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Will 'the boys of summer baseball' keep playing in the years to come?

High school teams coming to crossroads

Aug. 4, 2014

When the final Homestead batter grounded out to third base and Brookfield Central started its WIAA state championship celebration July 25 at Kapco Park, another summer baseball season came to a close.

Summer baseball has been going on since 1965 and has created many lasting memories, especially for the 26 NOW Newspapers area teams that have claimed state crowns.

As the bats and gloves are put away for another year, however, a lingering question remains: for how many more seasons will the summer game as we now know it continue to exist?

After starting out in 1965 with 42 teams, the participation number steadily increased over the next 35 years, reaching its high point in 1999 with 110 teams.

From there, though, it has dropped as more and more outstate conferences have gone to spring ball for a number of reasons.

The first is that some coaches prefer to have contact with their players in school each day, while another is that communities want the players to be available for American Legion ball in the summer.

For whatever reason, the outstate teams have left the summer programs at a consistent rate, dropping participation from 90 teams to 60 teams to 55 this past season.

Kapco Park to the rescue

Three years ago, the floundering sport was thrown a life preserver by Kapco Park.

The Stevens Point site, which had been used since 1989, was no longer viable. The fact that most of the teams came from the metro Milwaukee area, coupled with consistent weather problems, led to dwindling crowds.

Into the breach stepped Kapco Park, the beautiful facility located just off Lake Michigan on the Concordia University of Wisconsin campus.

The tournament moved there in 2012 and has sold out in all three seasons, making it one of the few WIAA state events to make money. The tournament made an estimated $14,000 in 2013.

"I think the move to bring the state semifinals and championship closer to Milwaukee saved summer baseball," said Wauwatosa East head coach Brian Karas. "For years, we were losing money annually, but now we're turning a profit from the great crowds in Mequon. Everybody wins."

Homestead head coach Ernie Millard, whose team finished second this season, added, "Kapco is perfect, and it didn't hurt that we were in the title game. People having to drive as little as 10 minutes (from Mequon) really helped, and then having teams with big, loyal baseball followings like Brookfield Central and Oak Creek also helped."

The WIAA signed for two more seasons at Kapco Park, with the option for a third, so summer baseball will continue in the near future.

Prognosis uncertain

What about beyond that time, though?

The answer is, no one really knows for sure.

"Every year, it takes a turn," said Muskego head coach Jacob Paige. "I thought summer baseball was here to stay, but then the last couple of years, the teams have dwindled. We are just taking it year by year, and I can't even make a guess as to what will happen."

At this point, there appear to be three options: keeping the current spring and summer seasons; switching every team over to spring; or creating a combination season for everyone which could run from early May to early July.

Area summer coaches surveyed would not mind maintaining the status quo, and they would be willing to try the combination season, but they want no part of the current spring season, which runs from late April through June.

"I am in favor of summer baseball," Paige said, "and I think that's the thought around here. I wouldn't mind the hybrid season either. That makes the most sense."

What doesn't make sense for area coaches is playing in the spring, and they have plenty of reasons to back up their viewpoint.

The first is clearly weather. The game is just not conducive to the type of early springs this state has seen in recent years, with snowstorms, frosty temperatures and bitter winds.

Some northern teams annually play only about 10 to 15 games, as their fields are often not completely thawed out until May.

The boys of spring?

"You just can't play in April in Wisconsin; it's not baseball weather," said veteran Franklin head coach Jim Hughes.

Greendale head coach Brian Johnsen used a line from Hughes to make his point.

"Baseball is meant to be played in the summer," Johnsen said. "It's like Jim Hughes once said, 'It's not the boys of spring; it's the boys of summer.'"

West Allis Central's Dean Mlachnik was more blunt, saying, "I played in the spring (at Catholic Memorial), and I hated it."

Tosa East's Karas feels the same way.

"Baseball in March, April and early May in Wisconsin just doesn't make sense," Karas said. "Why play in 40 degree weather with rain, sleet and snow when you can play in 70 to 90-degree weather with sunshine and some rain?

"My assistant Pete Schwichtenberg played spring high school baseball at Wisconsin Lutheran and couldn't recall a tryout or first week of practice where they were outdoors."

Franklin's Hughes also does not like the idea of holding early practices exclusively indoors.

"One thing I fear is that we would have to cut kids (from the roster) before they are even out on the diamond," he said. "How much can you tell from playing on a gym floor?"

The second factor weighing against a spring season is a possible shortage of umpires.

The baseball umpires work high school softball games as well in the spring, and coaches fear they will be spread too thinly.

"In scheduling the (Greater Metro Conference) for 2015, we essentially had to block off an entire week of our season due to spring baseball and softball tournaments," Karas said. "We've had games during that week in years past and have had to move them out of that week or cancel them because schools can't find umpires.

"There just aren't enough umpires to go around, and they'd be the first to tell you that, with all of baseball plus softball. Some even ump collegiate baseball (in spring)."

Field shortage

The possible lack of umpires goes hand in hand with another potential spring problem: a shortage of fields.

"You're going to need two diamonds (with junior varsity and freshman teams), and there are schools that don't have that option," said Menomonee Falls head coach Pat Hansen.

In fact, some coaches have raised the specter of having to drop their freshman programs if the switch to spring is indeed made.

"If it is all one spring season, we might have to cancel our freshman levels," Mlachnik said. "I would not want to lose those 20 freshmen from the program."

Karas added, "If we are forced into spring, we would most likely lose a freshman team. If we did not lose that team, another sport's lower-level team would most likely dissolve."

One more factor in this complex situation is the presence of select traveling teams. Some top players believe the elite squads will give them a better chance of being noticed by colleges.

Oak Creek head coach Scott Holler would question that.

"I'm a big believer that you can (get exposure) with high school ball," said Holler, who saw Tony Butler pitch for the Knights and earn a pro contract in his senior year. "You only get one chance to play for a high school team, and I know guys who have done the select thing (and skipped the high school team) and have regretted it because we have kids who love putting on a jersey and love being part of a high school team."

Homestead's Millard said, "We've lost some kids to select and that's OK, but I tell my kids if your sole reason to play baseball is to get into college, maybe you shouldn't be playing high school baseball.

"The kids who want to play, want to hang out with their friends, represent their school and have fun."

Need north to return

Summer baseball is definitely at a crossroads, and the question is what can be done to ensure it will continue beyond the immediate future?

"What I think we really need is one good-sized northern conference that is tired of just playing a 14-game schedule," Holler said.

Greendale's Johnsen echoed those thoughts, saying, "I hope we can use the next two years to recruit more conferences to join us in summer or the combined season."

Greenfield head coach Lee Kleszczynski added, "We just need to get all the teams on the same page."

If not, the boys of summer may eventually become the boys of spring.

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