Reggie Wilkerson had dreams of playing professional baseball. A 56-year-old respiratory therapist, Wilkerson was a bit of local legend in his hometown of Palatka, Fla. He played locally at St. Johns River State College. The San Diego Padres drafted him in the third round in 1975. Unfortunately his baseball career was short-lived.
“I tore my rotator cuff,” said Wilkerson, who moved to St. Thomas in 2000. “But I never did lose my love for the game.”
Wilkerson is part of group of St. Thomas and St. Croix residents who have been traveling to Arizona for 20 years to participate in the Men’s Senior Baseball League/Men’s Adult Baseball League tournaments. These players sacrifice their time and their money to compete for championship rings in MSBL/MABL tournaments against other U.S. teams, as well as teams from around the world. The V.I. group has a track record of success in the adult baseball league winning a World Series tournament championship last year. This year they’ve registered four teams to participate in the World Series Arizona 2013 tournament.
The MSBL/MABL was founded in 1988. The league has 325 local affiliates, 3,200 teams and 45,000 members who play organized amateur baseball in local leagues, 30 regional tournaments and six national tournaments, according to its website.
There are 11 divisions in the World Series Arizona 2013 tournament that holds games in Mesa, Tempe, Scottsdale, Peoria and Phoenix. These divisions play on three different weeks in mid to late October. These wood bat divisions include 25-year-olds and up all the way to 65-year-olds and up. The divisions also include a Father-Son group as well as competition played with an aluminum bats.
Steve Parris has been playing baseball for more than 30 years. He’s been traveling to play in the MSBL/MABL since 1997.
“I love baseball. It’s my passion. My wife will tell you I eat, drink and sleep baseball,” said Parris, who is the St. Thomas-St. John IAA baseball commissioner and district administrator for USVI Little League Baseball. Parris plays shortstop and second base. He also manages several St. Thomas teams.
Parris said St. Thomas will field several teams in Arizona including the Tropical Waves, a 25-year-old and up team; the Storm, a 35-year-old and over team; the Hurricanes, a 45-year-old and over team; and the Sun, a 65-year-old and over team. Parris said they tried to form a 70-year-old and up team but wasn’t able to find the players.
“The younger team is lesser than a hurricane. We want the older team to be what happens after a hurricane,” Parris said.
Wilkerson, a pitcher, third baseman and manager for the Hurricanes, has been going to the MSBL/MABL since 2006. The team begins practicing three times a week in June and scrimmages other squads on Saturdays. Wilkerson didn’t discover the adult baseball league until 2005. He waited a year, traveled with the team in 2006 and has been going ever since.
There’s a $500 deposit for each team, Parris said, and each member must pay an additional $200 to register. Wilkerson said he uses his vacation time for his trips to Arizona.
“If you’re paying $200, you’re out there for serious business,” Wilkerson said. “We don’t carry a lot of dead weight.”
Jerry Gooding, a 41-year-old corporal for V.I. Fire Service, has been traveling with the St. Thomas team since 1999. Gooding pitches and plays outfield for the Waves and the Storm. He also manages the Waves.
Gooding said he rearranges his schedule to take time off to participate in the tournament. Funding can be an issue because most expenses are out-of-pocket so the cost of airfare, hotel, transportation and tournament fees can be prohibitive.
“I just paid for the whole package: vacation, car, hotel – $3,000,” Gooding said. “I’m not even talking about food or refilling the car. It’s a little bit of a burden. But you try to manage.”
Most of the St. Thomas teams consist of 20 to 22 players who are mostly from St. Croix and St. Thomas with a few members from Atlanta and New York, Wilkerson said. The teams are open to all genders even though female players are rare, Wilkerson said. Teams who don’t have enough players can also pull players from a pool found on MSBL’s website.
Each team plays five to six games and the best teams go to the playoffs, Gooding said. The playoffs are held on Saturday and the championship is held on Sunday. Winners get a trophy, World Series rings, jackets and T-shirts.
Gooding was on the Tropical Waves team that won the 25-year-old and over Central division last year.
“Hopefully we can repeat,” Gooding said. “It’s like a brotherhood. It brings everybody together.”
The St. Thomas teams and their players have a reputation for success and “hardnosed baseball,” Wilkerson said. The St. Thomas Tradewinds won the 65-year-old and over division in 2002. The Tropical Waves and the Hurricanes won the then 28-year-old and up and 48-year-old and up divisions respectively in 2003, Parris said.
Parris and two St. Thomas players played with a Chicago team that won the 35-year-old and up division in 2008, he said, and the St. Thomas teams have lost in the championship finals several times.
Parris was inducted to the 2010 MSBL World Series Hall of Fame for managing and organizing 20 teams who participated in the MSBL World Series over the years. James Rhymer, who managed several St. Thomas World Series teams, was inducted as well.
Ten major league baseball players were born in U.S. Virgin Islands, according to the Baseball Almanac website. Parris estimates that a small number of territory residents play in structured leagues, yet there is a steady stream of players recruited to play collegiate baseball or in minor leagues.
“The talent has always been in the Virgin Islands. This is just an opportunity to expose it,” Parris said.
Wilkerson works 12-hour shifts while also playing baseball, sometimes several times a week for three to four hours at a time. He loves the game but work plus baseball plus dealing with a bad back can be exhausting. He swims at Brewers Bay Beach to rejuvenate himself.
“The ocean is our medicine around here. I learned from guys who are 60, 65-years-old running around like teenagers,” Wilkerson said. “I’m in there for about 10 to 15 minutes and I can go right out there and practice again.”