Last weekend Steve Cunningham watched his son Colton play for Peoples Academy in the state playoffs.
It was like watching the final scenes of a movie the two had been making for more than a decade.
Colton, 18 and a son of Stowe, learned to hit and pitch under the tutelage of his old man and other Stowe Youth Baseball coaches.
But Colton became a player just as baseball was fading in Stowe. Ten years ago, Stowe’s youth baseball organization was dwindling fast. When Colton signed up to play, with Steve as coach, the youth league had just two teams.
“That next year, we were struggling to field one team,” Steve Cunningham said. Baseball’s future in Stowe looked dim, even more so when Stowe High folded its varsity team after the 2011 season.
But time changes everything.
This spring, more than 100 kids turned out to play youth baseball in Stowe. The organization fielded six teams — two tee-ball squads for kids age 4-6 and on up to the majors Little League team for ages 11-12.
What changed? People got involved. Parents and residents didn’t want baseball to die. They volunteered to coach, raise money, and handle the administrative work needed to allow kids to be part of America’s pastime.
“It’s supposed to be fun,” said Ian Lanpher, one of those parents. He began volunteering with Stowe Youth Baseball in 2011; he has since coached at every level and became president of the organization.
Why? “We wanted to get kids excited about being out there,” Lanpher said.
This year, “we have over 18 volunteer coaches,” said league president Damon Brink, and they’re given the training they need to succeed.
Some parents coach, some drive kids to the games, and some help with clerical work and fundraising.
“Everyone found a role,” Lanpher said. “It’s become a nice baseball family here. It’s been fun to watch and be a part of.”
Stowe also has a great place for youth baseball — Memorial Park, adjacent to Stowe Elementary School. (Full disclosure: A dugout at the field is named for Pete Hartt, the late editor of the Stowe Reporter.)
“We’re always getting compliments about our park,” Cunningham said, but the nicest field in the world isn’t much good unless kids are playing on it.
So, the youth baseball organization has worked continuously for the past decade to get kids excited about playing ball.
Fun and participation
“A lot of it is visibility, making it exciting for kids,” Cunningham said. One route to visibility was an annual tournament, now in its eighth year. The tournament has grown to two levels, with four teams at the minor level and four in the majors Little League age group.
Players younger than that also help out, and scrimmage on Memorial Park’s third field while the tournament’s conducted on the other two.
That emphasis on fun and participation is critical, Cunningham thinks — “for kids to say, ‘Hey, this is fun, why don’t we play baseball? It’s a community event.”
The tournament was played last Saturday, June 2, with its new name — the Steve Cunningham Invitational Tournament.
The youth baseball organization wanted to honor Cunningham’s efforts to revive baseball in Stowe.
“He kept the pulse going, kept baseball going,” Lanpher said.
Cunningham balked at having the tournament named for him, but the other volunteers wore him down.
“Eventually, Ian told me, ‘Steve, you’ve got to suck it up,’” Cunningham laughed.
A summer camp keeps kids playing, and offers an opportunity to hone their skills. There’s an elaborate dance in turning a double play at second base, a count-the-steps routine for the pitcher covering first base on a grounder to the first baseman, and a special sense of awareness about stealing a base. Young players can work on those skills at camp.
The league also forms all-star squads at multiple levels that can play in regional tournaments after the regular season ends.
And, the organization holds summer clinics and play days for kids who aren’t yet all-stars.
After Little League
But Stowe Youth Baseball runs only through Little League, which ends at age 12. What happens after that?
The Stowe volunteers have built a good working relationship with the Peoples Academy baseball program and coach Keith Woodland, and Stowe High athletes — including Colton Cunningham — now play on the Peoples varsity under a cooperative agreement.
Stowe Youth Baseball also helped spearhead the drive to found a club middle school team for athletes from Peoples Academy and Stowe middle schools three years ago.
“The middle school team, it helps bridge the gap between that last year of Little League and playing varsity at Peoples,” Cunningham said. Plenty of kids are taking advantage of that opportunity, too; this year, 19 seventh- and eighth-graders, half from Morrisville and half from Stowe, played for Lanpher on the middle school team.
Brink wants to recruit even more players, is planning even more outreach and is considering expanding the Steve Cunningham Invitational, too.
But for a sport that seemed down to its final out, baseball in Stowe looks pretty healthy again. Cunningham agrees. Three Stowe athletes played Peoples baseball this spring, and soon he thinks Stowe kids could account for half of the team roster.
“We’ve been fortunate,” Lanpher said. “It took a little bit of luck and a lot of heart to bring it back.” But it’s back, and he thinks it’s here to stay.