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Big dreams for summer baseball

David Klein was standing around at Menlo-Atherton High School's Bettencourt Field after a baseball scrimmage with some friends one day last summer, when the question came up: Why don't we get a team together?

Klein, who graduated from Menlo-Atherton in 2005, had just finished his third year at UC-Santa Barbara, where he served as a backup catcher on the baseball team. That summer, he had been playing every Wednesday with some high school teammates and other local ballplayers. They saw it as a good chance to stay sharp, and to keep in touch with old friends.

Now, they were talking about getting organized: joining a league, and competing against other Bay Area teams.

"We were talking about how great it would be to keep playing together," Klein said. "I realized we could take it to the next level."

Conversations like that one tend to end in the same place where they begin: as a wistful idea, a wouldn't-it-be-nice vision of recaptured youth.

But Klein takes recreational baseball more seriously than most. He also saw an opportunity to use some of the entrepreneurial and business skills he'd been learning in his classes at Santa Barbara, where he is finishing up a degree in communication and a technical management program, with minors in sports management and technology management.

Over the school year, he spent "a few hours a day" not only assembling a team, but crafting a "brand" -- setting up a Web site, calling local businesses to sell them on the idea of sponsoring the team, and setting up several weeklong baseball camps.

The team Klein formed, the Menlo Park Legends, is now at the tail end of a six-week season in the summer league Stan Musial Division of the Western Baseball Association, with several games scheduled at Bettencourt Field.

Community support

The season's first few weeks were admittedly a little rocky. The team had to play its first doubleheader in shirts with logos and numbers ironed on by Klein and his parents, when the uniforms failed to arrive as scheduled. It lost its first five games, before breaking through with its first win. The Legends are now 5-9 (5-5 in league play), following wins in both ends of a doubleheader Sunday, July 12, against the El Cerrito A's.

In the early going, the team had some "issues with the infield" that Klein says have since been resolved. And local businesses haven't been as enthusiastic as he had hoped they would be about the prospect of sponsoring the team.

But to Klein -- who serves as the team's general manager and on-the-field coach, in addition to its starting catcher -- the venture has been a success so far.

"We've gotten a lot of support from the community," he says. "Everybody wants to be able to come out and watch the local talent play."

And he has big plans for the team's future.

"My goal is to build a team that would grow in the years to come," he says. He envisions a second team, for 17-to-19-year-olds, that would serve as a kind of "farm team" for the Legends. Over time, he says, he would like to expand the Legends brand into other sports and age groups, molding it into an all-purpose sports organization.

But for now, "I'm just trying to pay my parents back," he says. They gave him nearly $8,000 to cover the expenses, because "they know that I understand how to manage a budget."

He used some of the money to hire a Web site manager, and to enlist a graphic designer to create a logo.

The on-the-field costs associated with recreational baseball are greater than you might expect. There are costs associated with jerseys and equipment; fees to use the field and hire umpires, transportation fees, insurance fees. But the fee to join the team -- $200 per player -- helps to offset the costs. (The Legends boast a 30-man roster.)

Klein has also enlisted some free help: The Legends have two interns, and he's still looking for a trainer, a marketing director, and a "director of operations" He convinced a friend to abandon the prospect of a summer internship on the East Coast to work for the Legends.

On the field

He's also thought a lot about the "fan experience," tailoring it to draw families with children who could become future Legends players. Klein paid to fix up the sound system at M-A's Bettencourt Field, where the team plays its games.

Early in the season, his father served as the PA announcer while one of his brothers selected music to play over the loudspeakers, before one of Klein's former classmates took over the job. Another brother plays on the team and serves as the first-base coach.

His mother flips burgers during the games, and kids can participate in between-innings entertainment. Some days, they're even allowed to hang out in the dugout.

"We really want to serve as role models for younger kids," Klein says. "When I was a kid, I would have loved to have had a chance to hang out with collegiate players, to throw the ball with them before the game."

He estimates that about 25 players come out for each game, and notes that five or 10 of those are essentially "practice players," with little chance of seeing game action.

But he is loathe to turn anyone away.

"We want to get as many people involved as possible," he says. "It's important to give people an opportunity, and it's important that for people to improve their skills, and to have a good time out there." Many of the players currently play for a college team; others haven't played ball since high school.

The various responsibilities that come with serving as a general manager/player/coach can take a toll during games, but Klein says he enjoys the challenge. He has been "very critical" of some of his own coaches in the past, and likes calling the shots. The fact that he's a catcher makes it easier for him to manage the team, he says. He's already in the middle of the action, calling the pitches, barking out orders, with a full view of the field.

And his players like the fact that he's a player-coach: It lends itself to a more informal relationship than they're used to having with management.

Klein says he plans to spend at least another summer running the Legends, before looking for a full-time job. Asked about his long-term goals, he says he's more interested in the idea of starting a business than in joining a professional sports franchise and trying to work his way up the ladder. He likes that the Legends is a communal organization, rather than a hierarchical one.

"We set up the field together, come to the park early. It's a good ambiance," he says. "There's a good summer atmosphere."

Baseball games, camps

• The Menlo Park Legends, an amateur baseball team, are scheduled to play three games at Menlo-Atherton's Bettencourt Field in the upcoming week: Wednesday, July 15; Friday, July 17; and Wednesday, July 22. All games start at 5 p.m.

• The team is scheduled to hold three week-long baseball camps, from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the Red Morton Fields in Redwood City, on the following dates: July 20-24 (ages 6-15), July 27-31 (ages 6-12), and Aug. 3-7 (ages 6-12).

• For more information on the team, and on the camps, visit menloparklegends.com.

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Local Gurl
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jul 20, 2009 at 11:36 am

I wish the Legends fans were more respectful of visiting and opposing teams. When the stands are full of bullies, a Sunday afternoon at the ballpark doesn't seem like so much fun. They complain about the umpires, they ridicule opposing players . . . they could use a few lessons in sportsmanship in order to bring this franchise to the next level.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Paly George
a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Jul 21, 2009 at 3:54 pm

It aint little league anymore sister. This is semi-pro baseball and its all part of the game.


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