Are Golden State Warriors to blame for drop in local Little League signups?

in Sports

By Bill Shilstone

Commentators may debate which upstart sport now holds the title, whether it’s football or basketball or even soccer that has dethroned baseball as the national pastime. But on any given weekend, on fields all over Redwood City, hundreds of kids and their parents and their coaches ignore all that chatter and just “play ball.”

Sixty-three Little League and 20 girls softball teams have to juggle and adjust to get access to fields and ball diamonds for a season that starts with that first crack of a bat on Opening Day in March and culminates in August when all-star players get a chance to compete with teams from all over the country.

Strikes. Hits. Errors. Home runs. That’s only part of what baseball is all about, say Little League coaches and leaders. Far more important, they say, are the character-building lessons and other intangibles that have been passed on from generation to generation of kids who grew up immersed in a game that some consider a bit outmoded in today’s rapid-action world.

“It’s about getting kids off the TV and outdoors,” Redwood City Little League Coach Mike Bobadilla said. “Interacting with people from all walks of life. Treating adults with respect. Handling failure and success. Being responsible for cleaning up the mess you left in the dugout. Coaches teach punctuality, preparedness – things that apply beyond baseball.”

To be sure, participation in Little League ebbs and flows, and its popularity has taken a hit in recent years, not just in Redwood City but Bay Area-wide. Recreation leaders say competition from soccer, lacrosse and basketball – and the fortunes of the San Francisco Giants – all are factors.

“There were major spikes in enrollment in the years after the Giants’ World Series victories (in 2010, 2012 and 2014),” said Eric Newby, recreation manager for sports and aquatics for the city. “Go Giants!”

Little League enrollment dropped to 734 this spring from its peak of 1,000 in 2013. “Nothing like a four-game sweep to create interest,” Bobadilla said. He noted that the success of the Golden State Warriors has spawned basketball camps that divert kids from baseball.

The numbers also are down in the Redwood City Girls Softball League, which has 227 girls on 20 teams. Hector Carlos, the league president, said one drain on enrollment is the proliferation of club teams that attract the top players with the opportunity of exposure to college recruiters.

The lost Little Leaguers are missing out on the fruits of a $2 million-plus renovation of synthetic turf fields completed in 2016 that has made Red Morton Park a state-of-the-art facility. Sandpiper and Marlin fields in Redwood Shores also were redone, and the one at Hoover Intermediate School is next. Both boys and girls – and their parents — also are missing out on the intangibles that are considered the heart of both programs.

Kate Severin, one of the two female head coaches in the softball league, provides a perspective aimed chiefly at the girls. Severin, a division chief at the Veterans Administration in Menlo Park, played four years in college and has coached boys and girls in both baseball and softball.

“I dedicate most of my coaching time to softball because young women need strong female role models, like I had, to know that they can succeed not only in athletics but also be leaders with commitment to others,” she said. “As a young player, I learned never to turn my back on a teammate (or today, a colleague) when they’re struggling. Persevering through grueling playing conditions and exhaustion, I learned to believe there is nothing we can’t do if we put our hearts and minds to it.”

Carlos, the league president, is working on recruiting more role models like Severin and Emily Chapman, a head coach in the 6 and Under Division. His daughter Samantha, a San Jose State University student who played at Woodside High, coaches third base for his team and coordinates umpires for the league. There are eight female umpires in the younger divisions, and Carlos talked Paige Blackwell, a left-handed senior pitcher at Woodside, into tutoring one of his young lefties.

The league requires all volunteers to take an online course in ethics and conduct, and  there is a female chaperone assigned to all practice sessions. Criminal background checks are required by both the softball and baseball leagues.

While the girls are just as intense and competitive as the boys, their approach to the game is a bit more light-hearted, evidenced by the whimsical names they choose for their teams. This year, they include the Ruby Rockstars, the Mermaids, the Doodle Bugs and the Daffodils. Samantha Carlos said the best (or worst) from her playing days was the Evil Blueberry Pop-Tarts. “We shortened it to Evil Blueberries.”

Codes of conduct for both leagues contain lessons for adults as well as players. Parents and guardians must promise to “place the emotional and physical well being of my child ahead of my personal desire to win” and to “remember the game is for our youth – not adults.” Players must also sign a code of good sportsmanship.

“As intense as parents can get, very few need to be ejected from the stands,” Bobadilla said. “When young umpires are working, we have umpire advocates in the stands – a parent or board member to remind if necessary that these are kids learning to play, and that we’re all one big community, so the player you are yelling at might be your son’s teammate next year.” The young umps, usually players in the upper divisions, get $25 a game (“their first paid job for some”) and valuable leadership training, sometimes “arbitrating between two coaches twice your size.”

Umpire pay (higher for certificated adults), field rent paid to the city, uniforms and equipment are the major expenses for both leagues. Little League parents pay registration fees of $170 for younger players and $190 for older kids. The comparable softball league figures are $150 and $250. The Little League has 55 community businesses sponsoring teams at $400, $500 and $600 levels. The softball league’s 14 sponsors pay $300 per team (up to four for a Grand Slam), this year totaling $6,300.  Donations and fundraisers such as softball’s Hit-A-Thon and Little League Day at the Giants’ AT&T Park add to the pot. Volunteers do the coaching, coordinating and other league duties. Budget totals this year are $220,000 for Little League and $57,000 for Girls Softball.

Some of that Little League money goes for equipment and upkeep of the Eric Byrnes batting cage, built at the same time as the Red Morton makeover. One of the sponsors  was the former Major Leaguer from Woodside for whom it is named. It contains two pitching machines for use by the older players, batting tees and pitching mounds. The next project the city and Little League are contemplating is some shade for the fans, who now bake in the bleachers.

A tricky problem for both leagues is the coordination of field-sharing, with dozens of Little League and softball teams trying to fit games, two a week, and practices into 22 fields – 11 at schools, nine in city parks and two at Pacific Shores at the east end of Seaport Boulevard.  Newby, the recreation department’s field master, says cooperation between all users, youth and adult, make the job doable and even pleasant.

“Twice a year we bring all the sport league presidents and field coordinators together and discuss each field in detail,” Newby said. “Communication is the key, and all groups have a great working relationship.” At a state parks and recreation conference last month, nobody believed him. “One city representative said, ‘If I did that they might start really fighting.’”

The problem of field use coordination was one factor in the 2012 merger of three Redwood City Little League programs –Redwood City National, Redwood City American and Highlanders – into one. “That and competition for the same sponsors,” said Bobadilla. “The merger has made us one big community and killed the us-and-them mindset. Red Morton is the crown jewel, and now everybody gets to play there.”

Carlos said the girls’ league was formed in 2006, under the leadership of Steve Chandler, when parents got tired of driving to San Carlos, then the closest city with a girls softball league.

The experience in both the baseball and softball programs begins with kids as young as four years old hitting the ball off a tee and leads to the road to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., and opportunities to play in high school and college, where the federal Title IX equal opportunity legislation opened the door for girls in 1972. Redwood City will host the 14-team District 52 tournament for 10-12-year-olds beginning June 22, and the softball league will feed 90-95 percent of the players at Sequoia and Woodside.

The numbers may be down, but the attraction is still there for the hundreds of players and adult volunteers active on Redwood City diamonds.

Newby finds it “extremely rewarding” to work with the youth sports groups every day. “From league presidents down to individual coaches, everyone is supportive of each other,” he said. “I see it every day walking through the park in the afternoon. I’ve seen players from many years ago now coaching their kids. At my son’s Opening Day Tee-Ball ceremony this year, his first, it felt special to finally be a part of it as a parent.”