Bursting at the seams
Bursting at the seams
LINCOLN - Everyone wants to play for the Blackstone Valley Spinners.
Maybe that's why the Lincoln-based AAU baseball club program has grown to become the largest in New England. This season, the Spinners will be fielding 21 teams for players between the ages of 9 and 14, its highest total ever.
"We've got kids from all over the Blackstone Valley, North Providence, Seekonk, Norton, Mass., Warwick, Cumberland, Pawtucket, Douglas, Smithfield and of course from Lincoln," said Spinners president Frank Kelly. "The Spinners have a good reputation and everyone wants to come play here."
The program was initiated eight years ago when John Bacon started it with a couple of teams. His goal was to provide more highly-competitive baseball for Lincoln youngsters than Little League does.
But he did not work against Little League, and instead worked with local officials, developing a different AAU theory that both were important.
Kelly and his board have maintained that integrity.
"First of all, no one in our organization gets paid, including instructors and coaches, so while the are some programs out there who are charging kids $3,000 or more, we keep the costs minimal," said Kelly. "And every team can conduct fund-raisers, like the comedy nights and Foxwoods trips that we have sponsored. That helps reduce the costs to the players and their families."
Instructionally, Kelly and board member Chris Kailher said that the Spinners have been able to recruit some of the best area mentors, mainly because they are the fathers of sons who want to play in the program.
Kailher, an East Providence resident, hooked up with the Spinners four seasons ago because his son wanted to play for the organization and he's been there since.
Initial tournaments are scheduled to take place this weekend for some age groups. The younger teams will begin later. Throughout the AAU season, which begins shortly before Little League and ends just around all-star time, teams travel throughout New England and beyond to participate in the New England AAU program and in tournaments.
"AAU has programs that extend through the summer and even into fall, but we always take part in the spring program and generally give the kids the time off to play in their respective Little League or other tournaments," said Kelly. "We're also Little League friendly because most of the Spinners games are on Sundays, and the coaches communicate to make sure that pitchers aren't being overworked."
Kailher said the Spinners offers the same high quality level of play and coaching as other AAU organizations, but the costs are really low.
"Each manager sets his own budget and can fund-raise," said Kailher. "My team is 13 and 14 years-old and we'll be playing more than 50 games this season."
While their league play and tournaments begin this weekend, the Spinners have grown into a year-round development program.
During winter months, each team receives a 90-minute time slot for batting practice at All About Sports in North Smithfield.
"I bring in professional coaches and instructors for my team and we also have physical training for the kids to keep them healthy," said Kailher. "Basically, it's like running an all-star program all year long."
Kelly said the program conducts tryouts and has made cuts in previous years.
But generally, if there are a lot of high-level players wanting to get on a team, the Spinners will add squads when possible rather than make cuts.
The Spinners also has established its own Hall of Fame for players who have distinguished themselves while traveling through the program, and has an awards night banquet.
"One of the reasons for the growth has been the strength of our coaches, who are generally the best in their towns and join us," said Kailher. "They have a following in their own communities because they have been successful, and the kids follow them here to the Spinners."
AAU baseball also differs from Little League in that the field dimensions are larger and full rules are employed. In Little League, the pitcher's mound is 45-feet from home plate and bases are 60-feet apart. For the 11 and 12-year-old AAU program, the pitcher's mound is 50 feet, and bases are 70-feet apart, but leading, stealing, and all other rules are the same as high school baseball.
"Once the kids get into the 13- and 14-year-old program, they play on a full-sized diamond," said Kelly.
Because of the unusual dimensions, frequently softball fields are used for AAU games and coaches must get to the field two hours before games to set up the portable pitching mounds, lay down bases and line the field.
"It takes a lot of time and dedication from the coaches, but we have an excellent group," said Kelly. "Maybe that's why everyone wants to play for this organization."