Saladino Tournament's future moves towards stability

BRANDON

The underlying hum of the Saladino Baseball Tournament resonated in the air this week.

The metal ping of bat meeting ball echoed all around Brandon High's baseball field. Volunteers hustled from station to station, attending to every detail.

And, of course, the man who created this now more than three-decade-old tournament oversaw the whole lot.

As Tony Saladino Jr. nears 80, people wonder if this will be the final year of the prestigious tournament. Not over Tony's dead body.

"I've been asked recently over the last few years, 'What will happen to the tournament when you die?' " Saladino said. "My response is, I'm not going to die."

As strong as ever, the 34th installment of one of the country's most revered tournaments in any sport culminates Friday with the championship game at 7 p.m. at Brandon High.

And it now appears a plan is in place to ensure the tournament carries on even if Saladino plans to step aside.

Saladino, 78, has fueled speculation about the tournament's future in past years, going on the record numerous times to say he didn't want the event to continue when he retired from it.

But that talk has subsided. He spoke this week about turning the tournament over to his son, Tony Saladino III.

"(Ending the tournament) was the thought over the past few years, but since then things have happened," Saladino said. "Our son is getting involved, and he's interested in taking over. It looks like it's going to go on after us. He's expressed a desire. He told me to take it as long as I can and he'd take the reins from there."

Saladino and his wife, Bertha, started the tournament in 1981 to honor his late father, Tony Sr. What began as an 11-team event has blossomed into 28 teams spread out over four sites throughout the county, including tournament headquarters in Brandon.

"This is so huge for Hillsborough County baseball," said King's Jim Macaluso, who has coached in all 34 editions of the tourney. "To see how far it's come and the growth is amazing."

It always runs throughout the week of spring break, and Saladino said keeping the kids busy during this time has always been his No. 1 goal.

"We stop and think about these kids going off for spring break and jumping off balconies and doing wild things," Saladino said. "Every year we get rejuvenated because of what we see out here. The kids come first."

That rejuvenation has grown contagious, spreading from Saladino to the many volunteers who help make the tourney work. Volunteers like Tim Ruth.

"When we started the planning for this year's tournament I asked him point-blank if this would be it, and he said, 'No,' " said Ruth, a full-time volunteer the past 28 years. "So as far as I'm concerned, I'll be taking vacation time again for this for the 29th year."

Macaluso noted that it's volunteers like Ruth, not just the kids, who make the tournament special.

"You get to go back every year and see the volunteers who have put in so much time over the years and it's great to be able to thank them for their hard work," he said. "They truly are amazing."

And the quality of baseball has also been quite amazing. Thirty-nine players who participated in the tournament have reached the majors, including 13 first-round selections.

A number of now-household names has passed through the gates at the Saladino. Former Met Dwight Gooden (Hillsborough) won the tournament's first Most Valuable Player in 1981.

Most recently, Jose Fernandez (Alonso) captured the National League Rookie of the Year for the Florida Marlins in 2013. Countless others have gone on to play in college and the minor leagues.

"I can't imagine this tournament being anything other than the Saladino Tournament," Ruth said. "It's meant so much to so many people and has been done the right way for all the right reasons for so many years."

But with the news Saladino intends to pass the torch on to his son when he indeed decides to call it quits, it appears the first family of Hillsborough baseball will see its name carried on. And maybe Saladino himself said it best when discussing the tournament's future.

"It's just too good of a thing to give up," he said.

Brandon Wright can be reached at hillsnews@tammpabay.com.

>> IF YOU GO

Saladino Baseball Tournament

Brandon High

Championship game,

7 p.m. Friday

Saladino Tournament's future moves towards stability 03/12/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 12, 2014 3:06pm]

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