It’s a special time in the baseball — and softball — communities around Puyallup. After years of work, the community has grown through these two sports.
I have to admit that I’m a little bias when it comes to baseball, as it’s been a love and passion of mine since I was 3 years old. By the time I was playing in the Babe Ruth League, that love was at an all-time high.
And nothing stoked those flames like Ken Griffey Jr.
I never idolized athletes growing up, nor did I look to them as my role models. I had better ones for that. But Junior was different, and the Seattle Mariners’ weekend-long Hall of Fame celebration at Safeco Field — highlighted by Griffey’s iconic No. 24 being retired by the M’s — was a sight to see.
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Junior made everyone who watched him fall in love with the game. Children couldn’t wait to grow up to be just like him, and adults just wished they could be kids again, knowing how special a player he was roaming center field.
“Griffey didn’t get to where he is without working his tail off, and you have to have a love for the game. That’s what we’re trying to do here, bringing that love for the kids with baseball,” Emerald Ridge High coach Larry Marshall said. “When you do what you’re supposed to do, people will want to be a part of it. When you do it the right way, when you coach and train how you’re supposed to, parents will feel confident in leaving their kids in your care.”
So many kids like myself a little under two decades ago, they wanted to be like the baseball stars they watched inside huge stadiums. It was stars like Griffey that stood out more to kids — a grown man dubbed “The Kid,” who played with a perpetual smile and joy for the game.
Seeing that made many of us kids like myself think that was the perfect life, so we sought out to achieve a piece of that life.
Only there weren’t a lot of options for many families.
Club and travel ball were just starting to pick up in the area, and the cost alone both often scared away many parents from allowing their kids to join these programs. But the financial strain these programs put on families wasn’t the main issue back then.
“I remember there wasn’t a lot of guys who would reach out to the younger kids. Sure, if you had talent, they might pay more attention, but there wasn’t enough people out there who wanted to teach the game to help us grow,” coach Justin O’Keefe said. “Unless you knew someone on the high school team, you really didn’t interact with the high school players until you joined the team.”
Little League was fun, but far too often the results were what mattered to many of the coaches.
It was a new idea if a coach focused on the fun and enjoyment of the game instead of how many times a player struck out, or the amount of wins and losses a team compiled. But that idea is no longer strange.
It’s a common desire shared throughout all the high school coaches — Marshall (Emerald Ridge), Marc Wiese (Puyallup), Matt Whitehead (Rogers), Casey Adcox (Sumner), Mike Olson (Bonney Lake) and Jon Fox (Cascade Christian) — that has seeped into the mindset of many of the youth leagues today.
“It’s largely because of the parents,” said Jamie Burnett, an assistant coach for the 12U Cal Ripken Jr. Baseball team. “When a kid hears the same thing at home, they come to us ready to learn. They are more attentive to what we’re trying to teach them, and they understand we’re here (as coaches) to help them grow.”
With both the 12U Cal Ripken Jr. Baseball team and the Puyallup Ladyhawks Softball team both winning state titles this year, it shows that this area, this city, has really grown.
The talent has always been there. It’s that now there are so many more people who are willing to pass on their knowledge and help the next generations of ballplayers reach their own potential.
“Baseball in Puyallup is only going to get better,” Marshall said. “There is some pretty good talent in the area, and some good coaches as well who are dedicated to teaching the game.”