Youth baseball leagues draw mid-Missouri players to the field for high-caliber competition.
Baseball in the spring stirs all the senses. The warmth of sunshine. The sight of a manicured baseball diamond after a long winter’s nap. The sound of a ball pounding into a glove, the crack of the bat, the infield chatter.
The smell of freshly cut grass and hot dogs. The smell of pain-relieving creams due to the feel of sore muscles.
Well, with the players we’re dealing with in this discussion, you can strike the latter. They’re way too young to have sore muscles.
But there’s nothing quite like it: That would be the first taste of spring and baseball, not sore muscles. It’s part of our renewal after a long, cold, lonely winter, with two words that rekindle our hope: Play ball! The hibernation is over.
In central Missouri, there are plenty of good options for our youth to get involved. We’ll focus on two, the PAL Baseball League and the Mid-MO Express; the former grooms players for the Helias High School teams, the latter for the Jefferson City Jays.
More or less, that is. The more is the PAL League, which will send an estimated 80 to 85 percent of its players to Helias; the less is the Jays, who hope to get around 50 percent. But both develop skills of young players in a competitive environment so when they reach the high school level, they’re more prepared and won’t experience the shock and awe of less experienced players.
“We think this provides our kids with a lot better competition,” says J.R. Simmons, program director of the Express. “When kids are traveling and playing all over the place and seeing some of the best teams in the state, if not the Midwest or even the country, it’s only going to help.
“I think it’s given us a definite advantage over the last few years,” he continues. “I think it’s helped out a lot of programs. If a kid is good enough, no matter where he’s going [to high school], we’ll keep him.”
The Express will play under the umbrella of Jefferson City Baseball Inc., which was formed in 2001 by then Head Coach Bob Coons. The original intent for JCBI was to have players who were going to JCHS playing together competitively. “But now,” Simmons says, “we want to take the best kids from mid-Missouri, and of the 11 or 12 kids on each team, hopefully at least half of those will go to Jeff City.”
Both teams had their rosters set last year: the Express by the end of August, PAL last fall. They have different ways to categorize their teams. The Express has ages 8U (8 and under), 9U, 10U, 11U, 12U and 14U teams; PAL has teams for first- though second-graders and teams for players going into grades three through six.
“We hope to expand the leagues through the eighth grade so the kids pretty much know what to expect once they get to high school,” PAL’s Chris Wyrick says.
“If you can make this a good experience for these kids because you want to keep them together for as long as you can, that’s what we’re trying to do.
“The enthusiasm for baseball, both with parents and kids, is just really, really high right now,” he continues. “Baseball was kind of forgotten about for a while, for whatever reason, but it’s really coming back. It’s back on the map.”
Although the Express held tryouts, it was basically an evaluation for the PAL players. If you showed up, you were placed on a team.
“We had eight different stations to see where each kid was ranked,” Wyrick says. “Then we added up those totals, we ranked them and tried to place them on teams that were fair to the kids. We want each team, each game, to be as competitive as it can be. We didn’t want to have one team be the ’27 Yankees and have every other team have no chance. We wanted each team to have some of the top players.”
The Express will have one team for each age group and feature about 75 total players, and they’ll play their league games at 63 Diamonds (formerly Fields of Legends). PAL will showcase no less than 250 players, including nine teams in the youngest age group, five each for grades three though six, and will play at Babe Ruth Park and the St. Martins Field. All teams (it will be select teams for PAL) plan to play in four or five tournaments this season.
Indoor practices started in February, with games set to start in late March/early April. The seasons end between the middle of June to early July, and the teams will play around 40 to 45 games. That might sound like a lot, but other teams in the area will play 70 games or more.
“We want them to end the season wanting to play more baseball instead of saying, ‘Man, I’m so glad this is over,’” says Simmons, a 10-year assistant with the Jays and a 1993 graduate of JCHS. Wyrick, who’s been the Helias head coach for 16 years and is a 1989 graduate of the school, says: “We want these kids to have some kind of summer. We don’t want them to get burned out.”
Wyrick isn’t officially part of the program, but he’s certainly around it. “I try to help as much as I can when I have time,” he says. “In no way do I want to run the thing, but I want to be a part of it as a coach and a parent. And if they need my help in any way, I’ll always be there to help.”
That’s what these leagues are all about: helping young players learn the game and sharpen their skills. And what a great time of year to do it.