During practice last week, as the BJ Raiders prepared for this year’s Ban Johnson Baseball League, manager Jake Bradshaw threw down the gauntlet.
“How many of you guys have ever won a state championship in high school or a conference championship in college?” Bradshaw asked.
Very few hands went up.
Bradshaw hopes that will change in the next two months during the 91st season of the Ban Johnson League, a summer wood-bat league for area college players.
“Guys, you’ve got a chance this summer to be really good and we could win the championship and have that as a title,” Bradshaw said.
Before last season, the Ban Johnson League contracted to eight teams with rosters expanded to 30 players. The upshot was a better concentration of local baseball talent and retention of top players from 2017.
“I really do think the league, talent-wise, is going to be alright,” said former Longview baseball coach Clint Culbertson, who is taking over the reigning Ban Johnson League champion Regal Plastic team this summer. “This might be a pretty good year for talent across the board.”
Winning isn’t necessarily the sole focus.
Most of the coaches have a background in the collegiate coaching ranks and there’s a 22-year-old age limit, so there’s a big emphasis — as there has been for nearly a century — on player development.
“It’s the putting kids in college that keeps me coming back,” said Milgram Mustangs manager Kevin Shaw, whose been coaching in the league for three decades. “Really, that’s all we’re doing it for. It’s a program for the kids.”
Still, the competitive side is difficult to mask, especially since someone’s keeping score. Even Shaw, whose team missed the playoffs last season, was quick to point out that “last year was my first losing season in 25 years.”
And try telling the NKC Apartments Giants that winning doesn’t matter. Dan Stacks’ squad finished the regular season a league-best 20-8 last season and statistically was Ban Johnson’s best a year ago.
During the playoffs, Regal Plastic got hot and stayed hot, eliminating the top-seeded NKC Apartments Giants in a wild best-of-three series before toppling BJ Raiders for the title.
Stacks’ squad hasn’t forgotten.
“The guys that are coming back, they want to win it all,” he said. “… There’s no doubt in my mind our guys have a little hunger. The kids that I’ve talked to, one of the reasons that they came back is they want to win it all. They were soured after losing.”
Other than Regal Plastic, none of the teams were satisfied with last summer.
The BJ Raiders — who are led by the reigning Lester Milgram MVP, Tyler Cox, a Blue Valley West and Maple Woods graduate who is headed to East Tennessee State — return all-stars at eight of nine positions and are mixing in plenty of fresh, but talented, players.
“We are expecting a championship and anything less than that unfortunately would dull the season and be a bit of a letdown,” Bradshaw said. “With the guys that we have back, if they have even half the year they had last year, we should be competing for a championship, for sure.”
Besides, the mission of player development doesn’t have to run counter to the goal of winning.
“Everybody’s coach gave them a few things to work on this summer and, honestly, if guys are a little selfish and try to improve on what they need to, team-wise we’ll be all right, because there’ll be some motivation in what they’re trying to do,” Culbertson said. “… If we play with a little intent, I think we’ve got a chance to win games. If you win games, you’ve got a chance to win the whole thing.”
All eight teams swung into action Tuesday with a quartet of doubleheaders. Action continues Wednesday at ballparks around town.
Here is the complete schedule of Ban Johnson League games.
The annual Ban Johnson League All-Star Game is scheduled for July 9 at Kauffman Stadium.