While only a handful of batted balls make it out of the infield, spectators might argue a baseball game played between 10 and 11-year olds Monday night renders as much zeal as any of the nightly professional games played across the country.
The junior baseball league is organized by Carbondale Junior Sports, a group that promotes and sponsors a variety of sports for youth throughout the southern Illinois region. Games played at the Superblock Sports Multi-Complex provide a place for athletes, grades kindergarten through eighth, to learn to play the game, at a time when role model athletes can be hard to come by.
Carbondale Junior Sports President Mike Stevens said the opportunity for young athletes to play baseball through Carbondale Junior Sports is a healthy alternative to the game they might see on television.
“Watching athletes on TV gives kids someone to inspire them,” Stevens said. “But on the other hand, the kids see the money and greed, they see the drama. We just want to provide a great atmosphere and a place for the kids to play ball.”
Games are held three nights a week throughout the summer, and while the athletes may not hit towering home runs, each game provides a level of excitement for the players and spectators.
“We’re a non-profit organization that supplies baseball for kids,” Stevens said. “We offer something that kids don’t normally get to play. They can come out, learn the game of baseball and have fun playing it in a safe environment.”
At a crucial moment in Monday’s game, a player was thrown out at home for the third out in the bottom of the third inning. Without pause, the young kid dusted himself off and returned to the dugout, never once questioning the call or stopping to feel sorry for himself.
Gene Gulley, who has coached Carbondale Junior Sports for the past five years, said it was the exact attitude that he coaches his players to show.
“I try to give the kids a good understanding of right and wrong and fair play,” he said. “All of the kids bat, nobody sits. Everybody gets to play at least two innings and that’s designed so you don’t have kids that don’t get to play.”
Dalton Coles, a 10-year-old pitcher for the team Gulley coaches, said his coach’s direction has had a major influence on how he plays the game.
“The coaches do a good job of teaching sportsmanship,” he said. “Coach arranges it so everybody gets to play evenly. He keeps it fair.”
For the players and their families, a night at the ballpark is a common occurrence.
Kristen Gulley, Gene Gulley’s wife and the mother of second baseman Gage Gulley, said she enjoys attending games. With several of her kids involved in junior sports, she said she attends games almost every night.
“All of the brothers and sisters play together while the games are going on,” she said. “It’s a chance for the younger kids to watch and support their older brother and it’s a good time for the moms too. We get to be out here and watch our kids play together and catch up with each other.”
While victory is always a goal in competition, players and their mothers had more important reasons for participating in baseball.
“It teaches the kids sportsmanship,” said Jeanie Stevens, the mother of a player Gene Gulley coaches. “It teaches them how to work cooperatively together. They meet new friends.”