AUSTIN EDITION Austin youth baseball tournament turns 25
The Fourth of July holiday means baseball -- youth baseball that is -- to a lot of people in Austin.
This will mark the 25th year of the Austin All Stars/Jaycee Youth International Baseball Tournament for players 12 and younger. The tournament started somewhat by accident. Gabby Weiss, a local radio sports anchor, took a call from Dick Waddington of Current River, Ont., Canada. Waddington was making a tour with his youth team and was looking for games to play
Weiss liked the idea. He quickly organized an Austin team and a tournament. The tournament has been going strong ever since. This year, four teams from the Thunder Bay, Ont., area will be among the 16 competing teams.
Weiss, now 70, wasn't sure the tournament would be around a quarter of a century later.
"No, I didn't know," he said. "I wasn't sure we'd be around 25 years."
Waddington and his wife also will be back for this year's tournament.
"It's the first time you're playing anybody outside of the U.S.," said Nick Rohne of the Austin Greyhounds. Rohne, 21, is a former player with the Austin Jaycee All Stars. He followed in older brother Brent's footsteps, playing in 1994.
"You're nervous playing because it's a big tournament in your hometown," Rohne said. "It's something you kind of look forward to doing."
Busy summer of ball
The Rohnes are two of more than 300 players who have played for the Austin All Stars throughout the years. Many of those players have gone on to play high school and amateur baseball in Austin.
"It's quite a compliment to be an All Star," Weiss said. "We've had quite a few good players including (current Chicago Cubs farmhand) Mike Wuertz."
Weiss also said it takes quite a commitment for coaches and players. The All Stars play a tournament virtually every weekend in June and July.
"It's a family thing," Weiss said. "What better way to spend a weekend then watching your kids play baseball."
This year's Austin All Star team consists of 13 players. An Austin White team also will be in the tournament.
Weiss is assisted by longtime sidekick Lefty Kelly, 83, and Brandon Rector.
"They do a good job with the kids," said Matt Juncker, a former All Star who plays for the Austin-Hayfield Athletics amateur team. Juncker also enjoyed the fact that older players in high school would also help the All Stars.
The Austin International Tournament is one of the two big events of the summer.
"The opening ceremony was always a really big thing," Juncker said.
"It was more exciting playing the different teams with different styles, too," said Kyle Rizzi, a 2003 Austin High grad and current Austin American Legion player.
Rizzi's younger brother, Steven, is a member of this year's Austin All Stars. The older Rizzi will not only watch his brother play this year, but he also plans to umpire some of the games, as he has the past few years.
Trip to Canada in July
Another memory for Rohne, Rizzi and Juncker is that the Austin players play host to their Canadian neighbors at their homes for the tournament.
"It's a fun time to see a different culture," Rohne said.
The games can be fun, too. Rizzi recalls rallying from an eight-run deficit to beat Blue Earth.
Rohne remembers hitting a home run, but it wasn't in Austin. The drive came in Thunder Bay, the site of Austin's other big tournament. This year, the All Stars play in Thunder Bay on July 20-22.
"It was the first home run I ever hit," Rohne said.
"I remember more about the Canada trip than anything else," Juncker said.
This year's Austin tournament will be played Friday and Saturday at the Todd Park North Complex. New friends and memories are sure to be part of the experience.
"It's a fun program and a fun time, but it takes the whole summer," Weiss said.
Guy N. Limbeck is a Post-Bulletin sports writer. His column runs every Thursday. He can be reached at email@example.com