Clovis News: Sports

Easter Baseball Classic is a class act

It begins here early this week in a small room adjacent to the men's coaches offices in the Fresno High gym.

There are T-shirts -- boxes of them, bags of them, stacks of them -- 1,300 in all being sorted.

Every player, coach and team scorekeeper will get one in the Fresno Easter Baseball Classic, which will launch its 41st edition with a record 36 teams at seven sites Monday.

The T-shirts are important.

So is tonight's coaches dinner, which will pack 220 people into Pardini's.

So is the free raffle ticket that will go to each one of those guests, the ticket that may or may not fetch a prize.

So is the gift to each head coach.

So is the case of water for each team.

So, of course, is the quality of competition and venues. Fifteen of the teams won 20 or more games last year. Most of the high school facilities used could be confused for college.

From a T-shirt, to a steak to a good game at a great yard, they're all important.

Long ago, Ken Papi learned this in a Fresno-area baseball empire shaped by legends, Pete Beiden, Bob Bennett and Len Bourdet: "Never take a short cut."

The Fresno Easter Baseball Classic doesn't take shortcuts.

Schools from Bakersfield to Sacramento to Oregon don't hunt down the cell-phone numbers of the Papis -- Fresno High co-coaches Ken and son Jason -- and ask to participate because the tournament takes shortcuts.

Jeff Prieto played in the Classic at Buchanan, coached in it at Clovis East and can now compare it to others he scouts as an assistant at UNLV: "The caliber of teams involved, the support staff, the facilities, the commitment to getting every game in and, of course, the tireless efforts of Ken and Jason really separates it from any tournament I have been to across the country."

Here's the true beauty of it.

Go back to the top -- the little room stuffed with T-shirts.

At Fresno High.

Not Clovis West. Not Buchanan. Not Clovis.

At Fresno High.

Clovis Unified, with its deep pool of resources, management and support, has established its ability to host marquee events -- cross country invitationals, swim meets, wrestling tournaments, anything. It's a given.

But nothing can match what has been crafted for four decades out of the heart of Fresno Unified at McKinley and Palm avenues.

There is nothing in Central Section sports, from Chowchilla to Bakersfield, that can rival the package -- the history, the tradition, the quality, the intimacy -- of the Fresno Easter Baseball Classic.

Nothing.

"The camaraderie among coaches, the pride they have in baseball and how important it is for kids to play baseball down there has always impressed me," said coach Rob Rinaldi of Pleasant Grove-Elk Grove.

His 6-0 team is one of six from the Sacramento area and the Sac-Joaquin Section that will be in the field.

"We don't have anything like this in Sacramento," he said. "We don't have the history. It gives our kids a great experience."

Key to the tournament's growth -- from six teams to 16 to 20 to 30 and, now, 36 -- has been Clovis Unified's loyalty to Ken Papi, the California Coaches Association Hall of Famer and 36-year Warriors coach.

The access to state-of-the-art venues at Buchanan, Clovis, Clovis East, Clovis West and Clovis North is vital to the showcase.

Consider: Do you see the hotshot Clovis Unified basketball programs hanging around for the Holiday Invitational Tournament in December? No way. They're playing all over the state.

Not in baseball. No need, with state-class competition right here.

"We want to be part of something so special to the baseball community," said coach Tom Donald of five-time Classic champion Buchanan. "From the ticket-takers, to people who run the press box and help with the fields, it's run first class. You just know Ken plans the entire year for this tournament."

Almost true.

"Probably July," Papi says when asked whether there's a month he doesn't apply any time to the Classic.

"But," he adds, "is it ever out of mind? Heck no. There's something in everybody that's a part of your life and, certainly, this Easter tournament has been a huge part of my life. It was a commitment I made a long, long time ago. I'm not sure how else to put it into words."

His son does for him.

"The biggest thing with Dad," Jason says, "he wants to uphold the integrity of the tournament, regardless of the economy, regardless of sponsorships. The T-shirt is a big deal. The coach's gift is a big deal. The dinner's a big deal.

"Watching him for so many years, it's amazing what he's done with this tournament. And when he no longer wants to do it, we're going to keep it going; it's never going to stop, I guarantee it."

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