In vetoing a proposed offseason trade that would have sent him and three other players to the Colorado Rockies for Larry Walker, Matt Williams cited his desire to remain close to his three children as the biggest reason.
The Diamondbacks third baseman didn’t indicate it at the time, but scores of other kids also factored into his decision to stay in Arizona. On a recent evening, 22 of them were at Arrowhead Park in Chandler, playing in one of the first games in the new little league that bears Williams’ name.
“It was one of the reasons I wasn’t interested in going anywhere,” he said.
Originating in Chandler, Matt Williams Baseball began play on March 1 and has about 500 players from ages 4-15. Chapters will be formed in other Valley cities next year, director Greg Krajewki said.
“We wanted to be part of a different look for youth baseball,” Krajewki said. “In most little leagues, you have a tunnel, and you go by that tunnel. We want to broaden the tunnel and play around with it to make it more interesting for the kids.”
The biggest way in which Williams’ circuit has widened the youth baseball parameters is in its style of play.
Most little leagues feature “scaled-down” baseball — bases are 60 feet apart, and there is no leading off or stealing. But in Matt Williams Baseball, children 10 and older play with 70-foot basepaths, and teams run at will.
Real baseball, players and coaches call it.
“In the other league I was in, you can’t really do anything,” said Jonathan Gonzales, a 10-year-old catcher on the Yankees, a 10-12 age group squad that played at Arrowhead Park on Friday night. “I like throwing to second and getting people out.
“I’ve thrown out four people so far,” Gonzales added with pride.
The objective, Williams said, is to produce players who learn more of the fundamentals sooner.
“It prepares them for the next level,” Williams said. “I remember when I was kid, playing Little League at 12 and then going into Babe Ruth League. The field seemed huge.”
As it aims to develop young players more quickly, Matt Williams Baseball itself wants to grow fast.
Future expansion plans are ambitious. Williams said he hopes his youth baseball namesake will eventually become as popular as Cal Ripken’s. More than 600,000 kids nationwide play in the Cal Ripken Division of the Babe Ruth League.
“I’d like to do it everywhere,” Williams said. “It’ll be fun to see it grow.”
The seed for the organization was planted last year, when Williams’ 12-year-old son, Jacob, was part of the Scottsdale Blaze, a traveling team that played under “real” baseball rules. After the experience, Williams said, his son was hesitant to return to little league.
“He really enjoyed the (traveling league) style of play,” Williams said.
Soon afterward, Williams met Krajewki, owner of GK Sportswear, uniform provider to many little leagues in Arizona. Krajewki, involved in local little leagues for more than a decade, was preparing to start a new organization, which he was going to call the Chandler Super Series.
As a result, the Super Series became Matt Williams Baseball. Krajewki got the necessary fields through Chandler Parks and Recreation, and Williams’ name did the rest.
“Matt has built this league,” Krajewki said. “If it had been Chandler Super Series, we’d we half the size we are now. We’ve got 500 kids, and next year, we’ll be double in size.”
For spring ball, which runs through June, Matt Williams Baseball is only taking entries for players ages 13-15. The teams for ages 12 and younger are all full.
“We can’t fit in any more,” Krajewki said.
In one game between 10-12-year-old Yankees and Padres on Friday night, the effects of playing under a full baseball rulebook were obvious.
One short fly ball off a Yankees bat would have been an inning-ending out to center field on a normal little league diamond. But thanks to the bigger dimensions, the ball fell just out of the reach of the Padres’ shortstop, and a run scored.
Also, when a batter reaches, he is almost guaranteed to try and steal.
“It’s a lot of throwing,” said 11-year-old Michael Felix, the Padres’ catcher. “The bases are further away, so it’s harder to throw. But it’s exciting.
“I’m learning a lot: leadoffs, what to do on a dropped third strike.”
With younger kids, the play can be sloppy at times. But the growing pains now will pay off in the coming years, Yankees coach Greg Chiasson said.
“We teach kids as much of the basic fundamentals, so when they reach junior high and high school, they’ll be able to play,” said Chiasson, whose team has nine boys and one girl, second baseman Kristi Albani.
“Just because guys coach little league, it doesn’t mean they can coach the fundamentals. We want our kids to be fundamentally sound — impossible to cut for a school team.”
Williams and Krajewki have taken extra steps to give the organization a first-class feel.
Independent umpires are hired to call games. The Wilson balls used are stamped with a Matt Williams Baseball logo. The players’ uniforms include a practice shirt, pinstriped pants and batting helmet.
Said Yankees pitcher Cole Chiasson, Greg’s 11-year-old son, “It’s really nice. The jerseys we had in our other league were pretty tacky.”
Williams has invested little of his own money in the venture, as it has become self-sufficient through entry fees and sponsorships. Silent auctions for memorabilia signed by Williams and other Diamondbacks players have been effective fundraisers — one recent auction raised about $14,000.
And as Matt Williams Baseball grows, so will operating costs. But Williams said the additional expenses will be money well spent.
“I want them to have a nice experience in baseball,” Williams said. “We’re losing a lot of baseball players (to other sports). It’s important to give kids the opportunity that I had and we all had.”