A tough pitch

An American pastime falls by the wayside in a place named Ski Town USA

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— Gary Engle is from Phoenix. There, boys learn to walk, talk and play baseball.

When Engle moved to Steamboat Springs in 1996, he suffered culture shock but not from the change in climate and topography. His heart skipped a beat because there was no organized baseball program past Little League.

"Baseball is played everywhere," Engle said. "I mean it's America."

But Steamboat is unlike many American towns. For one, it snows for nearly an entire school year, meaning the baseball diamonds are covered in snow or mud until mid- to late-April. By the time the field has dried the high school's regular season has ended.

"In Phoenix, if you wanted to play baseball if was offered year around," Engle said. "Here you are lucky if you can get on a field in May. There is no way to compete if you are not on a field."

That lack of competitiveness shows at the high school level. The Sailors have yet to taste baseball success and entered Saturday's game against Rifle with a 0-13 record.

The Sailors began practicing outdoors roughly two weeks ago. Jordan Gunderson thought the April 16 home game against Moffat County could be played in Steamboat. Instead the game was at the Sailors pseudo-home field in Craig home of Moffat County. Steamboat played competitively but lost 6-2.

"The climate's never going to change, but there are ways to get a field ready," Gunderson said. "Help us get on the field. Help us progress."

Gunderson is a senior on the team so he will become another face to replace soon, but his plea for support is hard to ignore.

Park Smalley, like Engle, is heavily involved in the town's post-Little League youth development program. In addition to climate constraints, he says the dwindling interest in baseball that often occurs once boys pass through the Senior League can't be ignored. Having served as coach for the U.S. Ski Team for 10 years as well, Smalley draws an analogy between a Steamboat kid's paths to success in baseball and skiing.

"If you want to be good at baseball you have to focus on baseball," said Smalley. "Kids are surprised that they need to go to the gym and work out, amongst other things they need to do to become better, but it is brought to their attention at a young age (that's) how to be an elite skier."

Once a kid hits 15, improving a batting stance or pitching delivery becomes another summer option that gets in the way of work, cars and girls. The lack of baseball tradition often means it is a sport players optioned out of more often in Steamboat.

Meanwhile, the sport is as strong as ever in towns nearby, towns Steamboat faces in league play.

"When you are competing against kids that are playing 8 to 10 months a year it doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that a kid only playing a third of that isn't going to be as successful," said Smalley.

Gunderson made a wish list for his team, and it included two items: Increased community and school support and a real home field. He thought that would start to turn things around.

As a relatively new sport, baseball has no proud tradition.

As a tier two sport, it is funded by outside sources with limited support from the school. The team has struggled to keep a coach.

Four coaches in four years isn't a recipe for success.

Current coach Sean Hicks loves baseball so much it hurts, literally. Four years of college ball caused pain in his body and burnout in his spirit.

Drafted by the Pirates and Padres, he opted against a professional career and is in his first year with the Sailors.

Hicks is frustrated, but he said he would return if asked.

"I don't want to be the coach everyone hates," he said in reference to his hard-line approach to coaching. "I want to be the coach that kids look back on as the one that taught them something about baseball and life. I want to be a coach that made a difference."

And right now a little difference would mean a lot to the team.

Determining success by wins and losses isn't the preferred method of evaluation at the high school level and expecting Steamboat to have a program that racks up loads of wins may be unrealistic given the uncontrollable factors like climate, outside support and coaching decisions.

Engle said the youth program is getting stronger every summer and the talent pool is growing.

But Hicks said the current high school players need to do their part now by going to summer camps and improving their skills with other instructors.

"They know they love it, but what do they do after that?" Hicks said. "It's the national pastime, but it's, like, forgotten about."

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