Season opener: vs. Athens Pirates
When: 7 p.m. tonight
Where: Smith Field, Athens
Location: 1570 Old Epps Bridge Road, Athens
Josh Wright’s GPS unit in his vehicle is going to be particularly useful this summer. Playing with the newly-formed Gainesville Travelers summer baseball outfit, this North Hall High graduate will spend much of his time in transit from game-to-game during the summer.
"We are the travelers," said Wright, who played his freshman year at Truett-McConnell College. "We’re living up to the name."
What makes the start of the season more taxing is the Travelers are currently without a home field in Hall County. Gainesville currently practices at Prince Avenue Christian Academy in Bogart, just west of Athens. All initial home games on the schedule have been postponed until a field more central to the players on the roster is confirmed, says Travelers coach Chad Stephens.
Still, playing for a highly-reputable, wood bat-only league was inviting enough to draw quite a few local standouts that recently completed their freshman year of college baseball. Joining Wright on the team are Flowery Branch graduates Patrick Henry and Justin Pagano, Gainesville graduates Zach Bennett and Blaine Martin, East Hall grad Ken Wise and West Hall graduate Luis Delgado, among others.
"So far, I’m enjoying playing on this team," said Bennett, who plays at North Georgia College & State University. "It’s been a lot of fun getting to know everyone on the team.
"With summer baseball, you expect to travel, so that’s really not that big of a deal."
The Gainesville Travelers play in the six-team Eastern Division of the Great South League, and face opponents from Athens, Alpharetta, Cumming, Augusta and Macon during the regular season. Stephens joined the Great South League this season and was assigned to coach the Travelers, upon which immediately noticing the quality of baseball players he’d be working with for the next couple months.
Stephens, who coached at Urbana University in Ohio last season, assesses the level of baseball that the Great South League participates would be the equivalent to the Rookie League of Single-A in the minor leagues.
"All the kids are passionate about playing baseball," said Stephens, who also has five years coaching experience at the high school level in Virginia, as well as the Virginia Baseball Club. "We got quite a bit of good talent out here."
Each player found out about the opportunity to play for the Travelers through different avenues. Henry, who red-shirted this season at Valdosta State University, found about the Great South League through his Blazers coaching staff. Before the Gainesville program formed, the Valdosta State infielder was considering playing for either a team in South Carolina or the Athens Pirates.
"I heard this is one of the most competitive leagues," Henry said. "It’s nice to be a part of the league with a team here at home."
Wright found out about the league through the Internet, searching for wooden bat leagues. He’s also in the position where he wants to impress college scouts after deciding not to return to Truett-McConnell next year. The former North Hall pitcher has already talked with scouts from schools such as North Georgia, Western Carolina, Kennesaw State, Cleveland State and Georgia Perimeter.
"The Great South League is a prestigious wood bat league and I really want to face that good competition," Wright said. "What I do right now determines where I’ll play in the future."
Bennett, who hit .265 with four home runs this season at North Georgia, is looking forward to playing a 40-game schedule in a league where the wooden bats are typically a few ounces heavier than an aluminum bat he would normally swing. Also, swinging a wooden bat makes the batter focus on making contact with the fat part of the bat to avoid any splintering.
"I think it’s definitely going to help playing in the wooden bat league," said Bennett.
Playing in a wood bat league also gives those on the other end of the scouting process a chance to see what players can do with a wood bat in their hands, like they use in the majors. Stephens says that there are some players on this seasons Gainesville Travelers program that have potential to get drafted at the professional level. There is also a chance that more players will come out and join the program, depending on their status after this year’s major league draft is complete.
"Hitting with a wooden bat gives a taste of what a player will be able to do at the next level." Stephens said.
The Great South League has also been picked to field a team in place of the U.S. National team to play a two-week tournament in early July in Rotterdam, Holland. The connection between the two leagues was facilitated by Great South League commissioner Harvey Cochran, who also serves as president of the Georgia Dugout Club. Stephens said that one member of each team will be selected to join the team in The Netherlands.