Baseball town

June 29, 2010

By Bob Taylor

America’s favorite pastime has long been among Issaquah’s most popular activities

Long before motorists began speeding westward on Interstate 90 to Safeco Field for Seattle Mariners’ games, even before the designated hitter became a position, baseball was thriving in Issaquah.

America’s pastime has been one of the favorite pastimes of Issaquah residents since the early days of the community.

Old timers, recalling memories of their early years in the Issaquah Historical Society, often mention the fascination local residents had about baseball.

In the 1920s and 1930s, if children didn’t have a field to play ball on, it was no problem. They just picked sides and played in the streets. Of course, this was long before Humvees came roaring down Front Street.

Often, residents gathered to watch Issaquah town teams. In the early years of the 20th century, many small towns had amateur teams that played against other small town amateur teams.

Usually, the town team was sponsored by a local company or industry, but not always. One of the earliest recorded Issaquah town teams was composed of volunteer firemen. The “laddies” apparently were adept at putting out fires as well as putting down well-executed squeeze bunts.

Immigrants to the area often followed baseball and many later played on local teams. One of the best stories is of the Bakamus brothers, who played high school and town team ball in the 1940s. When Pete was pitching and Nick was catching, they would converse in Greek to confuse the opposition.

“They would call pitches, pitchouts and different plays. No one knew what they were talking about,” said Tom Bakamus, whose father played on those teams.

“They even talked Greek when they were playing football,” Bakamus said.

Issaquah baseball has transformed over the years from being what was basically an older man’s game to a game for youth.

Little League ball has been popular over the years. Issaquah established its own Little League in 1971. Prior to that year, Issaquah youngsters had to play Little League in Bellevue.

The Issaquah Little League started out with a board of eight people, four major teams, six senior teams and 100 minor league players. Fastpitch softball, primarily for girls, was later added to the league.

The league, which covered almost the entire Issaquah School District, continued to grow. By 1996, there were 2,300 participants — boys and girls — playing in the Issaquah Little League. In 1997, the league split into separate leagues with one serving the Sammamish Plateau and the other the lower part of Issaquah.

Sammamish has been one of the fastest growing leagues in the state.

Originally named the North Issaquah Little League, the league changed its name to the Sammamish Little League. More than 1,000 youngsters, ranging in ages from 5-12, play annually in the Sammamish Little League.

The Sammamish Little League has since split, forming two leagues — the Sammamish American and Sammamish National. However, both leagues are under one board of directors.

The league also has a Challenger Division program, for disabled boys and girls, ages 7-15.

Issaquah Little League has more than 1,000 players, ranging in age from 5-14, playing baseball and softball. The league offers programs from T-Ball through major baseball for boys, and T-Ball through junior softball for girls.

In addition to spring programs, both Sammamish and Issaquah offer summer programs, which get started shortly after the conclusion of the District All-star tournaments.

Little League baseball has continued to grow despite the emergence of lacrosse, which is growing in popularity. With the growth of Little League has come the problem of finding enough quality diamonds for teams.

Issaquah teams play at Terry Dodd Fields, formerly known as the Issaquah Valley Administration fields; Tibbetts Valley Park, Grove’s Complex, Lake Sammamish State Park, Camp Sambica, Maple Hills Community Park, Lakemont Park, at Issaquah elementary school fields and at Issaquah High School.

Terry Dodd Fields often holds District 9 tournaments. The complex is named after longtime Issaquah Little League member Terry Dodd, who has been involved in the league for more than 20 years as a coach or umpire.

While both Issaquah and Sammamish leagues want young players to have fun, they make sure the players get proper instruction, which comes from coaching. The majority of the coaches played Little League ball as youngsters. Some of the coaches competed in high school and a few in college.

Occasionally, a major leaguer coaches in the league, too. Former Seattle Mariner Jay Buhner once coached in the Issaquah Little League.

Both the Issaquah and Sammamish leagues have produced a number of players who later excelled in high school baseball or softball. Issaquah High School graduate Colin Curtis, who played in the Issaquah Little League, was an all-state player in high school and now plays in the New York Yankees organization.

Former Issaquah Little Leaguers have played a big part in the Issaquah High baseball team winning three 3A state titles.

“I guarantee every kid who has come through our program has played Little League,” Issaquah High coach Rob Reese said. “Little League is great. It gives kids a chance to play from the time they are 5 years old. Kids get good coaching in Little League and that helps them become better players.”

Little League players graduate to select programs, such as Sandy Koufax and Colt, and eventually to American Legion.

American Legion baseball came to Issaquah in 1989 with the Lakeside Recovery club. The Lakeside program was originally based in Bellevue. The program then consisted of Newport and Sammamish high school players. When Sammamish decided to go another direction, Issaquah became part of the program. Later, Skyline players joined the Lakeside Recovery organization.

While the old program had many successful seasons, including a trip to the Senior American Legion World Series, the program has definitely blossomed in the last 17 years.

Reese was an assistant on the Lakeside program when it first became part of the Issaquah summer baseball scene. He later became head coach of the Lakeside Senior team.

Under his guidance, Lakeside has won seven state titles and in 1995, placed second in the American Legion World Series.

“Looking back now, that was definitely a highlight,” Reese said. “We’ve had several outstanding teams since then, but none have made it back to the World Series.”

The Senior team plays most of its home games at Bellevue’s Bannerwood Park.

The Lakeside program also features three AA junior teams, and two A junior teams. Very few summer baseball programs in the state offer such an opportunity. Each of the high schools who feed the program — Issaquah, Newport and Skyline, have their own AA team. It helps develop players for the senior team and also hone their skills and teamwork for the high school teams.

“The junior programs are very beneficial for the high school teams. It gives guys a chance to play together and develop throughout the summer,” Reese said.

Last summer was an outstanding one for the Lakeside program. The Senior team won the state AAA title and took second in the Pacific Northwest regionals. The Skyline and Newport AA teams both played in the AA state tournament, and an A team also played in the state tournament.

“We’re real happy with the program,” Reese said. “It helps to have a good sponsor, too, that really care about baseball. Without the sponsorship of Lakeside Recovery, we wouldn’t be able to have as successful a program as we have.

“Because players at the three high schools know we have a strong program, we don’t lose too many players to other select programs.”

While lacrosse and soccer have become popular in recent years and have drained away some of the pool of players that used to play in Little League and older select leagues, baseball keeps thriving in Issaquah. Except these days, the kids don’t have to play in the streets.

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