Al Thomas was all smiles, a doting dad and coach as his 11-12-year-old youth league baseball team stood along the third base line to receive their trophies.
Thomas’ team, Wilson Tile, was the winner of their division in the Youth Activities Inc. league and were enjoying their moment in the sun, literally.
“First of all this group of young men were a pleasure to work with,” said Thomas, who once worked to develop scouting software for Major League Baseball. “They’re tremendous athletes.”
Tremendous? A pretty strong adjective for kids who haven’t even taken their first junior high class.
But in these leagues, or youth leagues as Thomas was quick to point out, the kids are superstars and everyone takes it very seriously, but with class.
It’s a culture that has been around a long time and is the foundation for America’s pastime, according to Mark Hufstetler, president of the Youth Activities Inc.
“All these coaches have a good knowledge of the game and this is a building block right now,” he said. “We’re a feeder program for high schools. We give them what we can and then send them on.”
In Rome, Youth Activities shares the spotlight with two other youth leagues conducted by the Rome-Floyd YMCA and the Rome-Floyd Parks and Recreation Authority, all of which are preparing to end their seasons and gear up for the all-star season.
One team playing at Riverview Park, with all-star caliber players, has an interesting distinction from its more traditional counterparts.
The first baseman is 11-year-old Christine Olney, daughter of Calhoun High soccer coach Jeff Olney.
Christine has been playing both softball and baseball since she was six, her dad said, and is a likely candidate for an all-star team, which is nothing unusual.
Christine is one of six girls playing in the youth activities league and has been an all star more than once.
She’s picked up wins as a pitcher before and bats over .400 this year.
“We’re happy because she’s still able to compete at this level,” Jeff Olney said. “We were afraid she wouldn’t be able to hit but she’s hitting over .400 and she can play the field with any of these guys.”
The fact that Christine is excelling is no surprise, Hufstetler said.
There are a lot of kids doing well in all the leagues, regardless of gender.
Adam Urbano of Wilson Tile hit the first out of the park homerun in youth league play at Riverview last week and Trent Rayburn of the American Legion No. 5 team pitched a perfect game recently.
“I’ve been coaching five years and never heard of (a kid pitching a perfect game),” said Mark Rayburn, Trent’s dad and coach. “It was great, something that just doesn’t happen all the time.”
Thomas attributes the success of youth teams in Rome to the advent of travel teams.
Kids in all the leagues now have the chance to travel to other venues during the weekend, play on different fields and get to spend more time learning the game.
Larry Powell, assistant director at the YMCA, spent his afternoon Friday behind the plate, umpiring and instructing a 9-10-year-old game at Grizzard Park.
He’s seen the competition level in his organization increase despite having a down year in numbers.
“The teams were even and each team improved as they went along,” Powell said. “It’s a little more fun to watch. There’s not one team dominating and I think that’s what parents want to watch.”
And parents do watch. There were very few seats available at both Grizzard and Riverview parks Friday, serving as the evidence to that fact.
At Etowah Park, where the Rome-Floyd Parks and Recreation Authority baseball and softball programs play, all that remains of the regular season are make-up games.
“We have a full day of games (today),” said Tony Storey, who oversees the youth program for the authority. “Then we have two more days to make up next week.”
Once the regular season is completed, he said, the process of selecting all-star teams will begin as well.
The authority’s teams are affiliated with Dizzy Dean Baseball for the second-straight year.
The Youth Activities league is also a part of Dizzy Dean and USSSA, while the YMCA is affiliated with Little League Baseball