By Gary Fauber
Assistant Sports Editor
Tim Epling’s ongoing quest to increase the visibility of baseball in southern West Virginia and “change the mentality” of its coaches and young players is about to take a big step up.
Epling announced the creation of a travel baseball program, in conjunction with Upper Deck Training Center, that he hopes will help young players in the area be better prepared when it comes to moving on to the next level.
“Our goals are to be able to get these kids information and get them used to the recruiting process, and to make sure they have an opportunity to compete,” he said. “Not only to make the team, but to be able to compete with players on teams that we are bringing in from outside the area.”
The West Virginia Red Hats will have teams in four age groups — 18-, 16-, 14- and 12-under. The teams will play home games at Linda K. Epling Stadium, but will also travel for road games.
The opponents for the home games will be similar travel teams that come largely from other states, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Tryout dates for the 12- and 14-under teams will be held the next two Sundays, at 2 p.m. for the 12-unders and 5 p.m. for 14-under. Tryouts are for players in southern West Virginia and Virginia.
To help with coordination of the new program, Epling has brought in Texas native Darrell Frasier. Frasier moved to the area five years ago and has been not only a travel coach, but also a Little League coach and a JV coach for Shady Spring in the Upper Deck Middle School League.
“He’s got a lot of experience, he’s been around and he’s a perfect fit for what we’re trying to do,” Epling said. “The information that he’s been able to (gain through) experience, he brings a lot to the table with what we’re trying to do with the West Virginia Red Hats.”
“Growing up in Texas, football is first but baseball is second, but it’s year-round. When I moved here five years ago, I got to know Tim and we talked about how we can change the mentality of southern West Virginia when it comes to baseball,” Frasier said. “It’s not the same mentality as it is in Florida or Texas or Alabama or North Carolina, obviously because you can play it year-round there. Everybody thinks it’s a three-month sport here, and it’s not. It can’t be if you want to play Division I or higher. You have to put the same work into it as you do wrestling or football (for example).”
There are several ways Epling and Frasier hope the league will impact baseball in the area. One is that dedicated coaches will get behind it and take lessons learned back to their respective programs.
“Our goal is to go first class with this with personnel,” Epling said. “We’re going to use this as a learning, instructional workshop. As coaches, we’re always developing and trying to better our skills. We all have egos, but we put that ego aside and if there is something out there that’s better that can help our programs, we’re always looking for that. That is the message that we are trying to get out to our coaches and to the area.”
The program will also be linked to the West Virginia Miners summer collegiate team. Red Hats players will enjoy not only the advantage of having access to one of the finest facilities around, but will also benefit from interaction with Miners players.
“When we bring teams here, plus the kids that make our team, we want to give them the benefit of having access to those Division II, Division I, NAIA ballplayers that come in here,” Frasier said. “They are going to have hands-on (experience) with those players — autograph sessions, backstage (access) to BP (batting practice) and infield and outfield practice — and they’ll get to hang around for the games, too.
“That in itself is a plus, and I know that because I have been a host family for (owners) Doug and Linda (Epling) and Tim for three years now. I’ve had 12 or 13 players over three summers, and what my son has gained from those players is outstanding.”
Epling made sure to stress the dedication that is part of the program, from players and coaches.
“There are only so many kids that you can take,” he said. “These will be a select few that have dedicated themselves — there is a commitment to this — and it’s an avenue where these kids can learn from these guys that have already gone through college. Some of them have already experienced the pros, like Sammy Lewis.”
Lewis was a record-setting pitcher for the Miners who signed as a free agent with the Kansas City Royals in August and was recently mentioned in a Baseball America story.
Applications are now being accepted for paid coaches. To request an application, please send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tryout dates for players are Sunday, Jan. 20, and Sunday, Jan. 27. The tryouts will start at 2 p.m. for 12-under and 5 p.m. for 14-under. Tryouts are for players from southern West Virginia and in Virginia.
The organization will be set up like a Major League system, with roving hitting and pitching instructors.
Coaches will go through a certification process and training as well, with college and professional coaches throughout the year.
For more information, call Upper Deck at 304-673-2160.
— E-mail: gfauber@