Sunbelt Baseball upgrades stature

For the past four years, the Sunbelt Baseball League has been one of Georgia's most visible summer amateur wood bat leagues.

While the same holds true this summer, the league has undergone a major facelift this year - one that figures to further enhance its reputation.

"It's upgraded a lot (this season)," said Kevin Meistickle, manager of the Atlanta Crackers, which has been a member of the Sunbelt Baseball League all four seasons. "I think (the changes) have worked out well."

The main feature of this makeover was the ending of the league's affiliation with the Stan Musial League that has existed since the league began as an association of Atlanta-area Stan Musial teams in 2005.

In the case of Meistickle's Crackers, it ends an affiliation that had been in place more than 40 years.

The most noticeable on-field change is the presence of more current college players - including several with ties to Gwinnett County - and fewer older players and former professionals.

Eventually, the latter category will be phased out among the league's eight teams, including two - the Berkeley Lake Tides and the Atlanta Astros - that are based out of Norcross High School.

"This is the first year we're not affiliated (with the Stan Musial League)," said Marty Kelly, president of the Sunbelt Baseball League since its inception and manager of the Atlanta Astros. "The original intent when we first got involved was for more emphasis on the college players. It took a few years, but we've slowly phased out the older players."

The idea is to make the Sunbelt Baseball League on par with other, better-known wood bat collegiate summer leagues, like the Cape Cod League in Massachusetts, the Coastal Plain League in the Carolinas and the Cal Ripken Sr. League in the Washington, D.C., area.

"We want to attract a lot more quality players and keep growing," said Bobby Bennett, who became involved with the Sunbelt League last year and was named the league's full-time general manager this summer. "Over the next three years, we'd like to be right up there with the Cape Cod League, the Northwoods League in Wisconsin, or at least in that next tier (down)."

Bennett been brought in to oversee the shift of the league's identity and he certainly has the credentials, having completed a four-year playing career at Georgia State last spring.

The connections he made during his career, along with the league's new vision, have been a big part of his sales pitch to bring in not only more college players to the league, but players from some of the top college programs throughout the Southeast.

"A lot of it is just getting local college players on board and convincing (the programs) to send experienced players," Bennett said."

It appears Bennett's pitch has been successful.

Several players from GSU's Colonial Athletic Association championship team - and the first to earn an NCAA Regional berth - are playing in the league this summer.

So are a handful of players from successful programs at Georgia and Georgia Tech - including former Buford star Chase Burnette, who earned a part-time starting job at Tech this past spring - as well as players and signees from other major programs like Florida, Auburn, Tennessee and Alabama-Birmingham.

"I played in the Cal Ripken League last year," said Burnette, who hit .351 with eight home runs and 29 RBIs in 43 games, including 22 starts, as a sophomore for the Yellow Jackets this season.

"But this league is pretty comparable to other (summer) leagues. I feel like I'm getting better (by playing in it). It's a matter of getting a lot of at-bats. The more you play, the more you learn the game. ... And college ball all boils down to what you do in fall ball (before the next season). Summer leagues help get your ready for fall ball.

"Summer (leagues) are really important. Different leagues attract different (professional) scouts."

Bennett has had an important ally in helping the Sunbelt League attract pro scouts with the presence of former major league catcher Todd Pratt, who is on the league's board of directors and is a team manager.

"I've actually been involved with (the league) the last three years ever since I retired," said Pratt, who hit .251 in 14 major league seasons, including his last with the Atlanta Braves in 2006. "It was a little tougher when we were with the Stan Musial League, but now that we're allowing only college players, a lot of my buddies (who are scouts) are a lot more acceptable to coming out and taking a look at these kids.

"Our goal is to develop these kids for the next level, get the talent pool to stay in metro Atlanta (during the summers), and create a little entertainment for the communities."

The league has definitely met the first of those goals as nine current players were selected in last month's MLB amateur draft, and those other two goals appear to be well on their way to being met.

But the efforts of Bennett, Pratt, Kelly and other league officials to attract better players and get pro scouts out to see league games are only parts of the league's transformation.

There is also plenty being done behind the scenes to help the league grow, such as increasing sponsorships in order to help pay for equipment and playing venues - like Norcross High School - and umpires.

Bennett is also working to get a few games broadcast on regional cable television outlets. And perhaps his biggest coup is securing the league's championship game for the new Gwinnett Stadium in Lawrenceville on Aug. 1. That game will be broadcast on CSS.

"My job is to get things organized - get players committed, get fields committed," Bennett said. "It's not the easiest task, but ... it helps that Marty is still involved. I know it's been ... his vision for a long time."