TOWNSEND — When the ever-popular Stacy Bradley Memorial Summer Baseball Tournament in Lunenburg ended last season, Townsend Ashby Youth Baseball-Softball vice president Gary Donia wanted to give young kids from the surrounding towns a crack at playing summer baseball.
The 8U summer sandlot league consists of four teams from Tyngsboro, Townsend-Ashby, Pepperell and nearby Hollis-Brookline, N.H. Each team pays $75 to cover trophies at the end — TAYBS did not use the tournament as a fundraiser, it wanted to keep the cost low for the players and local leagues. The majority of the leagues charged each player $50 to cover uniforms, baseballs and umpire fees.
For some of the players involved with the summer sandlot league, it is their first experience playing with stealing and kid-thrown pitches.
For Donia, summer baseball makes sense with the whacky tendencies of Mother Nature in the early weeks of spring.
Craven Field in Townsend is the host field for the tournament. Craven Field is usually moist from snow melt and therefore unplayable at the start of the season, Donia said.
“It just makes sense for kids to play baseball in the summer,” Donia said. “Baseball season in the spring is just not long enough. We had six teams at one point and a couple of the towns could not get enough kids together. We really just wanted to keep the kids playing in the summertime.”
The Stacey Bradley Tournament was dubbed an all-star tournament — a title that Donia feels steered some children away from playing.
“Our goal was to make the tournament fun and get away from that all-star label,” he said. “We felt that more kids would be more open to joining. We wanted to make it a more relaxed environment for the seven- and-eight-year-old kids who are just making that jump up from coach-pitch.”
Teams like Hollis-Brookline, which, according to Donia, is made up of younger kids seeing their first live pitch this summer, started the season getting blown out in nearly every game. But by the season’s conclusion, the youngsters from over the border started to give the top teams a run for their money.
“The team from Hollis-Brookline was the youngest of all four of the teams,” Donia said. “All the teams made huge gains in terms of experience, in terms of catching the fly-balls and making plays in the field. It looks easy to do, but until you try and do it when you’re seven- or eight-years-old, it is much harder to do it.”
Due to the pace of baseball, coaches are finding it much harder to keep kids who live in a fast-paced technologically based world. It is Donia’s hope that the kids had a positive experience playing summer baseball, so they will be more apt to continue playing.
“We didn’t want people to be intimidated by the tournament label because baseball is competing with other sports such as soccer and lacrosse,” he said. “We want kids to play and love the sport the way we coaches do. We have a lot of kids who played coach-pitch and they’re moving up to minors next spring.
“This is geared to give them an introduction to work on the fundamentals. Some of the kids are more experienced than others with regular baseball. But the goal is to make them more comfortable playing rookie ball, which all of them will be doing next season.”
Before the Sandlot Summer Baseball League, the Stacey Bradley Tournament allowed kids as young as six to play.
Donia’s son was one of those players. Donia said that it took his son some time getting used to playing with the older kids, but in the long run, it proved to be very beneficial.
“I find that summer baseball is where the kids make the most improvement,” he said. “The spring season is so short with the weather and the daylight. You have to get everything in before school ends, otherwise, you lose half the kids. Summer ball is for the kids who really love to play and are around. Our team practiced a bunch, which is great.”
Championship Saturday was held last weekend at Craven Field and each team player, first- through fourth-place, received a trophy.
But the squad from Tyngsboro took home the big prize with a 9-8 walk-off victory over Pepperell.
The summer league’s benefit was not limited to the players. The front office personnel were winners, too.
“We got to meet people from other towns that we don’t normally play, and we got to learn how they run their programs,” Donia said.
“(We) people who are involved with baseball need to stick together and figure out how we can grow the sport again, because it has really taken a hit.”