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Players hone skills in SML

Summertime is the prime time for baseball at any level, including the Stan Musial League. However for Kevin Meistickle the summer baseball season seems to get shorter and shorter every year.

Meistickle, a Suwanee resident, is in his 23rd season as coach and owner of the Atlanta Crackers, who play their home games across Gwinnett in the Stan Musial League. His roster is filled mostly of current college players and a few former professional players.

"These kids are getting back later and later and the schools are starting back up earlier," Meistickle said.

Meistickle and his players point out that college baseball schedules extend deeper into June and the fall semester creeps up earlier in August. One result of the shorter schedule is that the team travels to fewer and fewer out of state tournaments every year.

The players know the summer season is shorter but are simply glad to play baseball under the sun or lights a few times a week with wooden bats instead of aluminum.

"It is a more honest game (with wood bats). It is not just letting the metal take over," said center fielder Damian Overstreet, a South Gwinnett grad and a rising junior at Southern Polytechnic University.

The players on the Crackers joined the team for various reasons. Some are just looking to play the game after their jobs while others are perfecting their skills on the diamond for the upcoming season.

"This is time for me hone my skills and perfect myself to play Division I baseball," said Stuart Barton, a rising sophomore at Jefferson State Community College (Ala.) who is looking to transfer after next season.

"I'm just trying to get a lot more playing time," said catcher Drew Camp, a rising sophomore at Valdosta State.

Camp is a 2005 graduate of Buford High School and he saw just 21 at-bats in 49 games in his freshman year at Valdosta.

On the other side of the college baseball spectrum is Camp's summer teammate T.J. Pilla, who was the starting second baseman as a freshman at Division I Farleigh Dickinson University. Pilla said the Crackers provide the opportunity for the Brookwood grad to stay close to home and a few baseball games during the summer.

Not everyone on the team is a current college player. One example is pitcher Phil Ellison of Douglasville. Ellison played in the Cincinnati Reds' minor league system until shoulder problems ended his dream. He has a different attitude on his summertime experience.

"I do this to have fun and stay in shape and help out some of the younger players," said Ellison, who is finishing up his college degree at West Georgia.

Fellow pitcher John Farmer joked in the dugout that Ellison plays because his girlfriend still wants to see him in a uniform.

Everyone on the team regardless of individual goals is gearing up for state tournament that starts July 26.

Like the original Atlanta Crackers (1901-1965), Meistickle's team also has a rich history including 11 state titles and 35 major tournament titles since its conception in 1983.

The Atlanta Crackers' roster has players from all over the state but a majority graduated from Gwinnett high schools. Others include Ryan Horton and Miles Ferguson of Dacula, Kevin Benton of North Gwinnett, John Palmer of Tucker and Brad Bouras, Josh Hooper, Chris Hawkins and Jarrett Coker of Parkview.