Baseball a tough sell in the valley | AspenTimes.com

Baseball a tough sell in the valley

Jon Maletz

The Continental Baseball Association learned its lesson, and local baseball coaches have experienced similar frustration when trying to field teams for summer league contests. Simply, baseball in the valley during the summer months is a tough sell.

On at least one occasion Basalt coach Rick Ryan picked up his ninth player on the way to a game. Aspen coach Matt Lilleberg said Tuesday that his game-day routine habitually centered around calling players to tally who was in and who was out. Both have come face to face with a sobering reality: Baseball struggles to compete with jobs and family vacations.

“From the way things started, it was absolutely frustrating,” Lilleberg said. “It’s so hard in this area to get enough guys together for games. I’m disappointed the kids didn’t have more of an opportunity to play.”

The 16-18 regional summer league “barely crawled to the finish line,” Ryan told The Aspen Times recently. Neither Aspen nor Basalt played more than a third of the games on their original schedules. Basalt had to cancel both of its games against its upvalley rival because many players were out of town for the July 4 holiday.

Aspen’s baseball team suffered in June because it had to compete with soccer as well as high school football camp. Work schedules and the occasional camping trip only added to the team’s struggles.

Lilleberg said he remembered playing more than two dozen games each summer growing up in Minnesota. He looked forward to games, which gave him the opportunity to skirt his work on the family farm for a few hours each day. Baseball was priority No. 1.

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“Here [in Aspen], there are just so many distractions,” Lilleberg said.

Other issues affected the team. Aspen got little or no support from the city, Lilleberg said. The team could use the field only when it was convenient, and had to forfeit three contests.

“We were their last priority,” Lilleberg said.

Another issue was travel. While Lilleberg counted 10 teams within 45 minutes of one another during his playing days, travel to and from Aspen is far more daunting. A trip to Olathe takes nearly three hours ” one way. Such trips affect play and are hardly something to look forward to, Lilleberg said.

Lilleberg said he’d like to see baseball become the top priority for his players during the summer, when preparation for the season begins.

“Yeah, I’d like [more commitment]. Definitely,” he sad. “It’s the only way we’re going to have a championship team. The reason schools like Olathe and Paonia are so good is because they are always around baseball.”

While this isn’t exactly the case, perennial Western Slope power Olathe has developed a proven formula, head coach Joe Archuleta said Tuesday.

There’s one major thing that Archuleta said separates Olathe from others: tradition. Because of this, the program is highly visible, respected and draws immense support from the community.

Of the 27 games Archuleta scheduled for the summer months, his team played 24.

“We usually have 11-13 kids show up for every game,” said Archuleta, who is entering his 16th season as Olathe’s head coach. “They do a good job of making a commitment to it.”

Coaches in the town also work together to make sure they don’t overstep their bounds and force their student-athletes to have to choose one activity over another, Archuleta said. Schedules accommodate more than one sport: Baseball games take place on Tuesdays and Saturdays; football weightlifting, training and open gym are Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Because of the high level of interest, Archuleta has the luxury of playing all underclassmen during the summer; no graduating seniors are on the roster. This gives him the opportunity to maximize playing time and groom younger athletes to play key roles next spring.

In addition, Archuleta scheduled games with teams in close proximity. The team played 4A schools Montrose and Delta four times each, as well as Eagle Valley, Alamosa, Silver Creek and Berthoud. Archuleta said he scheduled such high-quality opponents with an eye toward making his team better come February.

It’s tough to argue with the results: Olathe has qualified for 15 of the past 21 postseasons. While Basalt and Aspen are progressing, Olathe once again ran away with the league title in 2006.

Playing double, even triple the number of games of other teams during the summer ” and weather enabling practice outside earlier in spring ” Olathe maintains a real advantage. That doesn’t necessarily mean the team will dominate the Slope, Archuleta said.

“Based on the size of our schools, we’re using the same athletes,” he said. “Schools like Roaring Fork are real strong in basketball and football, and they all have great athletes. The difference is coming out and taking that to the baseball field.”

Lilleberg admitted that it’s tough to compare Aspen to Olathe. Despite the disadvantages and a short summer, he said he’s far from discouraged. He had the chance to give some junior-varsity pitchers some valuable innings on the mound. And interest from players increased as the season wore on. There were even times when players called their coach to ask about upcoming games.

Baseball will continue to struggle in an activity-rich community like Aspen, Lilleberg said. But that hardly dampers the coach’s enthusiasm.

“What’s disappointing to me is these kids haven’t even gotten a chance to be in a [full-fledged] summer league,” Lilleberg said. “Some of these guys got to taste it this year, but most don’t know what they’re missing.”

Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is jmaletz@aspentimes.com