- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 22, 2001

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Much of America, in person or via TV, descends on this small central Pennsylvania town every August, and with good reason.
The Little League World Series, held here each year since 1947, represents much of what is still good and right in sports. The competition of the world's best 12-year-old baseball players is free of drugs, money and agents. The tickets are free, and always have been. The locals are friendly, and the view of quaint Lamade Stadium from the large grassy hill beyond the center field wall is one of the great vistas in sports.
In short, the 10-day tournament, which ends Sunday, is a living Norman Rockwell painting surviving in a far more complex and difficult world.
But as youth participation in baseball continues to plummet, does Little League have a future?
Looking only at the World Series tournament, the answer unabashedly would be yes. Little League Baseball Inc. this year doubled the World Series field to 16 teams. The new Volunteer Stadium, built adjacent to Lamade to handle the additional games, highlights a $7.5 million expansion to the complex. ABC and sister network ESPN last year signed a five-year contract extension with Little League Baseball to keep the games on national television through 2006. And an expected record crowd of 250,000 during the tournament will increase Williamsport's population of 40,000 by more than sixfold.
"This event is still distinctive and special," said Stephen Keener, president and chief executive of Little League. "Williamsport becomes a major destination every year because there's something here you can't just get everywhere else."
As this international showcase thrives, however, youth baseball itself continues to sink to near-anonymity.
Participation in baseball among all Americans is down 10 percent since 1999.
Among children ages 6 to 17, the drop is nearly 20 percent. Baseball is now the sixth most popular sport to play in that age group, trailing upstart activities such as in-line skating.
Even Mr. Keener's own two boys, ages 10 and 12, like roller hockey as much as baseball.
"They enjoy baseball, and play it," Mr. Keener said.
"But when practice is over, the season is over, that's it. They move on to the next thing."
Other indicators measuring young America's interest in baseball, ranging from equipment sales to youth TV ratings for the Major League World Series, are dropping fast, too.
In short, baseball has only a fraction of the participation level and emotional hold among children it had a generation ago.
"There are a number of sports, including soccer, that many kids now begin playing before they would baseball or T-ball, and have evolved into two-season sports," said Jerry May, president of the Maryland Youth Soccer Association.
"So once you experience a sport early on, maybe taste a little success, it can be very, very difficult to then switch gears to something like baseball."
Leaders across organized youth baseball are attacking the issue with renewed vigor. Several marketing efforts conducted with Major League Baseball already are in place, including a program designed to promote the sport in disadvantaged urban areas.
Next year, Little League likely will be distributing a code of conduct for parents, providing a uniform, written expectation of what is and is not permissible at games. Several individual towns around the country already have standards in place aimed at curbing "parent rage."
But the Little League code represents the first major national action on an issue that has sullied the game for years and turned off kids in droves.
More importantly, this fall the key organizations in amateur baseball will consider proposals aimed at reversing the declining participation, possibly even tweaking some of the game's basic rules for the youngest age groups.
"Right now, exposure and inclusion are the two main things everybody involved wants to increase," said Mike May, spokesman for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.
"There are many, many kids right now that aren't really being exposed to the game, whether it be in their own play, [physical education] classes, or TV. And if they're not exposed to baseball, it's not even going to be a consideration for their free time."

Long time coming
Baseball's decline among youth, while accelerating, has been going on for some time.
The game's slow pace and numerous subtleties work against it, as do the booming popularity of video games and Internet surfing, extreme sports such as rock climbing, the vastly decreased free time children now have, and the lack of baseball fields in many cities.
Major League Baseball isn't helping, either, many youth coaches say. World Series games don't begin until 8:30 p.m., and there are constant labor squabbles, contract disputes and drug problems that distract attention from play on the field.
Most difficult for baseball advocates, however, are general perceptions of the game itself. Among very young children, baseball is frequently thought of as a tough, unforgiving sport to play. In early levels of soccer, the ground rules are simple: kick the ball into the goal and prevent your opponent from doing the same. Play until the coaches say stop.
In baseball, by comparison, kids must learn the concepts of innings, outs, balls and strikes and simultaneously develop the skills of throwing, hitting and fielding.
"Compared to even just soccer, there is a lot more mechanical and fine motor skills required," said Mike Domanski, manager of the Capitol City Little League team that won this year's District title and competed in regional competition in Connecticut. "There are still plenty of kids who want to play baseball, I think, but it can be daunting to pick up initially."
It can remain daunting even for more experienced children. At the Little League level, players range in height from barely 4 feet to more than 6 feet. Perhaps at no other level are the differences in size and power so wide.

Reinventing the wheel
This fall's youth baseball conference in Chicago will bring together not only each of the major youth leagues, but also manufacturers, coaches and USA Baseball and U.S. Olympic Committee officials.
Spirited debate over the direction of the game at its earliest levels is expected. Already one thing is certain: The old ways of doing business are not acceptable.
"We've never really had to market ourselves. There have been efforts here and there, but nothing really coordinated," said Jess Heald, chairman of Worth Inc., a leading manufacturer of baseball and softball bats. "For the longest time we didn't need to — the fields were full. But things have changed, and it's time for us to enter the 21st century."
Of the numerous proposals on the table, one is by far the most striking: develop widespread, noncompetitive leagues for players who are either not good enough for Little League or just want a more laid-back form of the game.
At first, the premise seems a bit un-American.
After all, aren't sports meant to be in part about rising to challenges, learning how to deal gracefully with the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, and realizing the power of teamwork?
But across the country, thousands of such leagues already exist in adult, slow-pitch softball. Standings and statistics are often kept, but the primary goal is simply to enjoy a little exercise and camaraderie after work.
"A precedent already exists in softball, and a rather large one at that," Mr. Heald said. "It's obviously a different age level, but they're out enjoying the game. That's important and, I think, worthy of perhaps being replicated."
Another proposal is to streamline the mass of youth baseball organizations. Players have a dizzying choice: Besides Little League, there are Babe Ruth, Cal Ripken, Connie Mack, Pony and Dixie leagues, just to name a few. Many of the leagues have overlapping age ranges.
"The era of every individual league running their own separate fiefdom is over," said Paul Seiler, chief executive of USA Baseball, which oversees U.S. amateur baseball. "Already, the level of cooperation is much greater between all of us. We can no longer rely on what's been done in the past. Our challenge now includes forming a new organizational structure that is more accessible than it's been in the past."


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