June 20, 2007

Whole new ballgame

The likes of Alex Rodriguez, John Smoltz and Joe Mauer passed through USA Baseball youth national team programs on their way to starring in Major League Baseball.

As the sport’s amateur governing body continues to identify and train tomorrow’s professionals, they will have a new stop on their way to the top — the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary.

The facility, located at Thomas Brooks Park in west Cary, had its grand opening Tuesday and will play host to the Tournament of Stars through Sunday.

The Tournament of Stars is made up of 144 of the country’s top 18-and-under baseball players. They’ve been invited by eight youth baseball groups — AABC, American Legion, Babe Ruth, Dixie, PONY, NABF, RBI and USA Baseball — and will compete on eight teams under the same names. These players will join the talent pool from which USA Baseball will select its Junior National Team.

“The goal is to have a world-class facility where we can bring elite-level athletes into a major-league level environment and prepare them to represent our country in the national pastime,” said Paul Seiler, the executive director and CEO of USA Baseball. “It’s going to be a great facility for baseball.”

While the facility will serve as the training center for national-team players, Seiler expects it will also be a proving ground for all elements of the sport, including score-keeping, umpiring and even grounds-keeping.

The facility found its way to Cary after USA Baseball sent out a call for information saying it was looking for a new home in May 2001. USA Baseball had spent the previous four years in Tuscon, Ariz., after moving from Trenton, N.J., the organization’s home since its founding in 1978.

The climate in Arizona didn’t prove conducive to the aims of USA Baseball, though.

“Tuscon is a great place for spring training, but it’s not good for summertime ball,” Seiler said. “People don’t come outside in the summer. The whole model of ‘take me out to the ball game’ falls apart. It was not perfect for us and what our organization does.”

Seiler said the call for a new home yielded about 100 responses. Of the 100 interested towns, 10 responded to proposal requests. Of those 10, five stood out — Cary; Jupiter, Fla.; Kissimmee, Fla.; Aberdeen, Md.; and Atlanta. When USA Baseball’s five-person committee came to Cary, they were impressed by Thomas Brooks Park, but at the time, plans for the National Training Complex weren’t a part of the site.

The committee left and went to Aberdeen, only to be called back when the town amended the plans to make way for the complex.

“We had not built the fields to the quality and size that would fit the bill for the National Training Complex,” said Mary Henderson, Cary’s director of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources. “Because of the value USA Baseball could bring to our community, there was interest in upgrading to fit the plans to support their program.”

In June 2002, USA Baseball announced it had decided to relocate from Arizona to the Triangle. Today, the organization houses its administrative offices in Durham and the training center in Cary.

Ground was broken on the $11 million facility in August 2005. It features four fields — one stadium and three training. The stadium field has seats for 1,754 people, plus grass seating for an additional 250.

Each field was built with the same dimensions (330 feet down the lines, 400 feet to center) and the fields are maintained according to Major League Baseball standards.

After this week’s Tournament of Stars, the senior National Team will descend upon Cary to continue its preparations for the Pan Am Games, which run July 14-19 in Brazil.

Other events on the docket for the National Training Complex this year include the Youth National Team Trials (Aug. 4-10), Youth National Team Training Camp (Aug. 11-14) and the Women’s National Team’s International Friendship Series (Sept. 1-3).

Whatever is going on at the complex, USA Baseball and the Town of Cary expect their investment in the game to offer returns for years to come.

“We have the opportunity for additional training, coaching and helping our kids in the sport with their presence here,” Henderson said. “There’s a lot of things that will help community people interested in baseball.”