JOHNSTOWN — The AAABA League is a year older in more ways than one this season.
The six-team local league and the AAABA national organization will raise the age limit to 21. In some instances, players whose birthdays fall after Aug. 1 may be 22 years old at some point during the 36-date regular season.
For decades, the age limit had been 20.
“Our goal is to become a college league, so that we can entice college coaches to send their kids here,” said AAABA League commissioner Denny Altimore, a proponent of the rule change. “You have to be 18 to play. Some of the younger kids who were brought in, but weren’t really ready now will have an opportunity to play in the Colt and Legion leagues.”
The league will include players age 18 to 21. The rule was approved prior to the 2012 season, but the change didn’t take affect until this season in order to enable teams to keep players they already had recruited before the vote on the rule change last year.
In some cases, players who weren’t eligible to play in the league last season now are back because their birthdates land after the cut-off date.
“I think we benefitted the most from the rule change to 21 years old,” said Delweld manager Chris DelSignore, whose team is out to rebound after missing last year’s tournament and ending a string of five consecutive appearances in the national event. “We ended up getting back Josh Robinette, who was a good outfielder and solid hitter for us, and obviously (pitcher) Andy Smithmyer has had a lot of success here. When you can bring guys like that back, you’re a much better team.”
The local league added two new teams – First Commonwealth Bank and Ophthalmic Associates.
The additions will join familiar franchises such as defending league and playoff champion Berkley Hills Renegades, Delweld, Laurel Auto Group and Martella’s Pharmacy, which represented the city last August as Johnstown’s No. 2 franchise.
“The Renegades have been in the league for a long time. It was a great year last year, and now we’re labeled,” said second-year Renegades manager Larry McCabe, whose team advanced to the tournament, but became the first Johnstown representative to go 0-2 since 1996. “It’s a six-team league and I really think they’re going to be gunning for us. Delweld didn’t go to the tournament for the first time in how many years? I’m going to look for Delweld to come back strong. Martella’s is always strong. I look for Laurel Auto with a new manager to be strong.”
As a veteran manager with significant AAABA Tournament experience, Martella’s Chris Pfeil welcomes the age change as well as two new franchises.
“It’s great that we’re at six teams,” Pfeil said. “Those guys went out and put some players on the field that can play and that will make our league a lot better. The age increase has definitely helped. If you look at our league, talent-wise this is as deep as it’s been in a long, long time. There are a lot of guys who can really play.
“It’s not going to be one or two teams. It’s going to be a fairly deep league this year and that’s exciting.”
Laurel Auto Group returns for its second season, but with a new manager in Washington & Jefferson College assistant coach Mark Thomchick.
“I’m definitely excited to get back into AAABA baseball,” Thomchick said. “I played in the league back in my college playing days and have some great memories. It’s a great league with the best players in the area and I’m looking forward to leading this team to a championship and representing Laurel Auto Group well.”
The two new teams will be managed by two well-known baseball men.
Jim McMillen will manage First Commonwealth Bank, and Jason Kaminsky will lead Ophthalmic Associates.
“The first year is hard because it’s like learning all over again. It’s a different league,” said McMillen, who had past ties to Greater Johnstown Youth League, City Pony and Colt, American Legion and AAU girls softball. “The main thing is learning how to do things. Most of these guys have been around and they have their recruits and contacts at college. This year, we got our foot in the door with coaches at colleges like IUP. Out of 18 kids, 16 are from Cambria County. I tried to keep the kids from around here first.”
Kaminsky has been a mainstay in the American Legion League over the years and had been an assistant coach with the Richland High School team.
“We’re excited to open the season. It’s early, but the guys get along really well,” Kaminsky said. “There is already a chemistry developing among the core players due to their school affiliations, and the fact that a lot of them played travel ball together for Flood City Elite.
“Being a first-year team, we are fortunate to have a number of players who have experience playing at the collegiate level. Overall, we’re looking forward to see how the team develops once all of the high school kids are finished with playoffs and can start to contribute. Our goal is to represent our sponsor and each other to the best of our ability by playing hard-nosed, competitive baseball.”