by Tim O’Brien
Mike Walsh had big plans for his first season as president of the Merrionette Park Baseball and Softball League.
Even when the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the house league and limited the travel ball season, Walsh still wanted to make the best of the situation.
The league upgraded its fields, renovated its concession stand and replaced all the lights in the complex at 11701 S. Homan Ave.
Merrionette Park is also offering a free fall-ball league.
Walsh said he wants the league to be synonymous with the best.
“We’re trying to get the league up and running as much as possible,” Walsh said. “It was let go for a couple years, and numbers were down. Numbers now are going back up. We’re making the changes and upgrades that we feel will draw people in.”
Along with improvements to the complex, Walsh also wanted to upgrade the league’s travel ball teams, so he hired Chris Kuchta as the director of Express Baseball, Merrionette Park’s travel baseball program. Kuchta, a Beverly native and resident, is also the athletic director at Prairie State College in Chicago Heights.
“We felt a change was needed to boost our travel teams,” said Walsh, a Mt. Greenwood resident. “Four years ago, we had nine travel teams. This year, we had four. The idea was to boost it back up. That’s where Chris comes in. With his athletic background, it’s a good fit. He’s a fresh set of eyes from the outside. He’s dedicated to what he does.”
Kuchta said his plan for Express Baseball, formerly Merrionette Park Express Baseball, is to field teams at 9U, 10U, 11U, 12U, 13U and 14U.
The league held tryouts in recent weeks for the 2021 season, but any interested players for next year can still contact the league via its Facebook page.
The objective, Kuchta said, is to establish a culture across all levels of the travel teams.
“First and foremost, I want things to be uniform,” Kuchta said. “We want a program across the board that is almost like a minor-league system where kids can move up from year to year. You know what’s expected. It’s not six and seven teams doing things differently.”
One of the improvements Kuchta intends to implement for Express Baseball is a more active winter program, including potentially working out at Prairie State during the cold months.
Since being hired, he’s been working to get the word out.
“We want to be one of the premier travel ball programs in the state,” Kuchta said. “The challenge is that it’s a league that’s not super well-known, at least to me. Social media is an easy thing we can do to get our numbers up.”
As travel ball’s popularity continues to grow, Walsh wants people to consider Express Baseball as a quality option.
“Travel is a huge things nowadays,” Walsh said. “Growing up, there was no travel, just house leagues and All-Stars. We want to compete with those elite travel teams as a more affordable option for kids who don’t have the opportunity elsewhere.”
Walsh said the league has received much interest about its recently introduced free fall-ball league.
The plan is to open the short schedule the first week of September and continue until Oct. 9.
“It won’t be practices, but we’re giving everybody an opportunity to play,” Walsh said. “Usually two games a week, weather permitting, so everyone gets in 10 or 12 games. We’re up to almost 500 people. It’s something to do for the fall.”