SLO youth baseball team bound for Cooperstown tournament

The members of the SLO Tigers might be 12 years old, but they have been playing baseball together for years.

They started out as 8-year-old Cal Ripken All Stars who didn’t want to stop playing after the 21⁄2-month recreational baseball season ended. Jono Hicks, the team manager, said his son and teammates kept practicing, and they started their club baseball team in 2008.

For the past three years, Hicks said, the Tigers’ goal has been to make it to the Cooperstown Dreams Park and American Youth Baseball Hall of Fame Invitational Tournament. Now that goal is about to be realized: The Tigers will be going the week of June 2 to Cooperstown, N.Y., home of the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, to play in one of the top youth tournaments in the country.

“The Cooperstown tournament is kind of the crown jewel of youth baseball tournaments for 12-year-olds,” Hicks said. “The facility is just amazing, the quality of the teams you see there, and you see the diversity of teams from all over the country — even Canada and Mexico come play.”

Each week from June to August, groups of 104 youth league teams compete for the national title in the city known as the Home of Baseball. More than 1,300 teams will participate over the course of the summer. Each team is inducted into the American Youth Baseball Hall of Fame, yielding bragging rights and exposure for the team and players, Hicks said.

There is no qualifying for Cooperstown — teams register and are selected from a lottery, Hicks said. The cost of the trip — including food, lodging, travel and registration — is about $1,500 per person. The Tigers won a place this year, but 800 teams across the nation were turned away, including a squad from Paso Robles.

“You’re going to spend a lot of money, it’s going to take a lot of time, you put a lot of effort into getting ready to go over there,” he said. “You don’t want to go if you’re just going to go over there and lose seven games and go home.”

So the Tigers had to be ready for the competition by the time they were eligible as a 12-and-under team. Over the years, the squad has added players from throughout the Central Coast region to its original Cal Ripken All Stars. There are 11 players, with six from San Luis Obispo. To meet the qualifications for Cooperstown, two players were recruited from Goleta.

“We’ve always tried to focus on San Luis Obispo,” Hicks said. “We’ve really built a team focusing on those original kids, which we currently have seven of the kids who have been playing together since 2009 on this team.”

In the most recent season rankings for the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) baseball 12-and-under AAA division, the SLO Tigers are No. 1 in the state out of 104 teams. They are No. 1 in the Western region out of 220 teams, and rank No. 3 nationally among 1,300 teams. So far this season, they have compiled a record of 31 wins, 11 losses and two ties.

The team was originally named the Mustangs, but now they wear black and gold and adopted the name the SLO Tigers after the local high school.

One reason for the Tigers’ success, according to both the players and the coaches, is defense.

“I think we’re a really good defensive team,” said 12-year-old second baseman Benny Rodgers. “We don’t usually make a lot of errors, but we always expose the other team if they make some.”

Third baseman Nate Guillen, 12, comes from Santa Maria to play for the Tigers. Even though he isn’t one of the veteran players, he can point out another reason for success.

“We just have really good chemistry together,” he said.

“There’s a lot of other teams that work in a school type atmosphere where you just have a whole bunch of kids working together and then you just pull people up to an A team or a B team,” center fielder Will Compton, 12, said. “Our team has just been together for five years, we’ve had very few added people so we all know each other very well, we’re all friends, and I think that’s a big deal.”

The coaches see this bond at every practice. Thomas Eager played with the Cal Poly Mustangs and was drafted for the St. Louis Cardinals, but now he coaches both the Cal Poly team and the Tigers, and he can see why the boys excel.

“These kids are slowly developing into being leaders on the team, every one of them. They’re around each other so much that they’re able to hold each other accountable, which you won’t see at this young of age,” he said.

Because of their teamwork, Eager can also teach the Tigers advanced techniques that are more common in high school baseball and college.

“(We’ve) had coaches come up and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve never seen a Little League team do something like that!’ ” he said. “That puts a smile on my face.”

Originally published May 14, 2012 in the San Luis Obispo Tribune.