Elkhart area Little Leagues need people, not finger-pointing

Costs, travel summer teams and indifference cause too many obstacles.

Posted on April 24, 2014 at 5:00 p.m.

There are more than enough hot-button topics out there for society to chew on every day. I never realized Little League might be among them.

A short Elkhart Truth Facebook post Wednesday, April 23, asking readers about what keeps families and their children from participating in local Little League programs turned into a wind-swept grass fire.

Clearly, the burn connects many of us. And just as clearly, Little League's innocence has lost some of its allure.

As I sampled the eight Elkhart County programs, I found, not surprisingly, that registrations continue to fall — in some cases slowly, others steadily.

The combined numbers from Cleveland, Baugo, Elkhart FOP, Goshen and Bristol show a collective drop of nearly 15 percent. Concord and Goshen will fire up in the coming weeks with approximately 500 signees, each down from around 550 a year ago.

Baugo stands at 307, down from 437 in 2013, while FOP, a park with a once-proud tradition in Elkhart's inner city, battles property losses because of vandalism or river flooding every season. As of this week, FOP shows 65 entrants. Last summer, it had 133.

Public responses pointed to three core reasons — cost to play, the perception of internal politics or agendas and summer travel teams. Time commitment also was noted.

"Cost is insane," Jeffrey Miller said. "Also, I see less and less benefits with the 'everybody gets a trophy' mentality that Little League has for younger divisions now. Let's keep score, let's have outs after three strikes. Let's teach kids that failure happens and how they respond to it is what is truly important."

Jeffrey is correct.

"I feel that Little League is meant to teach fundamentals and introduce the feeling of being on a team," Susan Iocco wrote. "It's great for what it is. Travel leagues are directed more towards the talent of each player and focus on them more individually."

Susan is right.

"For my family it was the schedule and lack of teams. Games every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday every week with only four teams, it got redundant," Bethany Stanley said. "As a full-time working mom with a husband starting a business, we couldn't handle the schedule."

Bethany makes a valid point.

Then came this from Nikki Smith.

"We've had kids playing in LL for 12 years and have experienced more coaches with their main focus being winning every year," she said. "Who wants to do something when they get screamed at for every error they make (older kids) or when they don't get to play much because they're not as good as some others (younger kids)?"

I've seen it. We've all seen it. Little Leagues see it. Some choose to address it. Others let it slide.

Once the hub of summer neighborhoods and communities, Little League struggles to remain as purposeful as it was in the 1970s, '80s and '90s. 

Those with any remote connection to a program know the answers to the problems — it's the people and the times we live in.

Whether you have a child playing today or not, go to any ballpark and you'll find the answers. You might even be an obstacle.

You're part of the problem ...

... If you've ever stood behind a fence or in a parking lot and yelled at a coach, a player or an umpire.

... If you've never once volunteered to coach, officiate, keep a scorebook, or work a concession stand for a night.

... If you've ever dumped your lazy, disrespectful child at a park hoping that an off-duty fireman you met just last week is going to return him to you three hours later full of dedication and manners.

You're part of the problem ...

... If you think all the fields get mowed and weeded by magic.

... If you believe the fence repairs, irrigation system maintenance and dugout rebuilds come free.

... If you honestly think that the truck driver wearing his ball cap backwards and the RV accountant in Dockers are going to turn your daughter into the next Jennie Finch or son into the next Ken Griffey Jr.

Parks carry insurance, which doesn't come cheaply. Parks have resorted to paying umpires to work games, which eats into funds.

Dads who used to jump out of the bleachers to throw on a mask and chest protector have been replaced by local hires making $20-$25 a game.

Nobody wants to help, but they'll gladly gripe about why their daughter is playing right field instead of shortstop.

Baugo Park figures its operating costs this year at approximately $90 per child registered. It charges $70 for the first child in the family and $30 for each additional child.

At Concord, the working budget around $100,000 is based on $125 per kid playing. It charges $95 for the first child and $170 for two.

Sponsorships help defray costs, but barely.

Little League means money, too. So does travel ball.

In 1967, when I played Elkhart park baseball, all you needed was a glove and a clean white T-shirt that a coach would dye and iron a number on the back.

Times were so much simpler then.

Of course the rise in travel ball numbers produces lower numbers in Little League, but it's still kids playing softball and baseball.

Is it disappointing, arguably sad, that Little League locally stays on a decline? Yes.

My kids played, my niece and nephews played, friends of kids played. I've coached, umpired and served on a board. I've raked infields, lined diamonds and helped make popcorn.

But check the calendar. It's 2014. Times are different, people are different.

Parks can't find people. The few who are running programs run out of patience.

Parents who have the hours and kids who truly have the drive will start in Little League for sheer summer fun, but once they hit age 10, 11 or 12, they'll make that choice between dedication ball and recreation ball.

Some might go completely away from the game.

The travel softball teams and baseball teams come with a price. A family can drop as little as $400 for a child to play a tournament summer or they can fork out $1,200 or more.

If you want to label Little League as the entrylevel feeder to travel ball, so be it. It is what it is.

The more talented kids who choose to work hard, practice hard and play hard can land on a travel team.

Yet travel teams offer no guarantees to making high school teams. Kids make high school teams with their skill and willingness to learn.

I can find you scores of summer team players who barely earn their way onto high school rosters and will never play in college or beyond. Never.

The innocence of Little League still exists and is still worth preserving. It has a purpose.

Children will still strike out with the bases loaded. They'll still drop fly balls, and they'll forget how many outs there are or where they put their glove.

Sportsmanship and teamwork never lose their value, and Little League can offer these to countless children who may have no other vehicle.

It's just not to everyone anymore.

If Little Leagues are to survive, they need people and understanding, not finger-pointing.

Contact Bill Beck at bbeck@elkharttruth.com or on Twitter @BillBeckTruth

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