Some 15 years ago, on a typical Sunday morning at Burton Park, San Carlos Joe DiMaggio manager Bud Papadakis took a pause from an interview prior to his team’s regular weekend doubleheader.

Papadakis — who died in 2009 — was in the midst of boasting about his star shortstop Daniel Descalso, but realized he needed to prepare a box of game balls. So, he handed one of his rookie 15-year-olds a tin of chewing tobacco and a brand new box of baseballs, and instructed the kid to get to work rubbing them up with a coat of Kodiak.

The Joe D League has gone through much change since that 2002 season, when San Carlos took runner-up at the Joe DiMaggio World Series to the Sierra Sun Devils of Reno, Nevada.

A once proud tradition of hosting plenty of future professional talent, Descalso is one of the last major league players to have filtered through Joe D. And there are certainly no teams existing outside California anymore. The league finished the 2017 season with just 11 teams, mostly from San Mateo and San Francisco counties.

Now, the focus is on simply keeping the 51-year-old league going. But, after his San Bruno Joe D squad won the State Tournament Championship title July 25 at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento, manager Edgar Hernandez was pointedly blunt in response to the question as to whether or not that game might be the last game in Joe D League history.

“There’s the possibility,” Hernandez said. “We have to get together as coaches and league officials on how not to lose our guys to travel ball.”

It is a common theme travel baseball has changed the complexion of city summer leagues. When Hernandez played Joe D in the mid 2000s, he was a catcher for a San Bruno team that produced three future professional pitchers in Greg Gonzalez, Tom Harlan and Chris Petrini.

Pacifica Joe D manager Bryan Powers is in a similar boat, having played for the city’s team, during the same era, that produced future pro outfielders Jimmy Parque and Will Vogl, along with the last Joe D alumnus to reach the major leagues, pitcher Greg Reynolds.

“Those are big-time names in Pacifica and, if it was now, they wouldn’t be playing Joe DiMaggio,” Powers said.

As a result, the Joe DiMaggio League president Paul Cunnie and the league’s board of directors, which includes former El Camino High School and South San Francisco Joe D manager Carlos Roman, are considering a dramatic change to the rules and structure of the league.

In the league’s winter meeting in December, Joe D officials will decide whether or not to dissolve the long-standing rule prohibiting Joe D players from concurrently playing with other leagues, including travel ball. Furthermore, to accommodate the travel ball’s heavy weekend schedule, Joe D may do away with weekend games and its traditional Sunday doubleheaders altogether, instead playing only on weekdays.

“As far as the rule, it’s pretty much going to happen,” Cunnie said. “In order for us to continue, we need to … get rid of the rule. As far as scheduling just on weekdays in order for kids to play travel ball, that’s something we’re definitely considering. It’s just something we have to see how feasible it is and how we can make it work.”

Roman said he and Cunnie don’t see eye-to-eye on the rule change, but agreed it may be inevitable in order to sustain the league.

“First and foremost, I think there is baseball for every individual, every type of player,” Roman said. “There’s a place for travel ball and I think that’s great. What I don’t believe … is that you should do both. Meaning, if you’re going to do both, certain weekends, you’re not going to be there for your team. … That kid sticks around, takes the spot for the one kid that goes to play travel ball, and what happens when that kid comes back?” Roman said. “To me it sends the wrong message about teamwork.”

Peninsula Joe D has seen many teams fold in recent years. San Carlos had been the most recent team to fold — that coming in 2016 — heading into the 2017 season. In the final month of the regular season, though, Millbrae also folded.

The North Bay League is in even worse shape. Starting 2017 with just four teams, the league saw Tri-County fold at the end of the regular season. Cunnie said the North Bay League is in danger of folding unless it can field at least four teams. And he also described the North Bay League as the lynchpin for the survival of the Joe D League in its entirety. 

“Basically, the future of our league is going to fall on the North Bay League,” Cunnie said. “If the North Bay can continue to have a league, then we will have a league. If they do not, then the possibility of the Joe DiMaggio League moving forward is slim.”

Cunnie said there are two teams — one from Sacramento and another from Petaluma — having expressed interest in joining the league next year. His hopes are the league can field as many as 15 teams next year, and he said he is still optimistic the league can eventually grow to as many as 30 teams.

With the league’s tenuous existence hanging in the balance, however, Cunnie is also mindful of moving forward should it have to fold.

“Me and [Roman] will continue to have some sort of league to continue to play in,” Cunnie said. “Whether it’s under the Joe D umbrella or not has yet to be determined.”

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