AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Seattle Central Little League player second baseman Nestor Berdua-Ortega waits in the dugout to take the field before their game against Lancaster Recreation Little League from Lancaster, Pa., in South Williamsport, Pa., during the 2009 Little League Urban Initiative Jamboree.
By Genaro C. Armas
The Associated Press
SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Leaning against a dugout wall at Lamade Stadium, 12-year-old Evell Nelson’s eyes lit up as he thought about the future.
An early season tournament for urban Little League programs from around the country didn’t satisfy the slugger from Seattle.
“We all want to come back here to play in the Little League World Series,” the third baseman said.
Once considered a weakness of Little League Baseball, inner-city and urban organizations such as the Seattle Central league are growing — a bright spot for a youth program that, overall, has seen a 13 percent decline in participation over the past decade.
As Little League looks for ways to reverse declines, mainly in suburban and rural areas, leaders view the “Urban Initiative” program as an avenue to get more children — especially minorities and the poor — to pick up a glove and ball.
Little League boasts that the 9-year-old program has helped nearly 1,100 leagues and 3,900 teams, which amounts to about to 50,000 players.
Little League does not track how many of the assisted leagues are still in operation, or are not with Little League but still playing baseball. For instance, a local league could choose to join another organization such as the Babe Ruth League.
But officials say the majority of Urban Initiative-assisted programs are still with Little League. Through the program, leagues can apply for grants to help with costs such as equipment and field renovations.
“The point of the Urban Initiative (is) these kids, living in some pretty tough parts of the country, are really just being denied the opportunity,” said Little League president Stephen Keener, his eyes darting across the field watching plays during the Memorial Day weekend tournament for urban teams.
“A lot of the rural, suburban programs, kids may not choose to play for a number of reasons. Many of these kids don’t have the choice, because no program existed for them.”
Corporate donations and grants fund the program. Eligible leagues get “assistance packages” that help local volunteers.
Over the years, Bank of America has provided more than $500,000 for field renovations. American Honda has given $100,000 annually for equipment and uniforms. A $1 million grant from the Conrad Hilton Foundation has helped build new fields.
It’s unclear how the recession will affect future funding, though Urban Initiative director Demiko Ervin said he remained confident the program would keep going.
A $5,000 grant from Little League went to help pay for equipment for the Seattle Central league. Government grants helped pay for new batting cages that cost $60,000.
All for an organization that Seattle Central league president Steve Orser said was nearly defunct a decade ago after the program had “lost its direction.”
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Seattle Central Little League team, in black, and Lancaster Recreation Little League from Lancaster, Pa., shake hands after their game in South Williamsport, Pa., during the 2009 Little League Urban Initiative Jamboree. Seattle won 7-0 on May 23.
Reinvigorated six years ago with fresh leadership and a new army of volunteers, the number of players has grown from 30 to more than 400. All the nearly three dozen teams are named after Negro League squads.
It’s presented Orser with some welcome dilemmas.
“At some point, we’re going to have to cap it,” he said in a phone interview. “We’re running out of fields, equipment and supplies. Scheduling can be a headache.”
The league serves Seattle’s downtown and Central District, areas that include public housing developments. Scholarships are awarded to families that can’t afford the $60 registration fee.
“It’s very fun, and most of our players are excited,” Nelson said softly in the dugout. “What would we be doing if not playing Little League? Probably playing video games.”
A league in Memphis, Tenn., started through Urban Initiative in 2008 already fields 20 teams with 320 players. Organizers in Lancaster, Pa., launched a city league two years ago to cater to its urban population because another area league concentrated more on outlying areas.
The Lancaster league has about 120 players, up from 50. Grants helped pay for scholarships, and separate grants from Major League Baseball helped repair fields that league president Audrey Landers likened to “chunks of grass” and mud.
“We could reach the population we wanted,” Landers said.
Like 10-year-old Craig Bouder Jr., a diminutive pitcher who looked as if he could fit a second player into his baggy red Lancaster uniform. He bounded off the mound and got high-fives from teammates after getting out of a first-inning jam against Seattle.
“It’s awesome,” he said about his Williamsport experience. “We’re seeing people that we probably won’t ever see again.”
Overall, the number of children playing Little League baseball has declined from nearly 2.6 million worldwide at its peak in 1997 to about 2.2 million in 2008. The number of girls playing Little League softball has declined by about 10 percent during the same period to about 359,000.
Suburban and rural leagues still make up the vast majority of Little League’s programs.
Some of the decline, organizers say, is due to leagues switching to other youth baseball organizations or teams choosing to play more “travel ball” tournaments instead of within the Little League structure.
Those options may not be as available in urban areas, organizers say.
And while there may be more open space for baseball fields in the suburbs, many youngsters play other sports, such as soccer, which often competes with Little League for spring registrations.
On the other end, Keener said more children are concentrating on baseball year-round at the expense of other activities, which could lead to burnout and the player giving up the sport at a younger age.
Little League would pour the same time and effort into suburban and rural leagues as it does through Urban Initiative if the money were available, Keener said.
Regardless of finances, getting a core group of dedicated volunteers appears to be a common factor, too, whether in Seattle, Memphis or Lancaster.
“As long we got kids out there playing, helping more areas and building more fields,” Keener said, “that’s fine with me.”
More on this from our end at former blog posts:
== Little Leagues, big cash problems (also written by the AP’s Armas) (linked here)
== How to help the Wrigley Little League in L.A. (linked here)
== The original March 20 post on Wrigley Little League (linked here)