Swing and A Miss
In Frederick, and Across the Nation, is Youth Baseball in Danger of Striking Out?
On a recent chilly but sunny Saturday morning, the teams of East Frederick Little League lined the outfield of Frederick’s Max Kehne Park in a rainbow of colors. Boys and girls, ranging in age from 4 to 12, donned hats, mitts and uniform shirts designed to make them look every bit like big leaguers—except that for many of the little tee-ballers, their pants were longer than the legs they covered. And as little ones tend to do, there was a fair amount of horseplay and goofing around amid the pomp and circumstance of the opening day ceremonies, especially for the littlest guys, for whom standing still was harder than turning a triple play.
And over at Staley Park, little tee-ballers of Frederick National Little League were swinging for the fences— and occasionally making contact with the ball—all while enthusiastic parents cheered them on. On another field, older players were working on their pitching form, nuancing their follow-throughs.
Organized youth baseball has been a staple of spring and summer in Frederick County for more than half a century. Leagues began forming in the city of Frederick in the early 1950s and soon thereafter, Thurmont and Brunswick got in on the action with leagues of their own. For the better part of the next five decades, baseball was the thing for little boys to do in the spring and summer.
But the times have changed and youth baseball has been thrown a curve.
According to Babe Ruth Youth Baseball, youth baseball participation has decreased by more than 20 percent since 2000. During his 22 years at Gov. Thomas Johnson High School, head varsity baseball coach Jim Foit has watched this national trend play out locally. “Fifteen to 20 years ago, we had 60 to 65 kids come out for baseball every year,” he recalls. This year, he had 29. He was able to cobble together varsity and junior varsity squads, but each team has only 13 players. That makes for a very lean bench, especially if a season is fraught with injuries—or, as is sometimes the case, academic ineligibility.
Foit attributes the declining numbers to several things, from video games to a more challenging academic environment that encourages kids to take more college-level classes and pursue internships while still in high school.
The proliferation of other sports hasn’t helped either. “Lacrosse,” says Mike Bonaduce, whose son grew up playing for East Frederick Little League and now plays at Tuscarora High School. “A lot of players my son played Little League with are now playing lacrosse.”
But Foit and others point out that lacrosse is just one of the many sporting options kids are exercising today. “We lost a bunch of kids this year who are going to play flag football,” says Frederick American’s Wilson. His league will field 10 teams this year, with only two in each of the minor and major brackets. “When I started here 15 years ago, we had 23 to 25 teams, with 10 teams in the minors alone.”
Yet, even the most ardent supporters of baseball are not discouraging kids from trying and playing other sports throughout the year, pointing out that many of the skills you acquire in one sport can transfer to another. “Soccer teaches you agility and you need that for baseball,” Wilson says.
But it’s a fine line, according to T.J.’s Foit, who believes that by the time kids get to high school, moving around from sport to sport can work against them. “I encourage kids to play different sports if they enjoy it, but there comes a time when, if kids aren’t committed enough, it impacts their skill level.”
Chasing the Long Ball
Ironically, however, some believe that another factor affecting local youth participation is the exact opposite of moving from sport to sport. Some of the youngest players (or perhaps more accurately, their parents) have decided that the only way to scholarships and greater glory on the baseball diamond is through dedicated travel teams that require weekend tournaments far away from Frederick—and lots of money to play in them.
“If you’ve got some money, you can pretty much get onto a travel team somewhere,” says Mike Kline, president of Frederick National Little League. But he also believes there are some programs that can offer a higher level of competition that will benefit some kids. “There is good and bad in travel ball,” he says.
Frederick American’s Wilson isn’t quite so sure. “It makes me crazy,” he says, recalling how travel team scouts stake out local talent during the league’s annual all-star game, only to make a sales pitch to parents afterward about how their kid has talent and should really be playing travel baseball for the exposure, experience, etc.
Having played college ball himself (at Navy and Maryland) and then having had a daughter who played travel softball, Wilson says he wishes parents would listen to the advice he heard years ago: Spend the money you would spend on specialized coaching and travel teams on tutors, because the odds of getting an academic scholarship far exceed the odds of earning an athletic scholarship.
According to the NCAA, in 2012, only 32,000 of 471,000 high school baseball players went on to play in college. Of those, many play in Division III, the largest of the NCAA’s three divisions which represents more than 400 schools. Per NCAA rules, Division III programs cannot award athletic scholarships. For those who stop to do the math, that means less than 1 percent will even play in college, and an even smaller percentage will earn scholarship money to do so.
A Loss of Community
In addition to fewer kids playing ball, the decline in youth baseball participation has implications for the community, as well—perhaps more so than in other sports. “Dick Colliflower founded this league back in 1954 and his wife told me that she remembers after games people would walk to someone’s home and they would have a post-game cookout,” Wilson says. “When I first got here 15 years ago, people would stay after the game and hang out. Now, I watch players go from the dugout to get their hot dog and then they’re in the car and gone. I think how nice it would be to just hang around again.”
Youth baseball has long been a rallying cry for many communities. “Every night we have people here at the field who don’t even have kids playing,” says Kline. And sometimes that love of youth baseball transcends life itself. When John F. “Jack” McShea Jr., one of Frederick National’s sponsors and a grandfather of FNLL players, passed away in February, his family asked that memorial gifts be given to Frederick National. Those gifts have already exceeded $10,000.
“There’s a saying in Brunswick that if you are president of the Little League you have as much power as the mayor,” says Mike Price, current president of Brunswick Little League. He says his program’s numbers have remained fairly steady throughout the years, thanks in part to several new housing developments that are bringing young families to the area.
Price acknowledges that other sports such as lacrosse have impacted youth baseball, but thanks in part to several state titles and a trip to the Little League World Series in 1986, baseball is “right up there with the railroad” in his community. So much so that Brunswick Little League’s fall ball program has resulted in fewer boys playing youth football for Brunswick.
Bucking the Trend
While other programs are struggling with declining numbers, East Frederick Little League is experiencing a resurgence. East Frederick will field 233 kids this year, up from just 109 three years ago. Admittedly, the largest numbers fall in the tee-ball and machine pitch divisions, which account for nearly half of the participants. But that’s just the way the league’s organizers want it to be.
East Frederick has worked aggressively in recent years to grow organically, to get kids involved at the youngest levels and get them excited about playing the game.
“We work really hard at promoting our program,” says league president Joey Pritchard, who notes that EFLL surpassed its goal of 200 kids this year. “We put out signs, we keep our website up to date; we sponsor a winter program.” The league’s board members treat it like a business and pull out all the stops to make sure they market it hard to those who represent its future growth. Case in point: the last tee-ball game of each season gets the all-star treatment, with an announcer calling the games, announcing each player as he or she comes to bat and doing all they can to leave the kids with a positive impression that carries them through until the following spring.
But it takes more than that, says Ron Wolfe, an East Frederick parent and coach. “I think that too many people think of baseball as it was 30 years ago, with kids standing around waiting to hit a ball.” He admits that baseball does require patience, but good coaches know that they need to help kids understand that even when they are in the field, they need to be totally engaged in the action all around them— whether that is studying the pitcher’s pre-pitch movements or watching for the catcher’s signs. “The tough part of baseball is that you might stand around for 10 minutes, but when you get the ball, all eyes are on you so you have to be ready.”
Frederick National’s Kline says coaches are also working harder today to keep kids engaged during practice. Instead of having eight or nine kids waiting around for their turn at bat, coaches now break the players into sub-groups, so that every child can be actively engaged in some activity— hitting, catching, pitching, sliding—during practice. “Playing baseball is fun,” he says. “You just have to give the kids some structure.”
But what about those busy parents who say they don’t have time for a sport that doesn’t run by a clock? “Listen, we’re not going to change the nature of the game,” Wolfe says. “But what we will do is offer a great product.”
And for the youngsters who envision themselves running the bases at Camden Yards some day, that’s enough. Kevin Schwenger played his way through Frederick American’s program before he “aged out” (he turned 13) and now plays on a travel team for the Linganore Oakdale Urbana Youth Athletic Association so that he can continue to hone his skills. He tried soccer and has watched many of the other boys in his neighborhood lay down their bats and mitts for lacrosse sticks. But for Kevin, baseball remains his field of dreams.
“I just like it,” he says. “When it’s the bottom of the ninth and two outs, just one swing can win the game.”