Viva los Banditos

Texas team holds three national championships

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— The Banditos Baseball Club plays tournaments every weekend and runs practices three nights a week from September through July.

Lori Baxley is the "team mom." While the Banditos are in Steamboat Springs this weekend for the first of the three World Series tournaments put on by Triple Crown, she is responsible for getting the players ready and making sure they are on time and mentally prepared for their run at the championship in the 9-year-old division.

In Texas, football is king, but baseball isn't far behind, Baxley said.

August is the only month Garrett Baxley and the other members of The Woodlands-based Banditos Baseball Club have off. Tryouts are early in the fall, as the club assembles another powerful team.

The 9-year-olds on the Banditos already have three national championships. They will make a run at another today in the opening round of pool play in Steamboat and Craig.

Many members of the Banditos caravan made the 22-hour drive from The Woodlands, near Houston, to Northwestern Colorado and arrived to find 90-degree heat.

"But it feels like 75," Baxley said.

They came early to take in the sights -- Fish Creek Falls was their favorite -- because being a tourist ended today.

"Now, it's all baseball," Baxley said.

While the all-baseball, all-the-time schedule the Banditos follow may seem over the top to some, it is not much different than the schedules followed by the other 77 teams in town for the weekend tournament.

The parents and coaches of the Division I teams follow their children across the country because their children want to play baseball -- and only baseball.

The Stockton Cannons of Stockton, Calif., near Sacramento, crammed 17 people into two sport utility vehicles after the third vehicle's radiator blew two hours into the trip.

A replacement vehicle was called and caught the team in Salt Lake City, making the final five or six hours of the drive into Steamboat much more pleasant.

The Cannons have traveled to tournaments in Arizona and Southern California before, but Steamboat is the farthest east the 12-year-old team has ventured to play baseball.

In order to pass the time on the drive, the Stockton players brought along a few road trip essentials: an Xbox with a splitter and headphones allowing multiple players to play portable CD players for music; and food, mainly the sugar-coated kind.

Cannons coach Craig Roberts brought along air fresheners for the multistate trip with multiple boys, not to mention the trailer hauling $12,000 worth of equipment.

Though the Stockton club team is relatively new, it understands the importance of competition.

Roberts estimated that several members on his team play in excess of 80 games during the year.

"It's never too much baseball," said catcher, first baseman and pitcher Kyle Roberts.

Wednesday was the opening day of the Triple Crown tournament. Players interested in competing in the contests involving hitting, base running and pitching went up against teammates and opponents from other teams for top individual honors.

Wednesday was a chance for players to adjust to altitude, familiarize themselves with Steamboat's fields and get in the baseball groove after vacations and long road trips.

It was also an opportunity for Howelsen Hill to turn into a pin collector's dream.

Many people are familiar with the popularity of pin exchanges during the Olympic games. And just as Olympic pin trading encourages communication across cultural lines, pin exchanging between baseball teams provides players the opportunity to meet people from other states.

Kansas City Gators assistant coach Mark Mathes is familiar with Steamboat, having been to more than five World Series tournaments with his three sons. He said the pin exchanges became popular probably four years ago.

This year's Gators pin, designed by a player's father, depicts a Gator head surrounded by the team name crossed by baseball bats. Several of the Kansas City players seated on the picnic table next to the concession stand had just a few left on their towels to trade.

But the switch from friendly contests and pin exchanges to competitive games between talented programs begins today.

All 77 teams in this weekend's World Series earned the right to be in Steamboat by winning qualifying tournaments. Many teams won more than one tournament.

"These kids are good," Mathes said. "If you are here, you are good. There are no slouch teams. At this level there is good pitching, good defense and good hitting."

The four divisions playing this weekend are the 9s, 12s, 15s and 16s, each designating an age bracket.

Triple Crown baseball director Thad Anderson said this weekend signals the culmination of the more than 100 qualifying tournaments Triple Crown offers during the year all over the country for the respective age divisions.

Of the 77 teams in this weekend's tournament, 57 are from out of state, coming as far as Michigan, Wisconsin, Southern California and southeast Texas to play baseball.

The Espinoza family from Austin, Texas, was making its first visit to Steamboat for son Jonathon's tournament with the Texas Toros.

This is Jonathon Espinoza's first time at the World Series and his first out-of-state tournament with the Toros.

The Espinozas made the seemingly endless drive across Texas and stopped to sightsee in Colorado Springs before arriving in Steamboat.

The Toros aqualified for a tournament in Florida this weekend as well, but the decision to come to Steamboat was an easy one.

"Everybody wanted to come to Colorado," said Chris Espinoza, Jonathon's father. "It's Colorado. We wanted to see the mountains."

Complete schedules are available online at www.triplecrownsports.com, and running results are available at the Triple Crown main tent, as well.

Spectators are welcome to watch what is sure to be four competitive divisions.

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