By Dan Gilles
It was a warm, sunny Saturday night at All Pro Freight Stadium in Avon. The hometown Lake Erie Crushers playing the Evansville Otters in a big early-season Frontier League showdown.
But of the 3,411 fans that attended last Saturday night’s game, at least half of them were wearing Westlake Baseball League uniforms or T-shirts. That’s because Saturday night was also “Westlake Baseball Night” at The Freight.
Players in the WBL got a chance to play catch on the field with members of the Crushers before the game. Former league president Tim Christman threw out one of the ceremonial first pitches and was presented with a commemorative bat prior to the fourth inning in a quick ceremony as thanks for his years of service. And players got the chance to sit in the radio booth with Crushers play-by-play man Andy “Bull” Barch, take over for regular PA announcer Bill Berger for an inning, serve as the honorary bat boys and sit in the Crushers dugout during the game.
And, of course, they all got to watch a professional ball game with their families and teammates and just have fun.
“We’re excited about it,” WBL President Steve Meno said prior to Saturday’s game. “This is the first time we’re doing it. We hope that this becomes an annual event and we hope we can do this every year.”
Meno and vice presidents Dave Marlette and Dana Hartup worked with Mike Link, the Crushers’ Director of Group Sales, in putting the event together.
“We’re just excited to see some baseball and have some fun (Saturday) night,” Marlette said. “We had over 1,600 tickets sold for (Saturday). Most of the stadium is going to be us. Next year, we’re hoping to sell out the whole place and turn it into an annual event where the kids are excited and are excited to come back next year and say, ‘Remember that night at the Crushers game? I had a good time playing baseball and I’m definitely playing next year because, otherwise, I don’t get to participate in Westlake Night at Crushers Stadium.’
“The weather’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful night for baseball. We think this will be a great time, and we hope that it becomes an annual event that grows and grows and grows.”
Meno, Marlette and Hartup have big plans for the future of WBL, and having their own night at a Crushers game is just the first step in those big plans.
“It really started when we did the tryouts and going from there,” Hartup said. “Dave’s been the one who’s put this together. Both Steve and I grew up in Westlake and we actually played in this league as kids, so we’ve been a part of this forever. The league’s come a long way from when we were playing. But we’re still playing on the same fields that I did, which is pretty neat.
“It’s been fun working with Dave and Steve on what we want to do with the league and work with the city on the fields and make it more of an experience. We’re all part of travel leagues, so we go to other communities and we’ve seen a lot of neat things that we want to bring back to Westlake. But this, this has been a big lead in to what we want to do.”
The tryouts drew 300 kids for their three divisions – Major, Minor and Pony. Marlette said 85 percent of the players in the league were a part of Saturday’s festivities.
“We had an evaluation camp and we used that to even pair up the teams,” Marlette said. “The reason for that is we didn’t want one team that was always good and one team that was always bad. We’ve seen some good teams emerge due to hard work and good coaching, but we’re seeing a lot of one- or two-run games this year. A lot of close games, and that’s baseball.
“We don’t want to beat teams, 18-1, or lose games, 18-1. Either way is not as enjoyable as it is to play in a tight, 6-4, game that comes down to the last inning. We want the kids to learn to win with dignity, lose with dignity and have good sportsmanship throughout. And that’s what it’s really about – sportsmanship and development, not wins and losses. That’s our philosophy.”
Meno said that this is his, Hartup’s and Marlette’s first year on the WBL board in these positions, but all three have been coaching their kids, who are now in the early teens, since they were five years old in the league.
“I think baseball’s a great game,” Meno said. “It’s a great game for kids and to bring families together. Baseball, in general, really can bring a community together. And when you have events like this, it only enhances that.
“Mike Link, who works with the Crushers, has really been our ‘link’ to making this happen. He’s really been instrumental in putting this together and Westlake Baseball really appreciates everything that the Crushers and Mike have done for us.”
Link, speaking on behalf of the Crushers, hopes the WBL does make it an annual partnership.
“I thank them for everything, and the Crushers thank them for everything,” he said. “They’ve been great to work with and this has been a fun event. We’re looking forward to doing this again next year.”