Winter Haven Elite Baseball
By James Coulter
As a former Major League Baseball (MLB) player who was inducted into the Polk County Sports Hall of Fame, Andrew McGaffigan knows that an athlete is only as good as the support they receive from a young age.
As such, McGaffigan, who was a pitcher from 1981-1991, appreciates organizations like Winter Haven Elite Baseball (WHEB), which not only helps train young children with the discipline to be great athletes on the field, but also to become good students and citizens off the field.
“I just wish they had something like this when I was a kid, [as it] would have made my life a lot easier,” McGaffigan says. “That is why I believe that having the ethical aspect of the game taught and learned from people who have a desire to see young boys mature into healthy men, I think that is a great thing.”
WHEB is the city’s first travel youth baseball program that will allow young local residents within the local area an opportunity to play baseball. Its young athletes will be able to participate, not only in games with teams from across the county, but also in Global Sports Alliance (GSA)-sponsored tournaments.
Not only would the new organization allow local children the opportunity to play baseball locally without traveling far to other cities, but will also provide training that will help them become better individuals overall.
“We feel that travel baseball has evolved into more than recreational leagues, and [while] recreational leagues are still very important to those youth seeking to play baseball at a different level of play, we want to offer our organization to those young players, that seek a higher skill level for training, from a higher level program,” the organization’s website states.
Started fall 2018, WHEB initially expected to start out small with two teams and a few dozen players; however, the first tryouts drew in 91 players, and the following weekend drew in 33, explains Steven Hunnicutt, board member.
Currently, the organization has four teams with 51 players and 19 coaches. Since then, they have participated in 18 tournaments and one state championship, and they are expected to participate in even more, as the GSA hosts more than 50 tournaments across the state annually.
Winter Haven is the second largest city within Polk County, but the only other city with a travel ball organization within the county is Lakeland. As such, prior to WHEB, local children interested in travel baseball had to travel out of the area to participate.
Hunnicutt, a former mayor and city commissioner for the City of Winter Haven, along with many other local parents, saw this as an inconvenience, and wanted to do something to help facilitate local children, which inspired him to help start this organization.
“When you look at it, you want to give the kids the opportunity to keep them healthy and off the streets, get them out engaging with other kids so that they are not stuck on video games,” he says.
With WHEB hosting games and tournaments within the city, the organization in turn will help spur economic activity, as both residents and visitors will most likely visit local eateries and other businesses following the games, Hunnicutt adds.
More importantly, WHEB will also help build the character of local children, as their participation will allow them to learn teamwork, sportsmanship, and discipline.
Hunnicutt also sees the organization as a major draw for many potential residents seeking to move within the area, as many families seek out communities with active youth sports opportunities, and adds that he had spoken with one father who recently moved into the area, and who had been looking for a travel baseball organization like WHEB for his son to participate in.
For another local parent, Sean Proctor, WHEB allows his stepson, Hayden Morris, 12, to continue playing a sport in which he has had a lifelong passion for, having started playing at age 4 and advancing to travel ball at age 8. The support his stepson has received from the other players and from his coach has allowed for a more cohesive and enjoyable playing experience.
“Mainly I like the fact that Steve Hunnicutt expects the boys and the coaches, every time they go on the field… to put their best foot forward… and being a more positive person in the community,” Proctor says. “So he has been very passionate in making sure that this a safe place for the children to play.”
For more info visit the organization’s website: WinterHavenEliteBaseball.com.