How many summer nights were there? Dozens, or more like hundreds. Sandy Kimbrel grows a little bit wistful now as she thinks back on those years when Oak Park and Optimist Park were like second homes to the family.
She and her husband Mike had three sons who grew up playing baseball at those parks, which are part of the Huntsville’s Department of Parks and Recreation system.
“Once in a blue moon, they’d all play at once,” she says.
Craig, the oldest, “would be on the big field, Matt was on the little field and Alan was on the T-ball field,” she recalls. “We have such good memories of Oak Park and Optimist Park and having fun and playing ball.”
Craig Kimbrel has gone from Oak Park to Fenway Park. As Boston’s bullpen ace, he helped pitch the Red Sox to the American League East championship and into postseason play.
Kimbrel, who was drafted out of Wallace State-Hanceville, was the 2011 National League Rookie of the Year for Atlanta and for four seasons led the NL in saves. He had 31 saves for the Red Sox this season and struck out 83 batters in 53 innings.
Certainly the Huntsville Parks and Recreation Department helped launch Kimbrel to the majors, just as it also produced two other notables in his generation, Hunter Morris, who’d become the Southern League MVP in 2012, and Kimbrel’s Lee High School teammate Buddy Boshers, a reliever with the Minnesota Twins.
“What we are is family-oriented sports. We’re the energizers. We’re an introduction program and anybody can play in our league, and that’s what we hang our hat on.”
Those stories are obviously rare. Creating professional talent isn’t a goal for the department, just the occasional byproduct.
“We’re making memories, not making careers,” says Steve Ivey, director of the Department of Parks and Recreation.
The primary goal is simply to “take a small kid and get them introduced to the sport,” Ivey says. “What we are is family-oriented sports. We’re the energizers. We’re an introduction program and anybody can play in our league, and that’s what we hang our hat on.”
This past summer, more than 1,600 children between the ages of six and 14 participated in the 13 Parks and Recreation baseball leagues, which have an affiliation with Little League Baseball, Inc. Another 470 girls played softball in the eight leagues administered by the department. There are some 1,000 youngsters still continuing to play baseball in the fall program.
The teams are led by coaches who must undergo background checks and who are offered coaching clinic opportunities to help them instruct their players.
“We realize the coaches are dealing with the most prized possession you have, your child,” Ivey says.
The leagues provide the instruction, basics and encouragement to help players go to a higher level if they choose, whether it be an accelerated travel ball program, interscholastic competition or, for the rare case, college and pro baseball.
Even though Craig Kimbrel credits those years for developing his love of the game, making it to the majors wasn’t the reason the family spent all those summer nights at Oak Park and Optimist Park.
“We made lots of friends at the ballpark and we still have those friends,” Sandy Kimbrel says. “It was an opportunity to play and have fun. And they did. They just had fun.
“Our kids used to play all the sports there – baseball, basketball, football — and I think that’s important,” she says. “It’s great that the city does that. It’s a good investment in these kids and really important for the community to help that out.”
Mark McCarter is a contributor to City Blog.