Eight teams clad in brightly colored uniforms surrounded the baseball fields at the Rotary Complex at Kidsports on April 30 for the opening ceremonies of the Kalispell Babe Ruth Baseball league. With their community business sponsors emblazoned on their chests — Corwin Motors, Jance’s Body Shop, Sportsman & Ski Haus — the teenagers posed for team photos, solemnly held hats over their hearts during the national anthem and waited for the two words that would kick off the spring season: “Play ball!”
“We wanted to go all out on this particular opening day,” said Babe Ruth Baseball board member Adam Shilling. “It’s a time of revamping baseball in the Flathead Valley and we thought it’s time to revamp ourselves as a true community baseball league.”
Kalispell’s Babe Ruth league is one of the many opportunities for Flathead area youth to play baseball, with a focus on offering spots to players of all abilities.
“There are good travel teams for players to get involved with Legion Baseball, and we try to feed into that,” Shilling said. “But at this stage, we want Babe Ruth to be for kids who are passionate and seriously competitive about baseball as well as for kids who have never played before.”
The Babe Ruth league’s kickoff starts an exciting time for baseball in the Flathead Valley. Legion ball, the competitive high-school aged travel teams, began their seasons in April and both the Kalispell Lakers and the Glacier Twins are aiming to return to the state tournaments. A perennial powerhouse, the Twins lost in the final of the state A tournament to the Gallatin Valley Outlaws, while the Lakers parleyed their fourth-seed status into the State AA semifinals.
Further boosting the baseball fervor in the Flathead is the continued progress on the new Glacier Range Riders stadium, a soon-to-be 4,000 capacity venue visible to anyone driving between Kalispell and Whitefish on U.S. Highway 93. The valley’s first professional sports team will begin its inaugural season as a member of the independent Pioneer League with a road game on May 23 and the first home game in the new stadium on June 14.
Erik Moore, general manager for the Range Riders, has been involved with Babe Ruth, including volunteering his time to help clean the Kidsports facilities and was on hand during the opening ceremonies to throw the first pitch. Shilling hopes for some continued collaborative days between the Range Riders and the youth league.
“It’s going to be exciting to see baseball being played at that level in the valley, and the kids will be able to get really into it and look up to that team,” Shilling said. He added that the prospect of the professional team, along with the continued influx of new families to the valley, has helped the youth league’s popularity boom.
“We’ve seen our numbers gradually increase in recent years, but there was definitely a surge this spring,” Shilling said.
Another big change coming next year could have an outsized impact on both the youth league’s and Legion Baseball numbers, as Montana will hold the first Montana High School Association sanctioned baseball season. Currently, only Columbia Falls and Whitefish plan to field teams in 2023, while Bigfork will bypass the first year before deciding whether to add the sport. Officials at both of Kalispell’s Class AA schools have expressed the intention of beginning in 2024.
“I know there’s been a lot of hesitancy for the first high school season, but I think when you look at the growth of Montana as a whole, as well as growing interest in the youth league, it’s probably a good thing,” Shilling said. “If the goal is to offer more opportunities for kids to play baseball, then my opinion is it can only help grow the game in the valley.
“Our focus with Babe Ruth is on all area youth who want the opportunity to make baseball part of their life,” Shilling added. “Baseball is one of those things where you can get hooked as a kid and then whether you play rec softball when you’re older or in an adult baseball league or coach your own kids, it’s a lifelong sport.”
After Saturday’s opening day, the Babe Ruth season will stretch for two months with the end-of-season tournament wrapping up on June 9.
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