FAIRFIELD — There’s a new game in town that’s really an old game played at one of the oldest parks in town.
North Bay PONY (Protect Our Nation’s Youth) Baseball started up this summer and has taken up residence at Lee Bell Park with games on weekdays at 5 p.m. and during the day on weekends.
Bill Maher is the low-key man in charge – “Some people refer to me as ‘commish,’” he said when asked if he had an official title – of what he hopes will take off in the spring.
With 130 players on 10 teams in two divisions, 10-and-under and 12-and-under, it’s already exceeded the wildest expectations of Maher and others involved in the league.
“My best guess was we’d get enough kids for four teams, 40 or 50 kids,” Maher said. “We got three times that. I was a little bit surprised.”
PONY is an alternative to Little League with several differences:
• Base runners may take leads with pitchers trying to keep them close by pitching from the stretch. In Little League base runners must remain on their base until the pitch crosses home plate.
“Here’s a (10)-and-under team and you can lead off,” said Jason Banovitz, a coach with the North Bay Pony A’s. “In Little League you don’t have that until they’re 13, 14 years old. There are a lot of things that make it better.”
• PONY is broken into age-specific divisions: Shetland (ages 4-6), Pinto (7-8), Mustang (9-10), Bronco (11-12), Pony (13-14), Colt (15-16) and Palomino (17-19). It’s similar in Little League with T-ball, Farm (coach/machine pitch) Minor, Major and Junior Divisions, though younger players may be advanced up to the Minors and Majors if their talent warrants such a move.
“I like the way they do two-year increments,” Maher said of PONY.
• Fields in PONY get bigger as you move up. Shetland and Pinto have 50 feet between the bases with Mustang 60, Bronco 70, Pony 80, and Colt and Palomino 90. Distances between the mound and the plate also vary. Little League fields have bases 50 feet apart for T-ball, 60 for Farm, Minors and Majors and 75 or 90 feet for Juniors. Babe Ruth and other post-Little League organizations go with 90 feet as well.
“You have to jump from 60 feet to 90 feet in Babe Ruth,” Maher said. “That’s a pretty big jump. (With PONY) every two years you go up 10 feet. That’s something they can handle.”
Several players and managers gave a variety of answers when asked what they like most about PONY baseball.
“What we like about PONY is it’s a little bit more competitive and you can play your best players at their (best) positions,” said Leon Clayton, manager of the North Bay PONY Marlins.
“PONY ball gives kids a great, real baseball experience, just the (essence) of the game,” A’s manager Daniel Tinsley said. “Kids feel like they’re playing as professionals.”
That means taking leads and trying to swipe the next base.
“In Little League I didn’t get to steal . . . or lead off,” said Teagan Gonzales, 7, of the Marlins. “I can pitch actual pitches.”
Ian Logsdon, 9, of the Marlins, agreed. “I get to pick off people when I’m pitching and I get to steal,” he said.
Andrew Maher, 6, of the Marlins simply said, “I can steal.”
Dylan Chrum, 9, of the Marlins likes to help his pitchers hold runners on. “I like to play third base,” Chrum said. “When they lead off I can get on the base in case (the pitcher) throws it to you.”
For many it’s just fun to still be playing baseball in the fall.
What Dariyan Casilla, 9, of the A’s likes best is “that I get to hit and to pitch.”
Taking it all in, Brandon Feudner, 9, of the A’s said, “I like everything. You get to play all the positions. My favorites are pitcher and catcher and second and third.”
“I love the experience playing,” added Dalen Tinsley, 8, of the A’s. “It’s really fun.”
Reach Paul Farmer at 425-4646, ext. 264, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pfarmerdr.