SHERIDAN — Imagine you’re a 10-year-old ball player, standing in the batter’s box.
A ball spins out of the pitcher’s hand hard, and it’s flying right at you. You’re thoroughly confused. Baseballs are supposed to fly straight when you throw them.
As you duck to avoid being hit in the face, the ball swoops, dropping right across the plate into the catcher’s glove for a strike.
Shamed by the laughs from the opposing dugout, you later realize you’ve just seen your first curveball.
It’s scenarios like this that Sheridan Youth Baseball is working to remedy.
And after a third-straight year with a Babe Ruth State Championship (the 14-year-old team this year) and more success in Little League, things seem to be working out nicely.
Whatever a baseball purist’s beliefs on the age a pitcher should reach before he starts “throwing junk,” there will always be kids out there who do it at a young age. For a batter who wants to be competitive and eventually play high school baseball, it’s never too early to find out how to stand your ground in the box against a curve.
The recent successes of youth traveling programs in Sheridan is no secret, but their future potential may be where the real excitement lies. Sheridan County Babe Ruth (13-15 years old) and Little League (9-12 years old) have grown significantly. Everyone knows how it works. Dads coach, moms can pitch in just as much, making it possible for kids to travel and play baseball.
That wasn’t always how it was in Sheridan. Kids played Webb Wright all the way up until Legion ball. There was one traveling Sheridan team, donning the baby blue jerseys with the red all-caps lettering “SHERIDAN” across the chest. Even for a lot of those kids, curveballs were a foreign part of the game.
Now, a group of parents, armed with a vision, are fueling programs like Little League and Babe Ruth. The goal is simple: play lots of baseball and ingrain a deep-rooted love for the sport in a town.
Two of those organizers, Matt Lube, current Babe Ruth president, and Shannon Boint, with Little League, have watched their sons grow up through the programs and even make it up to the Legion ranks.
Lube believes there might not even have been a Sheridan Jets team this year without the Babe Ruth program.
“As we start winning games, the kids have gained respect of the Legion program,” Lube said. “It has helped unify our programs. The rec. leagues, Babe Ruth and Legion used to stand alone from each other, but when these kids win at the Babe Ruth level they can get their foot in the door.”
The traveling sports devils advocate would say as the parents move up with their kids the program can disappear.
No worries there, Lube said, for several reasons.
“If we continue to have more competitive baseball, it breeds that interest at a younger age, and if the Little League numbers are strong, Babe Ruth continues to be strong. There will come a day when the Legion program is so full, we can hope for tryouts on the Troopers.”
Nine of the 11 kids that enter the Wyoming Legion State B Tournament this weekend for the Sheridan Jets played in Babe Ruth. It was nine of 12-13 last year.
From a father’s standpoint, one who wants his son to succeed, this was the way to do it.
“I said, we need to go play as many games as we can, we may not win them all, but it’s about getting more at bats…seeing more curveballs,” Lube explained.
“(It’s about) learning how to react in a high pressure situation. It’s cumulative.”
His son Max (on the Jets now) played 48 baseball games last year with help from Babe Ruth, matching up against competition like the kids in Billings who went to the Little League World Series.
That quantity of games no doubt requires a love for the game, something that Boint says she’s watched increase with participation, and that starts with Little League. Her son Andrew is on the Babe Ruth squad and her younger son Jacob started Little League this year.
“I think it’s definitely grown as they find successes,” Boint said of her sons’ love for baseball. “If you go to a tournament in Idaho and beat someone, or you play a really tough team, one with each experience, they went to the Little League tournament and knocked off the favorite in a back-and-forth game, a 25 to 22 score game.
“Having that experience, they’re ready to go the next year. They make it to Boise and that’s where they hold the bar. They say, ‘let’s go do that again.’”
Lube insisted that movement can be drawn back to the Sheridan Baseball Academy and its work toward its own field of dreams — they’re getting closer to having the funds to build their state of the art facility, Doubleday Park in north Sheridan.
It’s all a unified effort, Lube says.
“To me, that’s the longevity,” he said. “Get that in the ground. Every age from Legion down will get in there in a supervised environment, strengthening our talent.”
In a more immediate sense, it’s not hard to understand that success on the field has increased participation. Everyone likes to win.
Lube explained how their numbers during two of the past three years have increased by 30 percent. The one down year, this summer, was a result of sending nine 15-year-olds to the Jets. As a result, Babe Ruth took the hit.
An acceptable loss.
While so many leagues in Sheridan would seemingly compete with each other, baseball folks have used a happy coexistence as another way of getting more time on the field.
Little Leaguers are required to play in the city Webb Wright program run by the Sheridan Recreation District, and the Legion program is approaching reliance on the growing reliability of a farm system they have just a field away at Thorne-Rider Park.
The various helpers have their different backgrounds, some of whom coach Webb Wright as well as traveling squads. Mike McCafferty’s baseball influence is well known (although he’ll quickly brush off credit to others) he’s coached a few of the state title winners. Folks like him and Tom Mayer carry the knowledge they gained in their own college baseball careers and its essential development.
Lube said that he would love for these early-bloomer programs to eventually pay dividends for kids looking for help paying for college in the form of college baseball scholarships.
For now, the kids are winning baseball games and the baseball is good.
Players pass the eye test; anyone who watched this past weekend’s Sheridan 14 Babe Ruth team’s three blowout win weekend and Championship over the weekend at Redle Field in Sheridan saw the clean pick ups, quality hitting, and hard throwers that got them there.
They’ll head to Centralia, Wash., for Regionals now. The 11-and 12-year-old Little League team was 3-0 at district in Torrington last weekend and takes to state in Laramie this weekend.
“Five years ago it was 10 or 15 that wanted to travel, and now we have 15-20 in each age bracket,” Lube said. “We have more kids playing out of town at a higher level of baseball, and we’re starting to see the fruit of that. That success breeds interest,” he said. “We have more aunts and uncles and grandparents talking about it and that brings more kids to the sport.”
Boint said she put her kids into the programs because it was simply a higher level of baseball — an opportunity that’s a norm in bigger towns with larger talent pools than Sheridan.
“Our kids put in as much work as they can all summer and they can compete with kids that do baseball year round,” she said. “Our kids jump from sport to sport. But our kids go compete and they’re keeping up.”
Little League has grown from four years ago when it started with 22 kids to now 60 players. Four volunteers managed the first league, and now that has swelled to around 32 contributors, taking various duties from coaching to umpiring, to getting the grounds ready among other administration. The leagues hold an annual fundraising campaign and a fee from each player covers the jersey and hat.
“That’s what it takes, the kids will always come play, but you if you don’t have that backbone, (administration) stuff handled, you can’t do it. It’s been impressive with the family support,” Boint said.