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America’s Pastime is taking a hit on the youth baseball level

BY DARRELL MOODY

Appeal Sports Writer

Baseball is considered America’s Pastime, but you wouldn’t know that if you looked around the youth baseball fields in Carson City and the Carson Valley.

There are fewer kids between the ages of 8 and 18 playing the sport in the area’s Little League and Babe Ruth leagues than ever before. The numbers are down, and it’s tough to pinpoint one specific reason.

Dwindling school enrollment, other sporting opportunities like travel teams, lack of adult volunteers willing to coach and different, non-athletic ways to spend free time are some of the reasons that have surfaced.

Carson City Little League commissioner Bryan Bibee said his league is approximately 30 kids down from a year ago, and this is a league that usually had at least six Major Division teams in each league a mere 10 years ago, and is now down to four in each.

Lezlie Mayville, president of Carson City Babe Ruth, said her program is down about 45 kids compared to 2007. The local Babe Ruth program didn’t even have enough kids to field a senior (16- to 18-year-old) team. That in itself is amazing when you consider the Carson High School has an enrollment of well over 2,000 and that there weren’t 40 or 50 kids that want to play baseball is stunning.

It’s even worse in the Gardnerville and Minden area where Carson Valley Little League player agent Debbie Jacobsen said her league is down about 110 players compared to last year.

“What’s interesting is that we’re top heavy with older kids (9-10, 11-12),” she said. “Our Tee-Ball numbers are way down. Usually that’s our biggest division. We usually have a good 200 kids.”

Jacobsen did say that the CVLL’s Major Division has expanded to 10 teams, but some of that is due to the rule that Little League instituted requiring 12-year-olds to play in the Major Division.

USED TO BE TRADITION

Playing baseball every day after school in the spring or summer, whether it be in the middle of the street or at a local school, used to be a regular happening. Now, when you walk or drive by a school, you don’t see kids playing baseball. The playgrounds are usually empty, void of any activity.

“Times have changed so dramatically since I grew up,” said Shane Quilling, former head football coach at CHS and the father of current and former Little Leaguers. “We grew up with no competition [for your time]. Your only resource was to go out and play all day with your friends.”

Carl Henry, Carson High School vice-principal said: “There are more things to do that we didn’t have growing up. There are video games, there is the Internet and there are extreme sports. Those things weren’t around when I was growing up.”

True enough. Gardnerville, Minden and Carson City all have skateboard parks, and those are packed with kids all the time.

Quilling said that his son, Chance, doesn’t own any video games, but that all of his friends do.

“The kids today want to play [the vide]) games,” Quilling said.

Henry also pointed out that baseball isn’t the easiest sport to master, and he said that might be a reason kids are staying away. It requires a different skill set, far more difficult than many other sports, and like any other endeavor, kids want to succeed at what they participate in.

LESS VOLUNTEERS

The demographics of Carson City have changed, according to former Little League commissioner Tim Terry. He also points out that fewer volunteers, including players’ parents, are stepping to the plate. Terry and Bibee both say that volunteers are the lifeblood of any sports organization like Little League and Babe Ruth.

“Younger people can’t afford to buy [a house or condo] here,” Terry said. “A lot are moving to Dayton or Fernley. There has been a drop in the number of adults willing to help. Coaching a Major Division team, people would stand in line. Now, we have to go begging.”

Bibee said it’s symptomatic of society today.

“Many organizations [church, Service Clubs, etc.] are having this type of a problem,” Bibee said. “In this fast-paced world we live in today, fewer and fewer people have time, ability, or interest to give what is needed.”

Some leagues in California will charge an additional registration fee if the parents don’t work in the snack bar, umpire, coach or help chalk fields. The problem was that parents would rather just pay the money instead of pitching in and getting their hands dirty.

OTHER ALTERNATIVES

Lack of individual and/or team success, according to Quilling can also lead to kids dropping sports.

“Parents make it too easy for kids to quit things nowadays,” Quilling said. “Kids nowadays don’t want to put in the work it takes.”

Terry points out that kids have opportunities to play other sports.

“There is spring basketball, spring football, soccer and hockey,” Terry said. “Thirty years ago, baseball was the only spring sport offered.”

Capital Soccer Club officials said they were down more than 200 players entering their final sign-up for the fall season last weekend.

DROPPING ENROLLMENT

Some suggest that dropping enrollment in the school district is the culprit.

Yes and no.

The numbers for this year’s enrollment in the Carson City and Douglas Unified School District weren’t available, but the three previous years show a slight, not significant, drop each year.

In Carson City, the district enrollment was 8,576 in the 2004-05 school year. That number dropped to 8,519 the following year and to 8,352 for the 2006-07 school year. In Douglas, enrollment dropped from 7,136 back in the 2004-05 school year to 6,909 in the 2006-07 school year.

Those numbers indicate a trend, but there are still plenty of kids opting not to play the sport.

LACK OF LATINOS

Another reason for low numbers is the lack of Latino kids in the youth baseball programs.

When you look at the make-up of the schools in both Carson City and Carson Valley, it shows that white children are in the majority with Latinos making up the next biggest block of student population from the elementary level on up.

Barely any of those students are playing baseball either at the high school or youth level.

Latinos comprise nearly 25 percent of the enrollment at Carson High, but soccer is the main sport they choose to play.

“It’s a cultural thing,” said Jim Blueberg Jr., who has coached all-star teams for Carson Little League and currently coaches a travel team. “Latinos love their soccer. There are not a whole lot playing baseball here. Certain ethnic groups are drawn to certain sports.”

“We only have one per team if that,” said Bibee, who said Carson Little League has a scholarship program. ‘We’ve tried to recruit some (coaches), but it’s hard to break that barrier. We have tried.”

Money shouldn’t be an issue, according to Mayville.

“If they don’t have the money, they get a scholarship with no questions asked,” said Mayville, whose son is finishing his third year in Babe Ruth. “We need to get more Latino kids involved in ball. We do have a few.

“As a league, we try to recruit anyone and everyone to coach, manage and volunteer. It’s extremely difficult to get anyone to do anything. It’s always the same people, and because they have to do everything, they get burnt out quickly.”

Of Babe Ruth’s 98 players eight to 10 are Latino, according to Mayville.

Carson Babe Ruth, which is fielding one less 13-year-old team and one less 14-15 team this season, has had to schedule games against neighboring leagues, including Carson Valley, in order to play a complete schedule.

The same holds true in Fallon. That program has just one 13-year-old team and four 14-15-year-old teams.

“The last couple of years we’ve had to pick up games with Lovelock, Yerington and Fernley,” said Claude Parsley, the president of Fallon Babe Ruth. “At one point our league took a big dip because of a traveling team.”

TRAVELING TEAMS

Ah, travel teams. It’s certainly a nasty word to organizations like Babe Ruth and Little League.

Babe Ruth has been hurt by travel teams, which have become a way of life all over the country in the last eight to 10 years. It was a natural progression to go from Little League to Babe Ruth. Now, not so much. More and more players, coaches and parents search for more competition that they can’t get in their local league.

“The thing about travel ball is the excitement,” Blueberg Jr. said. “Every weekend it’s an all-star tournament because you’re playing against other hand-picked teams. You’re playing in elimination games, playing for a championship every weekend you’re out there. The excitement, the pressure. Everybody is into it. You don’t do [travel ball] unless you are really into the game.”

Scheduling conflicts often make it virtually impossible for a player to play travel ball and Little league/Babe Ruth at the same time. Travel tournaments are on weekends, and there are usually regular-season games going on every Saturday.

“As long as [Saturday games are] happening, the leagues are forcing kids to make a choice,” Blueberg Jr. said.

FIELD DIMENSIONS

There also is the question of field dimensions when players go from Little League (46 feet pitching, 60-foot base paths) to Babe Ruth (60 and 90, respectively). It’s a huge jump, especially because many players haven’t come close to maturing physically.

It’s the reason that Blueberg’s son, Colby, a Little League all-star, went from playing Little League to travel ball as a 13-year-old. Ditto for Quilling’s son. Now, both play travel ball when it doesn’t interfere with the high school’s summer program.

“Playing on the smaller diamond keeps everything relative,” Blueberg Jr. said. “That’s why we do travel ball.”

“It’s not good baseball [13-year-old Babe Ruth],” Quilling said. “A lot of the kids can’t even throw across the diamond. The outfielders play so close to the infield.”

Terry said that a smaller diamond has been brought up, but that Babe Ruth has yet to act on it.

“Nobody has ever mentioned it to my knowledge at any of the state meetings,” Mayville said. “We would have to find a place for them to play.”

Why not Governors Field? It wouldn’t take a lot of work to make one of the two big diamonds strictly for 13s. Get rid of some of the grass in the infield, build a new mound and bring in the fences.

It would make for better competition to be sure, and might just be enough to get a few more kids to play locally.

CARSON HIGH

Babe Ruth also is hurt by Carson High. The high school fields two teams ” the Cardinals and junior Cardinals ” and if you want to play high school ball in the spring it’s imperative that you play on one of those teams. That’s a big reason why Carson Babe Ruth lacks players in both the older age groups.

– Contact Darrell Moody at dmoody@nevadaappeal.com or (775) 881-1281