As much of the country shivers in the grip of old man winter, residents of the Coachella Valley get to enjoy sunshine and warmer temperatures—and we get to enjoy the grand old summer game of baseball in January, at Palm Springs Stadium.
Back for its eighth season, the California Winter League is the brainchild of 37-year-old Andrew Starke. Starke has run the Palm Springs Power summer collegiate baseball team for 13 years in the valley, and eight years ago, he came up with the idea of a winter league in Palm Springs. The California Winter League is basically a big, four-week tryout camp for players who come from all over the world. They play on 12 teams and receive instruction from former professional players as well as current coaches and managers.
The league is run in conjunction with the Frontier League, an independent baseball league. (An independent league is not affiliated with any major league teams.) Scouts from other independent leagues and 20 major league teams have also been seen in attendance.
“This is a great opportunity for these players to get exposure and hopefully signed for a summer job,” Starke said. “The instructors come with a wealth of experience. Plus, many of the instructors are also managers and coaches in the independent leagues, so (players) get a firsthand look by the men they could be working for. Last year, we had three players who were signed out of the league to contracts by major league clubs.”
The players are in the midst of a 3 1/2-week schedule of games, with two games played most days at Palm Springs Stadium, and another three on an auxiliary field. The championship game is slated for noon, Sunday, Feb. 12, at Palm Springs Stadium. The games are each seven innings. For traditionalists, there is good news: The game is played with wooden bats, not aluminum. Pitch counts are enforced, as the managers do not want to over-tax the players. The stadium also offers deals on tickets, food and concessions.
The level of play is probably around that of the A level of pro ball. It is interesting to see the international players come here, many from Japan and South Korea. Like all of the other young men, they come chasing a dream—even though most of these players will not advance beyond the independent leagues.
“They love their experience in camp. The up close instruction can’t be beat,” Starke said.
On a recent weekend, I attended two days of Winter League games. About 200 fans were in attendance each day. Some were friends and families of the players; others were regular fans like me, who simply love watching baseball.
For more information, visit californiawinterleague.com.
Steve Kelly can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @skellynj.