Baseball is usually a sport associated with High School in the Spring, and Legion programs in the summer. This fall there was a new team from the area, the Big Bend Bat Cats.
Great Bend Chiefs American Legion head coach Roger Ward comprised a team of players from Great Bend, Larned, Russell and Dodge City with the hope that central and western Kansas kids could get more looks from college recruiters, while getting in more game reps that are needed for a player to grow and mature.
Ward feels that both of these areas were addressed, and that the players should benefit from the experience. “I put together a roster from programs that I’m familiar with, and we were able to not only go out and play at college venues for seven weekends, but we competed everywhere we went and had a lot of fun doing it,” Ward said.
Ward explained that with KSHSAA rules limiting players from one high school it was a bit tricky putting together a roster. “We could only have five from one high school, and with seven guys from Great Bend who wanted to play fall ball, it was tough to turn players away. This year, there were five seniors who kind of wanted to stay together, and that is the limit you can have from one school, so it was a good situation as far as that goes but a bad one for me to have to tell another guy he will have to find another team. Luckily Brayden Smith had already played with a team out of Salina last fall and had the opportunity to play there again. I was happy for Brayden that he was able to play, but from a selfish standpoint I wanted to be the one to coach him,” Ward said.
Ward went on to say that he has two more summer seasons and next fall to make up time with his big-hitting left hander, and looks forward to that time to help him along in his baseball career. In addition, Logan Perry also competed this fall with the Wichita Sluggers.
The Bat Cats played at Emporia State, Salina, Barton Community College, Cloud County Community College, Newman University, Butler Community College, Dodge City Community College and Fort Hays State University. They competed against academy baseball teams from Omaha, Kansas City, Wichita, Colorado Springs and Fort Collins. They also played games against other “central Kansas” teams, as well as playing Cloud County Community College.
The Bat Cats ended with a 13-10 record. Two of those losses came at the hands of Cloud County, who beat them 13-3 and 12-6. Of the other eight losses, five were by one run.
“A lot of guys say that development is key, and I agree, but I also think that winning is important too,” Ward said. “I feel like we put a good product on the field every game, putting guys in different situations and scenarios, and were able to compete and play the game the right way. Let’s face it, if the team isn’t playing hard and the right way, some coaches are going to close the book on them. That’s why I’m extremely proud of this group because everywhere we went coaches commented on the way the guys approached and played the game.”
Ward went on to mention that these players come from good high school programs, and the coaches they play for have done a good job with them.
“Having been on the other side of it as a college coach, I understand what programs are looking for. The players understood that, too, and I consistently tried to push them to maybe play one percent harder each inning. The little things like getting on and off the field, running hard out of the box, not giving an at-bat away, being prepared for the situation the game is presenting you with ... we were constantly talking about those things.”
Many of these ball players are multi-sport athletes. Several of them play football for their respective high schools, and one competed in cross country.
“We probably have to deal with this more than your average academy team does. Being from smaller communities, our athletic programs depend on athletes to play more than one sport. That’s why I really am proud of these guys, because they kept showing up. They love the game of baseball,” Ward said.
Ward did add that there were times when some of the players were nicked up from football games and had to sit out, but that the roster he put together allowed for that. “I anticipated that there would be times some of the guys were just too beat up to play. That’s why I put some thought into the guys I kept. Some of these guys are very versatile and can play different positions, and most of them could pitch. We were able to work around some injuries and always put a quality product on the field.”
While this opportunity has given young players the chance to play more baseball and be seen by college coaches that might not have seen them otherwise, there are no guarantees that each of them will get the chance to play at the next level.
“There are a lot of things that factor into playing in college, and where. The college has to have a need for your position, they have to like you on and off the field, academics, scholarships may be limited that year, and many other things. Maybe a guy wants to go to a certain college, but they just don’t have a scholarship or already have three guys at that position. It doesn’t mean that they don’t like what the player has to offer, it is just a timing issue.”
Ward went on to say that many of the players will get the chance, but how bad they want it is going to determine that.
“I really do feel that these guys will find a place that will fit them, but it may not happen tomorrow or next week. It might happen as late as summer. If they have listened to the message I’ve given them over the past seven weekends, they will do what they need to do to make things a reality. Good things come to those wait. There are hundreds of players who want what they want. Those players might have worked harder today than you did ... that’s what I tell them because it is true.”
Ward mentioned the support of Randy Beck of Great Bend, Chad Erway of Larned, and Zach Shipley of Dodge City (formerly of Russell) for trusting in him to instill some of his baseball ways with players that they have groomed up to this point.
He also noted that the chemistry of these guys was “pretty scary” as he put it.
“It was kind of odd, but neat to see, how well they all got along. You see so many players and teams out there in the fall where it is evident that they are playing for themselves. It just isn’t a good look. I didn’t have to deal with that. You want to see guys who will be good teammates too, and we had that.”
Ward chuckled when he went on to talk about his last message to the team when the fall season ended.
“I told them that baseball is one big family, and that I was happy that they’ve got new brothers for life. But then I told them while you should respect your friends/opponents you should probably shut that off when competing against each other. You’ve got a job to do on the baseball field, and it isn’t making friends. It is to win the game. This is my opinion, and what I believe in. Had I been different, I may have several friends today who played in the big leagues for many years, but when I was on the field with them they had the wrong color on that day.”
He went on to say that if they can find that happy medium of being enemies when they play each other, and hugging after the game, then he will be one happy mentor.
As far as the future of these guys, Ward ended by saying “I hope that they all reach for stars, dream big. If they all move on and play, I hope they remember at least one thing that I shared with them along the way. Who says you can’t be from small town Kansas and see your name on a scoreboard playing in the SEC (Southeastern Conference)? Play the game hard until they tell you that you can’t play anymore.”
Ward indicated that although this was the first group of fall ball players, expectations will be high for his teams in the future. “This isn’t a one-year deal. Next year, we will have a few back, and find the others who fit what I want. I will say this...this group set the bar pretty high.”