Tough times for smaller Cal Ripken league
June 27, 2014
About 15 years ago, Fallon Youth Baseball was at a crossroad.
After spending several decades in the popular Little League organization, Fallon opted for Cal Ripken, the little brother of Babe Ruth introduced by Ray Hagerty in Spanish Springs many years ago. Instead of competing for district and state all-star tournaments, teams in Nevada's Cal Ripken division would play one state tournament with the winner advancing to the regional tournament. After that, it was the World Series.
Spanish Springs, Sun Valley, Silver State and Silver Stage (Silver Springs/Stagecoach) came together to build a small but competitive Cal Ripken division in the Silver State. Up until seven years ago, Fallon was the king of the baseball diamond.
Everyone expected Fallon to come on top in all of the age groups, but then the numbers started to increase in Spanish Springs, allowing this northern Sparks community to nearly double Fallon's participation. Slowly, the championships started changing hands as Spanish Springs was becoming the best Cal Ripken team in the state.
The feud between Fallon and Spanish Springs created good, competitive rivalries every all-star season. But for the last four years, the all-star state tournament has appeared to lose some of its luster.
Most of Spanish Springs' players competed on travel ball teams during the summer, making it extremely difficult to not only defeat this program but to compete with them for the state crown. Talent wasn't the question; Fallon has plenty of talent as evident with the Babe Ruth and high school baseball teams. The problem was, again, numbers and depth.
Spanish Springs, in most age groups, could field a strong lineup. The errors were minimal and the pitching was accurate. This is how Fallon steamrolled the competition last decade before the numbers started to dwindle for various reasons, including money and other sports such as soccer and football.
This year's all-star season, however, will give you a glimpse of the reality everyone's trying hard not to acknowledge. Cal Ripken baseball is starting to take a backseat to the alternatives.
In the five age groups for this weekend's state tournament in north Reno, three (under-8, under-10 and under-12) will showcase three teams while the under-11 will have just two. The under-9 has only one team. While Fallon was able to field teams in all but one division, Spanish Springs elected to bring only two to the tournament because most play on Velocity, a competitive travel ball program that plays heavy in the summer with a few tournaments in the spring and fall.
It's hard to accept the big dog of Cal Ripken will not have a great presence this all-star season. It can be perceived, however, as both good and bad.
The good: it allows programs that don't win much an opportunity to compete for a championship, even if there are only two other teams in the age group. It helps instill confidence into these youngsters that once they taste the winning spirit, they will want more. Winning is contagious and by experiencing that feeling early, it can create a bigger thirst.
The bad: you're not playing the best to become the best. Not having Spanish Springs at full strength hurts Cal Ripken baseball because this program makes the opposition step up its game so it can compete and win. After Silver Stage left Cal Ripken a couple years ago because it couldn't field a team, it left only four in the state and what happens next if Silver State or Fallon, for example, has most of their players following suit and competing on travel ball clubs? Some of Fallon already does but if kids want a college future in baseball, travel ball is proving that it will help you more than recreational ball.
Cal Ripken is not at the same status as Little League in Nevada. While it's more popular on the East Coast, the Little League alternative has kept its status quo of four teams with Silver State, Sun Valley, Spanish Springs and Fallon. Hagerty and former commissioner Tim Riley tried to bring in more programs but it ultimately failed because of the need for more fields was one of the major obstacles. Before Hagerty's death, he was able to bring in a Las Vegas program to compete for the state all-star tournament but those youngsters didn't return. Cal Ripken continues to offer the opportunity to play baseball through its numerous programs in Northern Nevada. With expansion becoming increasingly difficult, combined with families and financial priorities and the alternative of playing on a travel team, we're seeing first-hand with Spanish Springs not bringing all-star teams for each age group this weekend.
All-stars season, though, still provides the excitement it did when Fallon starting winning championship after championship. For those first-timers, it's important to enjoy and savor the moment of this summer baseball adventure because it's definitely a unique and fun experience.
Thomas Ranson can be contacted at email@example.com.