During the joy of a 40th anniversary Hub DeJong Baseball Tournament last year, director Jerry Smoot couldn't help feeling wistful that it could have been the last for local players 12 and under.
Now Smoot is thrilled that DeJong, a Lynden coaching legend who worked with untold thousands of youngsters, will see his name continued as part of an expanded tournament under the auspices of the Boys and Girls Clubs.
The new tournament director is Abe Thalhofer, athletic director at the Bellingham Boys and Girls Club.
"We actually had T-shirts made with Hub DeJong's name on them this year, when we held a tournament the first weekend of June for recreational players 9-10 and 11-12 (also known as house teams)," said Thalhofer in a phone interview. "Next year, we'll have four (three-day) divisions also including competitive (select) divisions for 9-10 and 11-12."
The former DeJong Tournament, which wound up involving seven Whatcom County select teams plus White Rock, B.C., on the last weekend of June, not only served as a celebration of baseball every year at Lynden's Bender Fields. The classic, much-loved event also prepared Cal Ripken League select teams for July state and regional competition, such as the tournament won over the past weekend by Ferndale's U10 squad.
"The Cal Ripken League came onto the scene in 2000," said Smoot, recalling how the De Jong Tournament had shared the Ripken name since then. (Whatcom County does not have teams in the National Little League organization.)
"We have had many local teams do well, but we still haven't had a Whatcom County team reach a Cal Ripken World Series," said Smoot. "The Ripken Series is still a dream here."
Whatcom County's youth baseball has developed many outstanding players, however, such as those who played for Bellingham Post 7 in the American Legion World Series twice in recent years and in high-level competition below the Legion level. Most of them earlier played in the Hub DeJong classic.
The DeJong Tournament had run so long Smoot and the many other local youth coaches involved often got a kick out of seeing the children of 1970s and 1980s players - and seeing those early tournament participants coaching or cheering.
Thalhofer is part of a tournament committee that also includes Smoot along with longtime recreational officials Rick Victor, Greg Hatch and Mike Love.
"We'll hold the enlarged tournament next year at the Northwest Fields (adjacent to Northwest Soccer Park) and the ConocoPhillips Fields (near downtown Ferndale)," Thalhofer said.
Smoot couldn't be happier with the new structure.
"I'll definitely be there as a fan," he said. "I'm so happy to see it come back under Hub's name. The Boys & Girls Club gives us a solid foundation."
Smoot, 70, has been coaching county youth for well over four decades, since he served a stint in the U.S. Marines. He loves it far too much to stop. Currently, he coaches Meridian Middle School seventh- and eighth-grade baseball with former Sehome pitcher A.J. Matthews. Smoot also coaches younger children in Meridian Youth Baseball.
"Oh, yes, I absolutely missed it when that last weekend of June came around," said Smoot, referring to what had officially become the Hub DeJong/Cal Ripken Baseball Tournament.
"We're all thrilled that the tournament will continue under an expanded format. It has been a true celebration of baseball," Smoot said. "I remember how a lot of parents commented that it was really special, with opening ceremonies and all the flags. And for the most part, the sportsmanship was always good."
Smoot loves numerous sports, but says he isn't fond of a trend that has seen many youngsters increasingly choosing to specialize even before high school.
"Kids specializing in AAU basketball and select soccer have cut into local baseball turnouts," he said.
But that's another story. For now, the longtime coach is just happy to see more Hub DeJong Tournaments.
Michelle Nolan is a Bellingham freelance writer.