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Greg Winborne remembers a time when baseball was a simpler game, played by kids in sandlots who didn’t know when to quit until the sun came down.
But the 1987 Hunt High graduate and native of Rock Ridge is also a realist. First base is no longer the pole of the clothes hanger, nor is home plate a makeshift creation that, in no way, resembles an irregular pentagon 17 inches wide.
That has been replaced by the onslaught of full-time travel baseball, often a major sacrificial investment in time, money, equipment and resources. Its detractors, drawled accent or not, can give it the universal, lightning-rod name of “travel ball.”
But the 48-year-old Winborne, a high school official as well as an NCAA Division II college football official, isn’t here to be one of those people. He just wants to give more kids a chance to play the game, one he isn’t shy on placing on the same endangered species list as golf.
“Baseball is going away,” Winborne said. “It’s a dying sport, similar to golf, and I’m just trying to get it back in. If you don’t have the name or you don’t have travel ball experience, some of these coaches are thinking you’re not that good, which is not true. That’s not true at all. You can find a diamond in the rough.”
To that end, Winborne, a former adult travel softball player, has founded the Sandlot Athletic League, a project that he says has been in the works for roughly 18 months with council from recreation stakeholders in both Wilson and Nash counties. The premise boils down to removing what are cited as common barriers to entry for full-fledged travel teams — money, long trips and assured access to playing time.
With a 12U baseball tournament last Saturday at Onnie Cockrell Sports Complex on its “The Hole” diamond, the Sandlot Athletic League kicked off its first event.
The entry fee was and remains $28 per player per tournament, mostly going to pay for balls, umpires and other miscellaneous expenses. Age groups will play once a month, and only Saturday play is planned. Games and tournaments will be contested either in Wilson County, Nash County or the Rocky Mount area, with a minimum guarantee of three games.
“Not everybody wants to play on Sunday,” Winborne argued. “Saturday is good. My whole idea is to play on Saturday and be at the house so you can cook you a steak on the grill by seven o’clock. Not everybody’s got the ability to really play travel ball. So with that in mind, I came up with this sandlot league.”
Baseball divisions are planned in 8U machine pitch, 10U, 12U and 14U. April’s schedule of league events include a 14U tournament on April 14, 8U and 12U tournaments at The Hole on April 21, and a 10U tournament to be held at Gillette Athletic Complex on April 28.
While full-fledged teams are encouraged to register, individuals may also contact Winborne to be directed to a team. In the Sandlot Athletic League, there’s no such thing as a proper uniform.
“I don’t even care if you’ve got one red shoe and one blue shoe and a tank top!” Winborne said. “As long as you’re wearing a cup and you have a glove. I supply the balls, and 12U and down, you have to have a USA stamp, but 14U is regular baseball.”
Modified rules geared towards participation are in effect for all age groups. Rosters must consist of at least nine players, but all players must hit in the batting order. Defensively, any players on the bench in the first inning must play in the second inning.
Pitchers are limited to two innings in a game and six for an entire tournament. Catchers must wear proper equipment and steel cleats are not allowed except for the 14U division. A maximum of two full-time travel players per game are allowed and trophies are handed out after each tournament.
“It’s going to be fairly competitive, but it’s not going to be all that competitive,” Winborne said. “It’s just a matter of you really need to go out there and play the game and see if you’ve got a natural talent. I’m not saying you’re going to play in the major leagues, but maybe you can get into college and play a little bit and enjoy it.
Future plans for the league include offerings in softball, basketball, volleyball and flag football.
“I stay busy with sports,” Winborne said. “I want to get into this sandlot league. The reason why I call it the Sandlot Athletic League is because I wanted to get into multiple sports and have these guys playing on Saturday, just for a little while. You don’t have to play long.”
For more information, visit www.sandlotathleticleague.com.