Columbia MABL expansion featured the Columbia Blue Jays. (Photo by Noah Hale)
Azaleas are blooming, trees are greening and new paint is lining baseball diamonds around the country. It’s time for America’s favorite past-time: baseball.
For many of the sport’s fans, that means a day at the ball field, buying peanuts and Cracker Jack. But for other, it’s all about lacing up their cleats.
Members of Columbia’s chapter of the Men’s Adult Baseball League, or MABL, are among those fans. On fields across the Midlands, these amateur players who are 18 and up have been taping up their bats and breaking in their gloves since early March.
The league’s other division has players that are 30 and up. Each division added two new squads this past season.
Columbia’s MABL is more than 30 years old. But new management in recent years has brought about a surge of growth.
“Our brand is expanding,” said Bryant Smith, the league’s social media manager who also plays for the Lake Murray Twins.
The league uses names and logos of major league teams, but with a slight curveball.
If you’re a fan of Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics, perhaps follow the Chapin Athletics. Or maybe “chop on” with the Blythewood Braves, one of the league’s five teams in the 30+ division.
Getting the word out
The Columbia rec league existed long before its partnership with Men’s Senior Baseball League, the parent organization for MABL, which includes both the 18+ and the 30+ league.
The Columbia chapter, which includes both leagues, only became an affiliate in 2016.
The change came with resources.
“Before it was MABL, it was just kind of come out here and we’re lucky to get an umpire,” said Tyler Sturkie, a player for the Chapin Athletics.
Before, word of mouth was the only way to recruit players. With MSBL’s infrastructure, the Columbia chapter began to grow even further.
The Columbia chapter is listed on the MSBL website, which allows players who have played in other MSBL-affiliated leagues to find chapters in new cities.
“When I found the San Antonio league, I just Googled it,” said Lamont Hicks, board member for Columbia’s 30+ division. “I Googled ‘adult baseball’ and I found it.”
Hicks has played baseball in rec leagues across the country. But he joined Columbia’s chapter in 2020 when there were only two teams in the 30+ division, and they often had to play against the 18+ teams.
Since then, both divisions have grown considerably.
Social media has played a large part in growing the Columbia chapter.
“That’s where we get most of our players is through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, all that,” Smith said. “That’s our platform to advertise (or) market our league.”
The influx of players has allowed the 18+ league to expand two more teams for the 2023 season, the Fort Jackson Rangers and the Columbia Blue Jays.
Rangers players are mostly active-duty military.
“We’re trying to make the baseball experience as genuinely close to that high school/college experience that guys had prior to joining the military,” said Isaiah Candelario, Rangers coach and player.
Candelario said the idea of a military team came about after he and a couple of other players joked in the dugout about making a team of all active-duty players. League management liked the idea, but they still had to recruit players.
They started by recruiting guys on base who played intramural softball.
A member of the fledgling team was watching a soldier work at the hand grenade range one day.
He was amazed by the soldier’s arm strength. So he asked him if he liked baseball. It turned out he had played in high school, and he’s now on the team.
Today, the Rangers are one of the largest teams in the league. And they’re working toward more than just wins.
They’re also affiliated with WarDogs, a non-profit organization of Army rec league teams that help veterans acquire funding for service dogs.
There’s a concession stand at Rangers’ games that sends all proceeds to WarDogs
“We’re not just a men’s league baseball team,” he said. “It means more when you put something behind it. You’re playing for more.”
Growing the talent pool
Expansion also has brought more talent to the local chapter.
The result? The league is getting more competitive.
“Every year they add more and more guys, and the competition is getting better,” said David Dupree, a member of the Lake Murray Twins. “We’ve always had a pretty good little team. But there’s some kids out here that can really play now.”
The league welcomes players from all skill levels. Some may have last played in high school. Others may have come from a minor league club.
Columbia native Bud Jeter is one of those players.
Jeter pitched for South Carolina’s Presbyterian College and was selected by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2013 MLB draft.
He spent six seasons in the minors before retiring. He returned to Columbia, but didn’t pick up baseball again until 2021.
“It’s been a blast,” said Jeter, who now plays for the Chapin Athletics. “I’ve met a lot of cool people, played with a lot of good players, played against a lot of good players. It’s just been a very good time.”
And now, the league has enough talent to put together an All-Star team to compete regionally against rec and college summer league leagues.
“It’s fun to see how we stack up to them,” said Chris Lusk, president of the Columbia chapter.
When traveling, the team is called the Capital City Bombers, a call-back to Columbia’s Minor League Baseball history.
The Bombers was Columbia’s minor league team long before the Fireflies came to town. But the Bombers moved to Greenville and became the Greenville Drive in the early 2000s.
Many Columbia players grew up attending Bombers games, so they are proud to carry on that legacy.
“I always wanted to play for (the Bombers),” said Jeremy Johnson, coach for the Columbia Blue Jays. “But now, being around the guys that’s carrying on their name, I actually want to get on that team.”
Kenny Jarema in one of the Columbia Bombers unis. This exhibition versus the Palmetto Baseball Association was played at Bray Park in West Columbia and Crosskeys Park in Enoree the next day. The bombers won both games. (Photo courtesy of Columbia MABL)
Chapin Athletics player Manny Lopez has been in the league longer than anyone else. He joined in 1991. (Photo by Noah Hale)
The league had been playing with aluminum bats until the 2023 season. Wood bats are now the standard, each team has their own bats in rotation, but players are able to buy their own. “Most of the leagues, even tournament ball is all wood,” Bryant Smith, league social media manager said. “It was an easy decision.” (Photo by Noah Hale)
The logo for the Columbia Bombers. (Image courtesy of Columbia MABL)
Watch as a wild pitch brings a runner home in the Lake Murray Twins 18-1 win over the Columbia Royals on March 15. (Video by Noah Hale)