Vicksburg Baseball, Culkin embarking on first season as one organization|[03/30/08]
Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 30, 2008
The future of youth baseball in Vicksburg changed over burgers and fries.
Back in December, three men — Vicksburg Baseball Association president David McHan, Culkin Athletic Association president Rick Smith, and Aquila Group representative Ricky Mitchell — met at Whataburger to talk about what was, what is and what could be among their various organizations.
From those discussions, a new and bold plan was laid out. The city-county split between the VBA and Culkin would be dissolved, and the former rivals would merge together into a new organization. The planned multi-million dollar baseball complex, being built by Aquila on the current site of Halls Ferry Park, would be its new home.
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The Vicksburg Warren Athletic Association was born. Opening night is scheduled for Friday, as Warren County’s two youth leagues start play under one banner for the first time.
“It’s gone probably smoother than I ever would have thought,” said Smith, the president of the new VWAA. McHan is the vice president. “The merger has been good. Everybody’s worked together real well. We had a tremendous amount of people that pitched in.”
For years, one of the biggest obstacles to a merger was a perceived rivalry between the VBA and Culkin. The VBA was the city’s league, Culkin the county league. Arguments sometimes raged over players who crossed lines to join the other, and teams from both leagues were discouraged from playing teams in the other.
In a strange twist, though, the origins of the rivalry seem to have been forgotten. Smith guessed that it was the city-county division, as well as the consolidation of the Vicksburg Warren School District in the early 1990s, that fueled it.
McHan, who came into the VBA fold a few years ago, said he never really understood a reason for the distance between the leagues.
“As a league coach, I always wanted to play teams from Culkin and was told, ‘No, don’t do that.’ And I always wondered, ‘Why not?'” McHan said.
The passing of time, and a new generation, gradually dissolved any rivalry between Culkin and the VBA. When the merger was proposed to the boards of each organization, both Smith and McHan said they were amazed at how well it was received.
“It was a concern because it was an unknown. But that hasn’t existed. It’s like the two organizations have existed together forever,” Smith said. “Everybody’s main concern was how the kids and parents were going to respond, and there’s been a tremendous response. I haven’t heard a parent complain that they wanted their kid to play only at Culkin.”
Mitchell, a lifelong Vicksburg resident, was also shocked at how well the two sides have come together.
“I went into that meeting with a little bit of nervous anticipation, because you’re talking about two groups that had existed apart for as long as they’ve been around, and whose members haven’t always seen eye to eye. But let me tell you, that water was slick as glass. Those guys went into it with open minds and did a great job of pitching it to their people,” Mitchell said. “It’s been a great cooperative effort between the Culkin board and the VBA board. I have not heard a complaint from anyone. It takes leadership to pull that off, and Rick and David have done a great job.”
While Smith and McHan didn’t meet with a lot of resistance to the merger, they have had to squash some rumors about their partners.
Aquila has taken over the city’s role of managing Halls Ferry Park. Other than some administrative tasks like scheduling umpires and issuing equipment, Aquila will have no hand in the VWAA’s operations.
“We do not tell the league how to operate other than to tell us if something is happening at the ballpark,” Mitchell said.
Even the Cal Ripken tourneys at Halls Ferry will be run by the VWAA, just as they were last year. McHan said management of the Governor’s Cup in July and August is tentatively expected to be handled by Aquila, although few firm plans have been made yet.
“Nothing has changed. We just deal with a different person to make sure everything is done,” McHan said.
The Culkin Athletic Complex will also play a vital role in the new organization’s plans. Its six fields will be used both for practice and for games as the VWAA tries to juggle a huge load of new teams and players. Smith said the Warren County Parks and Recreation Commission had expressed some concerns about allowing the group to use the Culkin fields, but it was mainly a misunderstanding because of the new name.
“What they wanted was a written agreement of usage. They wanted to know who we were. And that’s proper,” Smith said.
Culkin’s former players got to pay lower registration fees this year than they had in the past. The old VBA saw an influx of nearly 200 new players that has swelled the number of teams in the organization to 62 in five different age groups. Between the two leagues, about 700 children played baseball last season. The number is up to about 750 this year, Smith said, including a large group of tee-ball players under the age of 6.
The large group of young players, as well as the excitement that’s sure to be generated when Aquila’s project is complete, should only help the VWAA grow, Smith said.
“That’s extremely encouraging because that’s the future of your program,” Smith said. “The future is unlimited. I think our numbers are going to grow continually. More kids are going to play baseball, more are going to register each year. I don’t think it’s unrealistic to think this league will be between 800 and 1,000 kids within a couple years.”