Time to play ball for Swannanoa Valley youth

Owen Babe Ruth League season gets underway

Fred McCormick

Baseball and softball season for Swannanoa Valley children got underway on April 17 when teams from the Charles D. Owen Babe Ruth League took the field.

Boys and girls from Swannanoa to Ridgecrest, ages 3-12, played the first week of the 2017 season on fields at Veterans Park in Black Mountain, Charles D. Owen Park in Swannanoa and elsewhere.

Eryn Pruett makes an athletic stop at first base during practice for one of the 8U softball teams in the Charles D. Owen Babe Ruth League.

The league merged with Owen Little League prior to last season in an effort to unify baseball and softball at the youth league level in the Swannanoa Valley, according to Gary Aiken, who handles media relations for Owen Babe Ruth.

"Now we have all of the kids in the Swannanoa Valley playing for us," he said. "The youth in the Valley go to separate schools until middle school, so athletics in the area brings kids together from all of the communities into one. It really helps them develop that pride for playing together as one a little earlier."

Emerson Autrey makes solid contact with a ball in an April 15 practice, one of the last before his team took the field to open the season.

Players ages 3-5 play in the league's "Biddy Ball" division, where boys and girls play on the same teams.

"That level is really basic instruction, how to catch the ball, how to run the bases, how to hit off of a tee," Aiken said. "We want them to get comfortable with the game and all of the emphasis is on having fun."

As the players age out of that division they move together into Cal Ripken T-ball.

"That level is tee ball, and the coach will throw to the batter if they're capable of hitting it that way," Aiken said. "If not we have them hit it off the tee and eventually work up to the point where the coach soft tosses to them. And in that division the focus is still squarely on the fundamentals."

Baseball and softball become separate sports when girls begin playing 8U, which includes ages 7 and 8. The boys move into the Cal Ripken Rookie division.

"We have some girls that will want to continue playing baseball," Aiken said. "Most of the time they move to softball."

Home games for the 20-plus teams in the Owen league are played on the fields at Black Mountain's Veterans Park and Swannanoa's Charles D. Owen Park. Away games are scheduled throughout Western North Carolina.

Hannah Hutchins throws to first base after fielding a ball from the pitcher's position during 8U softball practice at Veterans Park.

Hitting is a little different as the kids move into 8U and rookie baseball, where pitches are delivered by machines.

"That really gets them used to that next step of a player throwing to them," Aiken said. "We really try to work on their confidence at that level, all while helping make sure they enjoy the game."

Teams in the league begin developing pitching at the age of nine, as baseball and softball players move into the Cal Ripken Minor and 10U divisions.

"That's the age when the girls start to learn the fundamentals of pitching in fast-pitch softball," Aiken said. "And for the boys it's the same thing, but in baseball. That's an adjustment for the players."

Currently the oldest players in action at Owen Babe Ruth are 12, comprising the 12U softball team and Cal Ripken Major/60 division. The baseball players pitch 46 feet away from the batters and base paths are 60 feet apart. At the conclusion of middle school and high school baseball and softball seasons, the Owen Babe Ruth expands to accommodate those older, more experienced players.

"Winning becomes a little more important as the kids get older," Aiken said. "Pitching gets more and more critical too."

The league encourages the public to come out watch games and support local youth sports.

"The games are free, with the exception of our elite tournaments on Saturdays," Aiken said. "People who watch baseball probably don't realize exactly the level of play that these kids are playing at."