League a hit in rookie year

Growth: Born in September, the Mid-Maryland Travel Association soon will be made up of about 90 teams and 1,200 players ages 8 through 17.

Howard At Play

April 28, 2002|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

This is a story touching on three kinds of youth baseball leagues. Mainly, though, it's about one born on a Starbucks napkin last Sept. 17 and, right now, has turned into startling reality.

It's about an idea that had been gnawing at Columbian Dan Scafone, a travel baseball coach for 14 years. By June, when high school players shift into club ball, the idea will involve about 90 teams and 1,200 players ages 8 through 17. Which means Scafone's idea turned overnight, really, into the largest such league in Maryland.

The name is the Mid-Maryland Travel Association.

The younger age groups already are four or five games into a 28- to 30-game season. The league (an amalgam of age-group divisions) includes teams from all other Howard groups. Others come from Frederick, Towson, Manchester, and pick your place in Montgomery County. There's even one from Littlestown, Pa.

Older players, Scafone said, will love Montgomery County's quality, 90-foot diamonds, something lacking in Howard County.

While seeing one's dream become reality is rewarding fun, it's also a whole lot more work than Scafone anticipated.

He got home from work one day after things started rolling and found 74 league-related e-mails waiting. A few, he said, he answered at 3 a.m., which wasn't fun. But he answered.

"It's exploded in a way I never dreamed," said Scafone, who also coaches and is a stockbroker by day. "We've just killed ourselves since last September."

"We" includes age-group commissioners with travel baseball experience, and not all are from Howard County. "You cannot do this alone," he said.

Scafone, say those who know him, kept talking about wanting players who were serious about the game he loves. But he didn't want to play or practice virtually every night deep into summer, the habit in the also-huge, 25-year-old Baltimore Metro League. Too limiting, especially for younger players. Too much intensity. And too much chance for burnout among players and coaches.

But taking a team of all-stars who competed on different teams in rec-level ball within the Columbia Youth Baseball Association one or two nights a week to play full-time travel teams was unsatisfactory, too. Uneven competition. Ragged team chemistry. Not enough intensity.

Why not a league of full-time travel players who would compete once in midweek and twice on weekends with a season ending in mid-June? Sounded just right. Except Scafone couldn't find one.

Yes, one other 30-team travel league with origins in Howard County existed last year, and in fact, played last fall. But that, as things turned out, was its final season, because Columbian Steve Ruben, its president and now an MMTA age-group commissioner, acknowledged he was exhausted and because Scafone's idea was better.

"This is definitely a middle ground in terms of competition for everyone," said Ruben, who still coaches and likes seeing written league rules agreed to from the outset. "He took a lot of what we had been doing and expanded it. But it's a better concept ... and the competition seems to be good."

Scafone, who also is vice president of the Columbia Youth Baseball Association, got encouragement to stop talking and start doing during a meeting at Starbucks with CYBA President Mike Swartz, also vice president of Scafone's league.

Notes scribbled on that napkin evolved into 35 pages of rules, sort of a league charter, Scafone said. He posted them on the Internet for six weeks and sent 348 notices to people and teams he knew about, seeking feedback and expressions of interest in forming a league.

Feedback, he got. Expecting maybe 50 people for a meeting in a small Ellicott City restaurant, he got 98. Most who liked the rules; others offered modifications, many of which, Scafone said, are in the final book - something most leagues lack.

MMTA, for example, allows each age group to pick a national baseball affiliation, which determines which world series or postseason tournament is a target. Teams play three games weekly, one in midweek with doubleheaders on Sundays. Substitution rules vary by age, with the intent of keeping younger players involved throughout every game. And - a safety measure used in Ruben's Maryland Travel Baseball League, as well as others - teams must adhere to strict limits on how many pitches a child can throw and how many rest days are required.

Leaders must agree up front not to raid players from others during the season, which Scafone calls "one of the worst things about youth sports." His reasoning: "You've got to teach kids loyalty, and that's one way of doing it."

He rejected some applying teams because of what he considered reputations for poor sportsmanship and not always acting in the best interests of children. He has imposed a forfeit on one team whose manager circumvented the pitching restrictions.

"We want to surround ourselves with coaches who really care about the kids," Scafone said. "We are not playing with coaches or parents who can't behave right in front of the kids."

Said Al Bidwick, manager of a team of 9-year-olds from Olney who especially likes the free-substitution rule: "It's much more relaxed in terms of benefitting kids and easier for coaches. When you're talking about kids that young, they deserve to play. It's not a win-at-all-costs atmosphere."

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