By Denis House
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
“Put me in coach, I’m ready to play.”
Those words were immortalized in John Fogerty’s hit, “Centerfield,” a song that extols the joy of the national pastime, baseball.
But lately, fewer and fewer children have been uttering those words, at least in Little League, as the organization that’s been in existence since 1939 and is the largest organized youth sports organization in the world continues to lose participants, not only on the national level, but also locally at both South London and North Laurel Little League.
The losses are staggering. In 2011, overall participation in Little League nationally dropped by 20,820 players and 1,388 teams. In the Little League division (ages 9-12) baseball dropped 783 teams and 11,745 players while softball dropped 183 teams and 2,745 players. Nine years ago, Little League had at least one chartered league in more than 100 countries. Currently Little League has chartered programs in 79 countries.
In the last 10 years, Little League’s overall enrollment in the United States has been in general decline of about one percent per year, due to socio-economic factors and other options children have (i.e.—varied organized youth sports, elite travel club baseball, less free time for parents, greater travel to practice and games, part-time jobs for players in upper divisions, video games and Internet), according to a study released by Little League.
On the local level, South London had 427 players registered in 2010, but last year, that number dropped to 341. The numbers are quite as large at North Laurel, where there were 560 players in 2010 and 525 in 2011. Still, that’s 121 players lost in Laurel County in one year.
Officials at both venues have opinions on why numbers have decreased and many of them coincide with what the Little League study revealed.
“I think for the most part the economy plays a big part and extended sports and video games,” North Laurel Little League president John Allen said. “I have seen a great deal of kids that are picking one or two sports and working all year around.”
South London vice president Jeff Neal agrees.
“All sports programs, including baseball, are going year round,” Neal said. “Everything is competing for the kids’ time”
If you are looking for success, you’d be hard pressed to find two more successful Little League programs in the state than those in Laurel County. Since 2008, there have been five state champions, five state runners-up, and 19 teams advance to a state tournament at all levels. And that’s just in the past four years. There were several more state champions in years past in Laurel County.
So why would two programs with so much history and so much success continue to lose players, and what can be done to reverse this trend?
“We need to be able to get in touch with players so they can find out about signing up,” Neal said. “We need to get to kids at a young age, like Wee Ball and T-Ball. We send flyers out to all the schools, but those younger kids aren’t in school yet so they may not know.”
Allen said they are doing the same at North Laurel.
“To help more than anything we have flyers sent to every school in our district,” Allen said. “We just need to keep sending flyers out. That is what we have found to be the best thing for sign ups. This way every kid in our district has one sent home with them.”
“Maybe we aren’t doing as much as we can,” Neal said.
Rival organizations have contributed to the decrease on the national level, with groups such as Cal Ripken, Babe Ruth, Pony League and USSSA. Several teams have been lost in the state to Cal Ripken, including neighboring Jackson and Pulaski County.
“You know I would say in other regions it has hurt but that’s not true around here,” Allen said.
“We’ve had discussions in the past few years about going to Cal Ripken,” Neal said. “Clay County just had that discussion but decided to stay with Little League.”
Another factor to be considered locally are travel teams, where some players forgo playing Little League to participate on teams that travel to play in various tournaments. There are players that do play both Little League and travel ball.
“Travel teams have some effect on it,” Neal said. “Every year you lose some kids, but it’s just hit around here in the past five or six years.”
Allen doesn’t share Neal’s opinion on travel teams.
“Speaking for North Laurel Little League I don’t think travel ball plays a part in decreasing numbers that we can tell,” Allen said.
One area that travel teams does hurt is softball. Last year in the Little League state softball tournament there were only five teams, while Kentucky has seven districts.
Keeping players interested as they grow older is also a concern for both programs.
“We’ve not had a Senior League team in a long time,” Neal said. “And Junior League is hit and miss. Now that you have baseball and softball in the middle schools, if a player doesn’t make the middle school team, they lose interest and quit.”
One thing for certain is both South London and North Laurel are trying its best to maintain not only the programs, but its facilities as well. Improvements on the fields continue to take place, while South London is in the process of completing an indoor batting cage. North Laurel already has an indoor battling cage.
Plus, South London currently has the Challenger Division, which is geared toward youngsters with disabilities. According to the National Alliance for Youth Sports, “while the benefits of youth sports – from learning sports skills to leadership skills – are numerous and well known, its positive effects on children with disabilities are often overlooked. The fact is, playing sports is found to be just as beneficial to youth with disabilities as to those without.” With the Challenger Division, those children are given the chance to participate and reap its benefits.
For parents who are afraid of their children being injured playing sports, baseball-related injuries were down 25 percent from 1994 through 2006, according to a study by the Center for Injury Research and Policy of The Research Institute at nationwide children’s hospitals. And the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that “baseball and softball for children 5 through 14 years of age should be acknowledged by pediatricians as relatively safe sports. Catastrophic and chronically disabling injuries are rare; the frequency of injuries does not seem to have increased during the past two decades.” The one injury on the rise in youth baseball is throwing arm injuries, and these usually occur when a player doesn’t stretch probably before and after throwing, throws too many pitches, or throws certain pitches before their arm develops. Little League has strict rules on the number of pitches a player can throw, while tournaments traveling teams participate in usually don’t.
There’s something magical about a sunny spring day, the green of a freshly mowed field, the white chalk lines contrasting the brown dirt, and the laid back atmosphere that baseball affords its participants and spectators. It would be a shame for youngsters to miss out on one of the great joys of youth.
There are still two Saturdays left to sign up at both programs, Feb. 25 and March 3. South London sign ups are held in the South Laurel High School gym from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., while North Laurel holds theirs in the lobby of North Laurel High School, also from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m.