National Pastime Always in Season
Youth baseball around here is an obsession, an activity passed down from sibling to sibling and generation to generation.
Gary Lammie remembers when parents would wait overnight at the Cobb Civic Center to sign their children up for the East Marietta National Little League in the morning.
"You weren't there in line, you didn't get on the team," Lammie said one Saturday this fall after coaching the youngest of his three sons in a game at Sewell Park on Lower Roswell Road. He serves as a member of the organization's board of directors. "Yeah, it's just huge."
In East Cobb, youth baseball is an obsession, an activity passed down from sibling to sibling and, in some cases, from generation to generation.
A team representing the East Marietta league won the Little League World Series in 1983, and the area's voracious appetite for youth baseball spawned East Cobb Baseball, a Northeast Cobb-based youth academy and travel program for which professionals such as Atlanta Braves Brian McCann and Jason Heyward played as amateurs.
You don't have to travel far to find spring leagues, fall leagues, clinics, camps and indoor facilities that match players with personal instructors.
Jared Vailes, a former college and professional pitcher who founded the Out of the Park baseball training center across the street from Sewell Park, said there's no doubt about the importance of youth baseball in East Cobb. "Baseball is king here."
But Lammie and Vailes see limits on that monarchy.
"Baseball here is kind of its own monster. There's always this demand. The market is always there," Vailes said. "There's this idea that it's this year-round thing, which I'm adequately against. I love baseball more than anybody. But I think restricting a kid to one sport in the hopes that he's the next Jason Heyward is probably more counterproductive than it is productive."
It's a line that has blurred with the growing popularity of baseball organizations, including the East Side Baseball Association.
"More people are going for the one sport to try to make it professional or to college," said Sam Webber, who manages the Sports-A-Rama multisport training center on Johnson Ferry Road, a few miles east of Out of the Park. "Obviously, in East Marietta, that sport is baseball."
Vailes led a weeklong baseball camp for kids 9 and younger during Cobb County Schools' fall break.
He kept the lessons basic: fielding, base running and some hitting. The roughly 15 children, including Vailes' 9-year-old son, Gage, were there to have fun, something the former LSU pitcher strives to provide.
"You can't take a kid at 6 and say, 'Well, he's gonna practice so much and have the best instruction he can possibly have his entire life and that's gonna make him a professional baseball player,' " Vailes said.
"It may sound negative, but either a kid has the skill set to get to that level or not. My philosophy is proper instruction is important because it'll allow a kid to be more comfortable. That way, he'll enjoy the game more. And I don't mean in college or in the pros. I mean for as long as he wants to play."
Gage Vailes plays in the East Marietta National Little League and on travel teams, but only because he has the interest, his father said. Gage also plays basketball and other sports in a less formal setting.
Lammie, who owns Saporito's Pizza, approached his children with the same sort of thinking. His oldest son, for instance, skipped fall baseball this year to play football as a sixth-grader at East Cobb Middle School.
"My youngest son has made comments in the past, 'Well, I don't want to play, but I don't want to make you mad,' " Lammie said. "I'm like, 'Buddy, I'm not going to be mad if you play or not. That's fine if you want to do something else or if you don't want to do anything. It's up to you.' That's just it. This is for the kids."
In at least a small way, Vailes' business serves a clientele seeking the year-round baseball instruction of which he is wary. Vailes started Out of the Park almost 10 years ago, after three arm surgeries derailed his professional pitching career.
The indoor facility houses batting cages, pitching mounds and other equipment. Vailes is converting a playing space near the back of the building into an indoor infield so kids can take grounders and run the bases any time of year.
But Vailes' experience with the joys and pains of baseball makes him hope to steer kids away from spending too much time in the game. Enjoyment and instruction are his two goals.
At Sports-A-Rama, you almost always can find an instructor in one of the batting cages, tutoring a player.
Soon after Lammie's fall league game ended at Sewell Park on a recent Saturday, Webber sat at Sports-A-Rama's front desk and watched an employee toss pitches in a cage. Players had appointments throughout the day, Webber said.
He has worked there nine years and said sometimes the year-round nature of youth baseball in East Cobb is too much.
"From my experience, also playing many sports growing up, it's a better thing just so you don't get burned out," Webber said. "But this trend, it just sort of just grew and grew."