Rise of competitive baseball, other sports cutting into Little League numbers
Summer baseball used to be simple.
A youth player would sign up for Little League, get put on a team and play one or two games a week and get his free soda pop after the game. The best players made an all-star team and had a chance to play for a state or national title.
After that, baseball was over for another year and it was time to play another sport.
Things aren’t that simple anymore, with more and more options are available to ballplayers.
Little League or competitive baseball?
What about lacrosse, soccer, hockey or an individual sport like golf, tennis or swimming?
Is it time to trade in his mitt for an Xbox controller and a Facebook page?
Many youngsters who choose to stay in baseball as they reach middle school age seem to be leaving Little League and opting for competitive baseball leagues.
“Twenty-five years ago we were the only baseball around; we didn’t have ice skating, didn’t have rugby, didn’t have lacrosse, and peewee football didn’t (play) in the spring, but all of those have eaten into Little League big-time,” Grand Mesa Little League President Dave Mantlo said. “We (had) 1,250 kids 12 years ago, and we are down to 600; a little of it has been boundary changes, but everyone is down.”
The popularity of competitive baseball leagues has grown in part because of options that don’t exist in Little League.
Competitive baseball allows a coach to choose his own team, set his schedule and has no limit on the number of games the team plays.
Locally, the most popular competitive baseball outlet is the Western Colorado Baseball Association. The WCBA has been around for more than 10 years, catering to 13- and 14-year-olds, with some younger boys making the team.
“A team usually has 12 players who all want to play the game,” WCBA President Mike Bullen said. “The coaches have put together the team with kids they know want to play, and coaches that want to coach.”
The WCBA has a 24-game schedule beginning in April and running through July with games during the week at Kronkright Park. But the competitive season can go longer as coaches enter tournaments on the weekends. Bullen said the coaches put a lot of time into figuring out the best summer schedule for their teams.
“Their summer calendars are already put together by the fourth of June,” Bullen said. “They’ll go to a tournament and get six ballgames, which is a good thing, because it forces teams to have five or six pitchers.”
Travel demands can be a concern for most parents and coaches. Tony Taylor has been involved with both competitive baseball and Little League. Last summer, Taylor took a group of 13-year-olds who had played in Little League and moved them into the WCBA. Taylor said his team played about 35 games, but only traveled for two.
“With our competitive team, we had all but two games that weren’t here in the Grand Valley,” Taylor said. “You can do it old-school, you don’t have to play a $500-600 tournament every weekend, and it can be inexpensive because there are a lot of teams around here that want to play a game here and there.”
Chad Schaneman coaches the Cobras, a 13-under team that plays in the WCBA. Schaneman said it’s important to have parents who understand traveling for tournaments comes with the territory of playing competitive baseball.
“The weekends during the summer get gobbled up with baseball,” Schaneman said. “Parents start to understand that Mesquite (Nev.) and Denver become our vacations.”
Field dimensions have helped competitive baseball grow.
In Little League, players jump from the Majors division, which is played with 60-foot base paths and a pitching mound that’s 46 feet from home plate, to Juniors, which is played on a regulation field, with 90-foot base paths and a mound that’s 60 feet, 6 inches from the plate.
Competitive leagues use 80-foot base paths and a pitcher’s mound that is 54 feet from home plate. The WCBA also uses temporary pitching mounds at Kronkright, which is primarily used for softball. People involved with competitive baseball see their intermediate dimensions as a good way to help players adjust to bigger fields.
“It gives them time to progress,” Schaneman said. “The field suits the player, and the players enjoy it more.”
Nationally, Little League has recently made an attempt to bridge the gap between majors and juniors by offering a league for 12- and 13-year-olds with pitching distances of 50 feet and base paths of 70 feet. Mantlo said he hasn’t received much interest for a sub-juniors league.
“We don’t have that many fields available, and we just don’t have that many kids to play in that division,” Mantlo said. “I don’t see the need, I don’t think you’ll get one out of 100 kids who would want to play in a sub-juniors.”
Taylor said when he was 13 and old enough to play juniors, he jumped at the challenge of playing on a bigger field and playing with older kids.
“The field was bigger but that was the challenge; that’s what separated the men from the boys. It was fun to go and play with these 14 and 15-year-olds as a 13-year-old,” Taylor said. “You were always trying to play up in baseball, you always want to play with better and older players because it makes you work harder and get better as a baseball player.”
If competitive players don’t end up playing on a regulation size field much until they get to high school, the shorter field can hurt them. Joe Kellerby is the freshman baseball coach at Central High School, and said middle infielders usually have the most trouble getting used to the bigger dimensions.
“The (competitive) is smaller and that’s a big drawback,” Kellerby said. “The kids come in from (competitive), and aren’t used to turning a double play on a 90-foot base path.”
Part of the trade-off in the smaller vs. bigger field debate is that players in competitive leagues have plenty of time to work on every aspect of baseball. In addition to more practices, most competitive teams play at least 50 games in a summer.
Schaneman said most of the players on his team play roughly 70 games a season between their time spent in competitive ball and with Orchard Mesa Little League.
With the extended season, another concern is overuse for boys whose bodies are still developing.
“I guess it depends on how you do it,” Schaneman said. “We make sure we have plenty of kids so that they can all rotate. But these kids enjoy it, and for a lot of them, this is their sport.”
Mantlo has been around youth baseball for more than 40 years, and said he thinks there should be more games in Little League, but added that’s what the all-star program is geared toward.
The all-star teams are comprised of the best players in each age bracket in Little Leagues, and will play roughly another month after the regular season finishes in mid-June, with the goal of making their way to a national tournament.
“Kids shouldn’t be playing 60-65 ballgames a year; 25-30 games is a good season,” Mantlo said. “After that, they should go do something else because they are wearing out their arms.”
Kellerby said more and more of the Warriors’ incoming freshmen are playing competitive baseball before high school, and he’s curious to see if the amount of games will take a toll on the players.
“We haven’t seen too many arm problems, but I don’t think we are going to see that until they get older, so in the next three to four years we’ll see how our juniors and seniors hold up,” Kellerby said. “If they’ve been playing 70 games a summer since they were 10, we’ll see if they hold up.”
The growth of competitive baseball in the Grand Valley might be a reflection of a state and national trend. The majority of youth baseball in the Denver area is made up of competitive teams.
“It’s stronger on the (Front Range), especially with the younger kids,” Taylor said. “I think they start as young as eight or nine in the competitive leagues, so the Little League isn’t as strong in the Denver area.”
Although Little League in the Grand Valley has been losing participation numbers in the older ages, the little guys have to start somewhere.
That’s where Little League’s coach-pitch and T-ball leagues are an affordable, invaluable place to begin.
Toby Cruz is the president of Monument Little League and acknowledges the competitive league has cut into his league’s numbers, but Monument is still popular among the younger players.
“Our numbers are up from last year,” Cruz said. “We never want to turn anyone away, so even if people have trouble paying we let them do some volunteer work around the fields and make it up that way.”
Competitive baseball has its proponents, but Little League has a certain simplicity and wholesome atmosphere that’s hard to deny.
Even people in the competitive baseball world realize youth baseball is better off with a strong Little League program. Many boys on competitive teams also play Little League.
“I love the Little League program, and I’m in no way trying to step on their toes,” Bullen said. “I’m in no way trying to finish Little League, I’m just trying to offer baseball, and make baseball as good as we can over here.”
Taylor’s son, Owen, plays competitive baseball, and his two daughters play competitive softball. Even so, he said there’s something special about Little League.
“I’m a real advocate of Little League,” Taylor said. “I’m a strong believer that it’s a strong nationwide program that’s definitely about the youth. It’s the greatest experience in the world for a young kid to experience Little League.”