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Shane Folsom could sense Bill Leith’s frustration.
Leith’s “hobby,” as he calls it, of organizing various youth baseball events in Southern Arizona for the non-profit Kino Baseball League (KBL) has made the sport grow in these parts expeditiously.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, nothing slowed down Leith and his longtime working partner Bill Fronzaglio, both of whom headed Thornydale Little League for about 20 years before shifting their attention in 2010 to the development of local junior high school, high school and college-age players.
COVID-19 has jeopardized this year’s plans for summer ball but Leith still harbors hope. His pursuit to help local youths succeed will never rest.
“Bill, I don’t know why you worry so much about playing in the summer because at your age, and your point in your life and being retired, you really don’t need the headache of stressing about whether or not we’re gonna play this summer,” Folsom, Sabino High School’s baseball coach, said he told Leith.
“I’m not that old, I’m 64, Jesus, God almighty,” Leith answered with a laugh. “When I tell people I am 64, they are like, ‘Huh?’ I still have a lot in the tank. Shane and I talk quite a bit, and he says, ‘Sometimes, I’ve got to talk you off the ledge.’
“I’m very confident that things will work out for everybody. I think we can’t live in a complete bubble here. I mean, you know, we must respect each other’s safety — that’s very important to me, especially the kids — and go from there, but we somehow have got to push this (having baseball this summer) a little bit.”
The opportunity for Leith and Fronzaglio to continue their junior high school and high school summer leagues and the Sun Belt League consisting this year of potentially six college teams at the Kino Sports Complex is contingent on the Pima County administration and Pima County Health Department.
Reenie Ochoa, the director of the Kino Sports Complex, issued a letter last week to the Kino Sports Complex User Group that mentioned the facility is preparing for a return of activity with the end of Gov. Doug Ducey’s stay-at-home order last Friday.
“Rest assured that during this time the Kino Sports Complex has undertaken many enhanced cleaning and maintenance practices to assure the safest and healthiest environment possible,” Ochoa wrote.
Leith and Fronzaglio and members of the local baseball community, including Folsom and Kino Umpires Association president Bob Craig, are proceeding with the idea baseball will be played at the Kino Sports Complex beginning in late June.
Leith anticipates six college teams will compete in the Sun Belt League along with eight varsity high school teams and four or five junior varsity teams. The potential 18 teams or so will occupy the seven auxiliary fields and the field at the stadium playing at 4:30 and 8 p.m.
The Sun Belt League may benefit from a talent standpoint with other college summer leagues in nearby states, most notably in California, cancelling their seasons. Former Ironwood Ridge standout outfielder Seth Nager, who is now at ASU, and New Mexico State infielder Kevin Jimenez, a Nogales High grad, are slated to participate.
The Sun Belt League All-Star Game on July 4 the last two years drew overflow crowds of more than 8,000 because of the postgame fireworks show. Leith has not ruled out scheduling the event this year, all depending on what happens with the pandemic over the next month.
“We submitted our ideas to Pima County along with other user groups and the concession people, and I think based on that, and what the county health department’s going to require with the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines, I think we’ll come up with a plan where we’ll probably be able to play this summer,” Leith said. “It’s going to look different. There’s going to be some things that are going to be way different. The social distancing obviously is the priority.”
The operation will be scaled down from previous summers when more junior varsity, varsity and college teams were involved and other county and city parks were used in addition to the Kino Sports Complex. It will still be a larger operation than when Leith and Fronzaglio started the KBL in 2010. The Sun Belt League for college teams began a year later.
Only nine high school varsity teams and club teams were involved in 2010, the year Leith retired from his facilities management position at the University of Arizona.
11th Kino Baseball Summer maybe 4 months away (June 1st) Freshman Wood Bat, HS JV, HS Varsity and long standing Tucson tradition American Legion Baseball. Outstanding competition and development opportunities pic.twitter.com/kzUWfpU2X2
— Kino Baseball League (@kino_league) February 7, 2020
Leith was the president of Thornydale Little League and Fronzaglio the vice president when they left that to create the KBL. Leith worked to attract teams and secure fields while Fronzaglio organized the umpires and did the scheduling.
Including the fall schedule in which more than 60 teams comprise leagues in 10U through 15U divisions, and the summer American Legion tournaments (that have been canceled this summer), Leith and Fronzaglio organize competition for more than 100 teams annually.
“We wanted to do something that could help the high school programs,” Leith said. “I wanted to try to see if I could bring some unification to the high school programs here in Southern Arizona. Give them a venue. Give them the opportunity so they can develop and improve their programs.
“We also wanted to increase the visibility of the sport and get more kids playing it.”
Sabino’s program, now a dynasty, is an example of the fruits of Leith and Fronzaglio’s labor with KBL. Providing more out-of-season competition has helped the Sabercats win the Class 3A state championship game in the previous two years. Before this season was cut short due to COVID-19, they were primed for another title run at 9-0 with eight seniors, five of whom are advancing to play in college.
Desert Christian, Nogales and Sahuarita, all regular participants in the KBL, have become state championship-caliber programs over the last few years.
“(Leith) does not make any money off this — it’s all non-profit — so he literally does it because he loves the game and nothing makes him more happy than when he sees teams from down here in Southern Arizona win state titles,” Folsom said. “If you look back at most of the teams that have won state titles over the last several years, most have played in his league.
“I think it really makes us better by playing in these leagues and you get a lot of the same umpires that do AIA (Arizona Interscholastic Association) games as well. We start to build relationships with those guys, which is important as well.”
Incorporating qualified umpires from the AIA into their operation was essential from the beginning to Fronzaglio and Leith to validate the KBL’s integrity.
Fronzaglio is a former umpire. He is called “Umpire Bill” to distinguish himself from Leith. He was the head of the Kino Umpires Association before Craig took over that role last September. The responsibility of the association is to schedule the games for the umpires, a duty once executed by Fronzaglio. The premise of the association: the more games they work all year, the more they improve their craft.
Craig, a former Arizona women’s basketball assistant coach under June Olkowski, has been an umpire locally for the last 16 years as a sidejob to his facilities development management position with Bed Bath and Beyond. He became involved in umpiring at the same time his son Robbie was playing in Little League.
He has observed firsthand the diligence of Leith and Fronzaglio to make the KBL work with the kickback of knowing youth baseball in Tucson is improving.
“I’m not sure there would be any youth baseball in Tucson if they did not create the Kino Baseball League in 2010, to be quite honest,” Craig said. “You’d have club teams — travel ball — but I don’t think you would have any local baseball, I really don’t. I don’t know if anybody could have taken the time and the effort that Bill and Bill did to build it.
“It took a unique two people that wanted to do it for one reason and one reason only. It wasn’t to make money. It wasn’t to do anything other than build baseball in Tucson and the surrounding areas, so it all wasn’t travel ball.”
Leith and Fronzaglio’s youth leagues in the summer and fall, in addition to October and November tournaments benefiting the Michael Acevedo Foundation and U.S. military veterans, also provide the opportunity for parents to save money by keeping their kids in Tucson instead of paying for them to travel with club teams.
Not to be mistaken: the KBL has also developed a high level of competition through the last decade. Since 2003, Chandler Hamilton has won seven state titles, including four in the last six years. It welcomes the annual opportunity to compete in the KBL during the summer.
“I mean, when Hamilton comes down and sometimes plays with us, to me that’s telling you something,” said Folsom, who has also coached at Catalina. “Hamilton knows (Leith) has a good thing going down here.”
Leith tells the story of Hamilton first inquiring about having its freshman team of 14-year-olds playing in the KBL in its first season in 2010. The late Tony Valdez, who owned a material shop for contractors in Tucson, coached the Hamilton freshman team. He called Leith about playing in the KBL because the Phoenix area did not have a similar summer league.
At that time, the KBL did not have separate freshman, junior varsity and varsity leagues. It was all age brackets in high school as one team.
“I’m going to tell you something, those first couple of games with Hamilton’s freshman team were the best I’ve seen because it showed us how far behind we were locally in baseball,” Leith said. “I purposely pitted them against the Marana junior varsity team that won the Northwest Spring League that year. I said, ‘Let’s see who we got here.’ We got our butts kicked 22-1. I mean, we were humbled.
“One of the Hamilton kids who played that day was a young fellow by the name of Cody Belanger.”
Hearing Leith tell that story and others involving baseball and now softball — he started organizing high school all-star games for both sports last season — is like listening to the boy who watched the Yankees play at Yankee Stadium with his dad growing up at Beacon, N.Y.
Leith, who moved to Tucson almost 30 years ago so his five kids could be on the diamond practically year round, speaks genuinely of the youth experience with baseball or softball. If the summer league happens as planned, he said he wants to do a Senior Night for the players who lost that opportunity when their high school seasons were cut short because of COVID-19.
“I’m blessed. I don’t need anything financially. It’s more of a challenge doing all of this,” said Leith, who added that revenue from a season goes to the facility fees at the Kino Sports Complex and city parks, equipment costs and paying umpires.
“People always ask me: how do you do this? This is my hobby. This is fun. That’s the reason why I have been able to make this work.”
Being 64 never felt so young, especially for him.
“I do want to have a succession plan,” he said. “I’m slowly starting to work on that a little bit, just have people involved to help me out, do different things, just in case, you know, some day, the Good Lord says, ‘Your health or something with your family will make you have to turn it over.’
“But right now, I don’t want to stop. It’s too much fun.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.