It is easy to figure out which teams the players are rooting for when the double-elimination Stan Musial League State Tournament gets under way this afternoon at Norcross High School.
For Marty Kelly, the task is a little tougher.
Not that the Duluth resident is rooting against the team he coaches, the Atlanta Astros, who open the tournament as the No. 3 seed against the sixth-seeded Norcross Astros at 6 tonight.
However, Kelly does have an interest in other teams in the tournament that he owns and operates, including his first-round opponent.
In all, Kelly owns five teams in the Georgia Stan Musial League, all of which make up a subset of the league called the Sunbelt Baseball League. Kelly's other teams in the tournament include the Gwinnett Astros (who play the Atlanta Crackers tonight at 8:30 in the first round) and the Cobb Astros (who take on Douglasville in the first round at 6 p.m. Wednesday). His other team, the DeKalb Astros, did not make the tournament.
"Four of our five teams will make (the state tournament)," said Kelly, who is a commercial work contractor based in Duluth. "This is the fourth year I've been doing this, and it's kind of taken on a life of its own."
Indeed, the Sunbelt Baseball League grew out of a single team. The Atlanta Astros started four years ago as an attempt to help some of the college baseball players who'd played for Kelly when he'd coached the East Cobb A's in the highly touted East Cobb youth baseball program.
"The following spring, some of the kids who played for me knew of the Stan Musial League and wanted to know if they could help them find a place to play," Kelly said. "All of a sudden, I've got 14 or 15 kids calling me. So, we put together a team.
"The next year, we had 40-something kids calling me. So I figured we'd put two teams together. The following year, it was over 70 kids. This year, it was close to 120 or 130 kids calling."
That was enough to put together five teams comprised solely of college players in a league mixed with college players and older ex-pros.
Those teams include former Gwinnett high school stars like Wes Adkins (Brookwood), R.M. Cozza (Buford), Jordan Erisman (Brookwood), Stephen Brock (North Gwinnett), Taylor Rakes (Norcross), Dillon Waters (Peachtree Ridge), Cody Clickner (Mill Creek) and Mike McCree (Berkmar).
"Financially, it's a bit of a of a strain," Kelly said. "But the reward is that I like to see the accomplishments of the kids."
What the players are trying to accomplish varies from player to player. Some are trying to hone their skills after the previous college season.
For other recently graduated high school players - such as Erisman, Rakes and Clickner - the task is to get themselves a taste of the college game even before they even step onto their respective campuses for the first time.
"I was trying to find a (summer) league to see what the college level is all about," said Erisman, a rising freshman at North Georgia College and State University who is less than two months removed from helping Brookwood to the 2008 Class AAAAA state title. "It's kind of what I expected. The intensity level has definitely picked up, and a couple of other guys on my team go to North Georgia. So that will help me in the fall."
Helping college players is something Kelly hopes to continue, which is what has given him a larger vision for his teams in the future should the player pool keep growing.
That may include eventually breaking off from the Georgia Stan Musial League and turning over the reins to one of his players - current Georgia State and Cobb Astros player Bobby Bennett - to run.
"Ultimately, I want (the Sunbelt League) to be its own league," Kelly said. "We'll probably branch out on our own and gear it towards all college players within a couple of years."