The Columbia County Recreation Department was busy finalizing Dixie League baseball all-star rosters last week, but the task of selecting the top players in each age group was a bit easier this year.
For the first time since Columbia County began playing Dixie League ball in 1984, the recreation department did not have enough players to field teams in the 15-18 age division.
That means there will be no Dixie Pre-Majors or Majors all-star teams from Columbia County vying for World Series titles this summer.
Columbia County has claimed nine Dixie League World Series championships, including three in both the Majors (17-18) and Pre-Majors (15-16) divisions.
"The numbers have been going down, but we thought we could hold on because of the tradition of winning the World Series," said Randy Haygood, Columbia County Recreation Department athletic coordinator.
"We had 32 players sign up, most of them from Harlem," Haygood said.
Harlem High School baseball coach Jimmie Lewis had encouraged his players to compete in Dixie baseball. Lewis has coached World Series championship teams, and his son, Russ, played for three Dixie League champions.
Jimmie and Russ Lewis have their names etched in granite at the Patriots Park Walk of Fame, which prominently features plaques to honor coaches and players from Dixie League state and World Series championship teams.
Greenbrier baseball coach Ed Williams gives some throwing tips to Cody Turner, 7, during his baseball camp at Patriots Park.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
Considering Columbia County's track record, and the local emphasis on recreation department baseball is general, the Dixie demise caught Jimmie Lewis by surprise.
"This is the first time in many years we won't have a league or all-star teams," he said. "There are a lot of other counties out there that are probably tickled about it. Now they have a chance to win the state title and the World Series."
Formerly, the recreation department placed players from each high school on their own separate teams during the regular season in the Dixie 15-18 division. Then, the premiere performers were chosen to form all-star squads in the Pre-Majors and Majors.
"It was fun, because we always enjoyed playing," said Ricky Beale, who was a Dixie all-star and now coaches the Evans High School baseball team.
"When I was growing up, Evans, Lakeside and Harlem were the only schools, and you always knew who was going to be playing at the end of the summer (in all-star tournaments). It was fun to come together as one team and see how far you could go."
This summer, though, the top Dixie age division didn't even make it to the diamond.
"We had nine guys that were going to play. The bottom line is everybody is playing travel ball. There's nothing the recreation department could do - the kids lost interest," Lewis said. "I hate to see it happen, because the recreation department has been a big part of the winning tradition in the county."
Greenbrier High School baseball coach Ed Williams expressed similar sentiments, and also ventured a guess as to why Dixie went south.
"I'm not sure exactly what the reason is, but high school sports have become year-round nowadays. Some kids that play football and baseball for their high school teams don't really get a break."
Columbia County's high schools starting class on Aug. 7 also created a time crunch - skipping Dixie League could provide some extra family vacation time this summer, but another factor makes rec. ball passe for many prospective players.
"This isn't just happening in Columbia County; it's happening throughout the state," Haygood said. "High school baseball teams form and play ball in the summer, and they'll have five or six games on the weekend. The last thing (some players) want to do is play more games during the week."
There has been some speculation that certain local high school coaches didn't want their players to sign up for recreation department baseball, but Beale and Williams each said that is not the case with their squads.
"They try to blame that (lack of participation in Dixie League this year) on us, but our players only have games on weekends. They have Monday through Thursday to play rec. ball," Beale said. "If a player asks me, I tell them they need to play as much baseball as they can, because that's the only way they're going to get better."
Williams also insists that he didn't discouraged his Wolfpack players from joining Dixie League.
"That's not the attitude at all," he says. "I've had some kids say they wanted to take some time off, and that's understandable. There's so much more going on now, with kids going to camps, playing in summer league (high school) programs or with travel teams."
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