Sunbelt wooden-bat league grows in metro area

The Sunbelt League will hold its championship game at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville, home of the Triple-A Gwinnett Braves, at 2 p.m. Saturday in its second season as a formal collegiate summer league.

The upstart wooden-bat league represents talent from more than 50 universities. But it took the arrival of a few men, some with playing days long past, to transform a diversion into a developmental league.

Bobby Bennett returned home after playing for Georgia State in 2005 and quickly met a problem.

“Our whole travel team from East Cobb called our coach and said ‘we don’t have anywhere to play,'” Bennett said. “They said there’s an old-man league you could try.”

The boys of summer quickly became acquainted with the men of the Stan Musial League. Bennett and his peers formed the makeshift league’s first collegiate team, representing programs from Georgia State, Georgia Tech and Kennesaw State.

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“We told all our buddies at school, and the next year it turned from two to three teams,” Bennett said. “Last year we had eight full teams at six locations and 100 kids on the waiting list.”

The Sunbelt League became a formalized collegiate league in 2009, completing its transition from the preceding league. More than 30 players have been drafted by major league teams, and the number of applications to play continues to grow.

“Really, it’s been successful because of the talent here,” said Bennett, who is the league commissioner. “The thing is that the majority of kids from Georgia goes off and play elsewhere in the summer. We want to give them a reason to stay.”

That mission turned out to be Todd Pratt’s reason to stay with the league, too.

When the former Braves player arrived, the makeshift league hosted a hodgepodge of players of varying age and experience. But unlike many other players in the league, Pratt was not seeking to rehash his old playing days. When he arrived in Douglasville, his major league retirement was just weeks behind him.

After more than 20 years in professional baseball, Pratt took over the Douglasville Bulls as an owner and coach looking to make a difference. He discovered less than he had bargained for.

“It was like my Sunday beer-league team,” he said. “I thought, ‘This isn’t for me. I’m kind of wasting my time, my family time.’ I wanted to help out kids, get them a chance to do what I did for 20-plus years.”

Now he is getting the opportunity to do just that.

Nine teams play at a number of high schools and local facilities. The Windward Braves is the newest team in the league, owned by Howie McCann, father of Braves catcher Brian McCann.

“It’s the best decision I’ve made,” he said.

McCann’s team includes two players who will play at Tennessee and another at Troy.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever get to the level of the Cape Cod League,” he said. "But your goal in a collegiate league like we’re in is to get the best players you can possibly have.”

The non-profit has relied on the financial support of sponsors, which have included former Braves catcher Javy Lopez’s Bones Bats company and Rawlings.

Interested players must be enrolled at a college or university, commit to a minimum of four hours of community service and pay a $100 fee for the summer.

Though the league remains far from establishing itself in the ranks of many recognized wooden-bat leagues, Pratt sees potential in the young league. The goal, he said, is for the league to eventually be sponsored by Major League Baseball.

“In 2007, we had guys that had the dream of playing baseball, but there was no other goal than playing right then,” he said. “We’re not Cape Cod, but the goal is there.”

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