to watch their brothers, but who are now anxiously awaiting a trip to the field so they can hang with their friends.
And despite having plenty of things that need to be done around the house, Tay and I always relish the chance to visit with our fellow baseball parents, exchanging smiles, hugs and handshakes while cheering on all the children we’ve gotten to know during our time in the league.
While that sense of family, community and togetherness is certainly apparent any night there’s games at Dixie or across the street at the Sherwood field, it is never more palpable than during each season’s Opening Day—when players from all four age divisions are joined by parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, non-baseball-playing friends, community partners and league officials, for team pictures, an opening ceremony and a full slate of games.
Last Saturday marked the most recent Albany League Baseball Opening Day, and as is always the case, it was another fabulous day for baseball and fellowship. When Milla and I arrived at 9:30 to lend a hand if needed, there were already a couple of games underway and despite an overcast and chilly morning, the mood around the complex was anything but.
Joyful applause followed each crack of the bat and the encouraging words of coaches could be heard above the din of happiness that only escalated as the day wore on. All around were smiling faces basking in the fun and excitement of the start of another season.
But while the atmosphere was the same as in past years, this opening day was slightly different.
As I wandered around the complex watching games and snapping pictures, it was clear that this year’s opening day crowd had expanded to include some fellow Albanians I had not had the pleasure of seeing at the ball park before.
Because I’m friends with several of the league’s board members and volunteers I wasn’t surprised by the extended crowd as I’d been informed there had been a significant spike in registrations this year.
“Within the last two days of registration, we ended up with probably a 30 percent spike in already registered kids,” ALB League President Kip Hampson later told me. “That had us thinking, ‘Where are these kids coming from?’ And once we recognized a few of the names that were being registered, we thought, “These kids play in other leagues, so let’s call and find out what’s going on.”
Ultimately Kip said the board learned that one, if not more, of the other leagues that usually operate in Albany wasn’t going to have a league this year due to lack of participation.
“And the reason their participation and registrations were so low is because the kids had already signed up with us,” he added.
Kip further explained that while the board was a little shocked, and somewhat overwhelmed by the news that so many players had chosen to come play with ALB, it did give officials a great sense of pride to know that the league, which has been in operation in this community since 1964, was run in a manner that made it attractive to so many people.
“We use the term ‘combined league’ pretty loosely because really and truly what happened was kids just joined our league because of the things that we were doing and they saw what we were doing,” Kip explained. “I mean we talk about being the baseball league for Albany, but that’s not really our goal. It’s just happened and we’re willing to take ownership of that. If we have 500 kids or if we have 100 kids sign up, we’re going to try to make it the best we possibly can for those kids and families.”
That the league is strong and provides the positive atmosphere for young ball players and their families is really a testament to the dedication of the many volunteers who serve as board members and coaches and ultimately run all aspects of the league.
Those volunteers, who’s motivation is simply to instill the love they have for baseball and youth sports in the next generation, spend countless hours managing the business of the league, coaching teams, organizing concessions, coordinating the fundraising that is essential for the league to operate effectively.
“We are all volunteers,” Kip said. “We have other careers. We’re not just baseball coaches and baseball league people. We’re the city worker, we’re the banker, we’re the construction guy, we’re the salesman. We’re everywhere in this city. We’re the restaurant people. So that’s the thing. We don’t do this for money. We do it for the love of baseball.”
In addition to the time it takes to organize the league and coach teams, Kip said the league’ volunteers also spend a considerable about of time handling the regular maintenance needed to keep the various fields the league uses ready for play.
In fact, it seems any time I happen by the Dixie, Sherwood, Lake Park and Ken Gardens fields there’s at least one volunteer on site cutting grass, dragging the infield, mending a fence or picking up debris. With the exception of City of Albany crews dragging and lining the fields on game days, all field maintenance is handled by and paid for by the league itself.
And with the expansion of ALB to include so many players who formerly played for the 8th Avenue league, that focus on the grounds now also extends to the main 8th Avenue field which this year is being used to host minor league practices and games.
“That’s what our group does,” Kip said. “We come in and we use our resources and with volunteer coaches and dads, we literally made that field playable. One Saturday we went out there and redid the field and laid some groundwork for that field moving forward—whether we continue to use that field full time or 8th Avenue does, or the city or whatever. That field is now not just good for us, but it’s good for the city, it’s good for anyone that shows up out there. It’s ready to go.”
Kip said if the league is able to continue using the 8th Avenue complex in the future, the league hopes to also make some improvements to the peewee and tee-ball fields at the location, the same way they make planned improvements to the fields the league has used historically.
“As long as the numbers are there and we have the right to use those fields we’ll put our efforts into making them look as good as what we already have,” Kip said. “Obviously our first concern is Lake Park. We’ve worked on the Sherwood field and we put money into the Dixie field that last offseason. Lake Park’s our next project. Not to say that we can’t take some money that we were going to use at Lake Park and use it at 8th Avenue. We just have to take care of (Sherwood, Dixie, Ken Gardens and Lake Park) first and foremost because we’re only playing games on one field at 8th Avenue.”
While maintenance of the fields is only a portion of what Albany League Baseball volunteers are doing, it is a prime example of not only the dedication of the league’s volunteers, but also the spirit of community partnership that the league holds dear.
As Kip explained, it’s close connections throughout the community that have helped the league thrive over the years.
“We don’t own any of those fields,” he explained. “The Kiwanis Club owns Dixie field and there is an agreement, or some paperwork somewhere that says we have the right to use the field as long as there’s always baseball going on there. The Kiwanis Club’s number one thing is kids.
“The Dougherty County School System owns Lake Park and Sherwood. And, of course, 8th Avenue is owned by the city. Going into this season, this year, Ken Gardens was the only thing we used that was owned by the city.”
Based on that willingness to partner with other entities in the community, it’s clear the league was in a good position to welcome new families to the fold—especially those who were willing to get involved and become a part of what the league is doing.
Kip said right away he was very pleased with the response from new families joining the league, as several parents offered to coach teams and help in any way they could. Kip said several folks who coached elsewhere last year are now coaching with ALB and that the results of that have been great as well.
“I would say like 50 percent of the people who came to the league were ready and willing to work,” he said.
I can actually speak to that as Bear’s coaches this year are Head Coach Nequanis Hall and Assistant Coach Detavious Poole—both of whom not only coached with 8th Avenue last year but were also coaches with one of that league’s all-star teams.
In the spirit of transparency, I don’t mind saying that after three years with “Coach Dan” we were a little unsure of what to expect when we learned which team Bear was going to play with. Like several returning ALB families and, naturally, many of the new families coming into the league, we just didn’t know what we might encounter.
Would players be evaluated fairly? Would coaches these families never met know how to teach baseball? Would there be equal playing time for all kids, both new to the league and returning?
I’m humbled to say, however, that any worries the McEwens might have had quickly faded at our first practice. It was obvious from the start that Coach Nene and Coach Poole not only knew what they were doing when it came to running a baseball practice, they were genuinely excited to meet all the new players and families and welcome us as part of the team.
When I got home from that first practice I was proud to share that Bear had one of the best practices he’s ever had and that Nene had welcomed me with open arms and even invited me to be an assistant coach.
For her part, Coach Nene later told me she wasn’t really sure what to expect coming into the league either, but she felt confident that she had the coaching experience needed to run a good squad.
In fact, after a recent game, she said that during the player draft—a league feature she likes that is used to make sure talent is fairly spread across all the teams—she intentionally, with the exception of one player who she knew had a dad that could pitch well, picked players she didn’t know so that she could meet new people, and further hone her coaching skills.
“I felt like I needed a new challenge as a coach,” she said. “I could’ve gone into the draft and tried to grab up as many 8th Avenue players as I could, but I didn’t want to do that. The players I picked… I didn’t know anything about them. I wanted a challenge.”
To her delight, Coach Nene said the players on her Tigers team have exceeded any expectations she might have had and shown her that Albany League Baseball players know how to play—a feeling that’s been reinforced now that the team has a few games under its belt.
“It’s good baseball,” Coach said of what she’s seen in the league so far. “And all of (the Tigers) are unpolished diamonds. Everybody’s got potential.”
When sharing her general feelings about what she’s experienced being in the league so far, Nene was somewhat cautious, saying that while she and her son Javion have been warmly received, she’s still getting to know people and trying to get a feel for everything the league does.
“I’m still kind of trying to feel everything out,” she said. “But so far so good, to be honest with you. A lot of stuff kind of comes out around all-stars (at the end of regular season), so we’ll see. But so far I think everybody’s enjoying themselves. It’s been good.”
Knowing how important the league’s mission is to those who run the league and having now had a chance to watch Nene in action and see that she’s as interested in character building and teaching the game, as she is in winning, I feel certain that her experiences with ALB will continue to be positive.
It states in Albany League Baseball’s formal mission statement that: “Through proper guidance and exemplary leadership, Albany League Baseball, Inc. assists youth in developing the qualities of citizenship, discipline, teamwork and physical well-being. By espousing the virtues of character, courage and loyalty, the Albany League Baseball, Inc. program is designed to develop superior citizens rather than superior athletes.”
As I’ve written before, youth sports—baseball in particular—can be an ugly environment when the desire to win or see your child succeed can sometimes lead to anger, frustration and poor behavior. We’ve all heard stories about irate parents berating coaches, umps and even the children they’ve come to support, sadly giving credence to the fact that signs admonishing such behavior are a must at nearly every ballpark.
But, little league baseball at its best can also be a magical environment where children develop into hardworking, well-adjusted young men and women and where adults are reminded of the values we should all hold dear—honesty, integrity, respect, caring, kindness and love.
It’s been clear to me since we’ve become connected to the league that Albany League Baseball has worked to foster the latter environment and its mission statement, along with the actions of those who represent the league, are testament to that.
My impression of that has only strengthened as I’ve watched this year’s league expansion. And from what I can see, and what I’ve been told, I’m not the only person who feels the league and the community has been strengthened by the families who are playing with us this year.
“In the beginning the reaction was mixed,” said Kip. “There were families that were a little apprehensive. And we weathered that storm. We just told everyone, ‘Take a step back, Take a deep breath and let’s start playing baseball.’
“Then as soon as we started actually playing baseball, doing what we do, everything has worked out and now those families are pleased. They see the good job this organization can do.
“I think we’ve achieved the ultimate goal of sportsmanship, comradery, all-around fair play. We wanted to bring families together. We want people to meet new people and I think we’ve achieved that goal.
“A lot of the new families, I’ve heard from several of them, and they’ve said they’re having fun. They’ve said, ‘We’re so glad we’re playing.”
Kip admits he doesn’t know what the future holds for the expanded Albany League Baseball but he says he has hope that the families that are currently a part of the ALB community will want to return and will tell the rest of the community about the positive experiences they’ve had playing in the league.
“I don’t know,” said Kip when asked about next year and beyond. “People, I think, will come back and say ‘You know what? This is where I want to play. We like what they’re doing and the way they do it, so yeah, we’re coming back.’
“With the new families and the new kids coming to the league, you would almost assume that word’s going to get out from there and the kids that did not make the deadline for registration (this year), they’re going to be the first ones in line next year.”
While I certainly don’t speak for the league, as a resident of this city and someone who feels honored their child has had the opportunity to play in Albany League Baseball, I can say I truly hope that what started this year will continue in the future so that youth baseball in Albany can become an example for the rest of the community.
After thousands of our friends and neighbors banded together to help one and other in the aftermath of the January 2017 storms that rocked Albany and Dougherty County, it was common for me to hear people talking about the true, giving nature of Albanians, but also about how that willingness to join together seemed to only follow times of disaster and struggle.
Social media was littered with comments trumpeting this fact and thousands more shared the hope that the sense of community felt in every corner of Albany and Dougherty County in 2017 would persist long after the tarps were removed from roofs and the sound of chainsaws in the distance were but a memory.
I can’t say for certain if that dream has come true everywhere in this community, but the change I feel when I’m at the ball park is real and it’s awesome. The idea that the volunteer youth baseball organization that my family is honored to be a part of could be the organization that teaches those special values instilled by team sports to this entire community truly warms my heart.
Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - firstname.lastname@example.org - @BradGMcEwen