I played for the local fire company who sponsored our team. There were three age divisions. "B" league was where we started at 8 years old. There was no Tee Ball back then. "A" league was the next step at age 10 and Junior League was age 12 through 14. There were no "travel" teams. By that I mean teams that we had to try out for. If you wanted to play little league, you played. There were no tryouts. We were all welcome.
I can clearly remember my Dad, who also was one of our coaches, paying my "entrance" fee. It was $3.00. For that $3.00 the team provided, uniforms, hats and bats, helmets, catcher's gear, etc. The fire company built it's own field and supplied the bases. They would pay one umpire a couple bucks and get one of the dads to ump the bases. And, we would rake the field before each game. The kids! Try getting youngsters to do that now.
The first travel team we had back then was Connie Mack League. You could try out for this team at 13 years old. After that was American Legion baseball.
Let's fast forward to the 1990's when my own son, Luke, played. At age six, he was playing Tee Ball, then came little league. Not a whole lot of difference from when I played. Then came age 9 when he wanted to try out for the new Travel Team. After making this team I was informed that there was a $75.00 entrance fee. Ok, well that's what it cost. But, the were also some other things. By this time, aluminum bats had made their way into baseball. And the team did not provide them. Each kid had to have his own bat. So, there went another $130.00 for a bat for Luke. Of course, each kid had to have an equipment bag, so that was another $50.00. The umpires were now getting $45.00 per game. That was $90.00 for two umpires.
Then they told me that the parents had to sell candy bars as a fund raiser. Not the kids, mind you, the parents. They made us buy the box of candy for 30.00. That way the league got the money up front. If I wanted my money back I had to sell the candy. So by now the cost of playing little league had gone up big time. And today it's even worse. Some parents simply can't afford it anymore.
Also, back when I played, we played baseball in the summer, football in the fall and basketball in the winter. Haha, not anymore. Now, if you are a baseball player and have aspirations of playing at a higher level, travel teams, Junior Legion, American Legion and High School baseball, you are expected to play summer ball, fall ball and "work out" for baseball in the winter. It's the same with football and basketball. Coaches now expect their players to concentrate on one sport at the expense of the other sports.
There was no soccer back in my day. At least very little. Now, everybody wants to play soccer instead of baseball.
Kids are also pre-occupied with other things. A few years ago I coached a knee hi travel team. 13 and 14 year old kids could try out for this team. And there were going to be "cut's" after several try out practices. The first team I tried out for in the 1960's was the Connie Mack League team. There had to be 30 or 40 players that tried out and they only kept 14 of us. So on the first day of try outs for our knee hi team, 17 kids showed up. The second try out only 15 were there. So, we ended up cutting three kids.
I was really excited about coaching this team. They had asked me to be the hitting coach and I figured that since these kids had to try out that they would be "into it". Boy, was I wrong!
All they talked about was video games. I remember one game sitting in the dugout. A couple players were talking about video games and I asked them what the score was. Of course they didn't know. Then I asked them if they could at least tell me who was winning? They had no clue.
One day at practice I was explaining the importance of "staying back" while hitting. I used hall of famer George Brett as an example. They all looked at me with that quizical look. When I asked them if they knew who George Brett was, not one of them knew. How could these 13 and 14 year old kids not know who George Brett was? When I played, I certainly knew who Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams were. They were my idols.
When I was their age, if we weren't playing or practicing baseball, we were watching it on TV or following our favorite players in the news paper. Collecting baseball cards, pretending we were those players. Trying to copy their style and swing. Wow, not anymore.
There doesn't seem to be any passion for the game with kids now. Back in the 1960's if you made the American Legion team, that was as good as it got. Last season our local American Legion team didn't have enough players to field a team. I couldn't believe it, no legion team.
Part of the problem was no interest and also because there are now "Tournament Teams". The local high school coach started one of these teams and announced that if the kids expected to play high school baseball for him, they better make this tournament team. That took most of the better players away from the legion program.
One player from the knee high team I coached, tried out for and made one of these tournament teams. They would play games all over the country. They were even going to Europe to play. Yes, Europe! This kid's dad told me that this was all going to cost him thousands of dollars. Who can afford that. But if these kids want to play at higher levels, they are expected to do this.
According to the Wall Street Journal, participation in baseball between the ages of 7 and 17 was 8.8 million in the year 2000. In 2013 it was down to 5.3 million. And it's not just baseball.
Over the same time period, softball was down from 5.4 million to 3.2 million. Basketball was down from 13.8 to 10.3. Even soccer dropped from 9.2 to 6.9 million. Only football went up. Barely. 4.2 to 4.9.
These days you can drive by a local baseball field in July or August and it is empty. Even the teams that do exist are finished by the middle of summer.
When my son played in the travel leagues, one of the first things the coach did was lay down the law about missing games and practices. No family vacations either. That turned off a lot of parents.
I recall during one of those seasons when my son played "Travel Baseball", there was a hitting clinic that was going to be held at a local college. Our head coach said he wanted all the kids on the team to attend. Of course it cost $100.00! So I took my son.
Major League catcher Brad Ausmus was the guest at the clinic. He was dressed in his Major League, Houston Astros uniform. Pretty cool, I thought. I'm pretty sure, though, that not one of the kids knew who he was. Only that he was in the Major Leagues. After the clinic, Ausmus sat the kids in the bleachers for a question and answer session. The very first question from one of the kids to Brad was , "how much money do you make?" Not "what's it like to be a Major Leaguer" or "what's it like to face Roger Clemens?"
When I was a kid I didn't want to be a Big Leaguer to get rich. I wanted to be a big leaguer because I loved baseball.
I think there are several reasons for the decline in youth baseball and in youth sports in general. As we covered, the cost of playing has become ridiculous. But, also, the kids of today are exposed to so many more things than we had. Back in my day, the only thing there was to do on a sunny afternoon in the summertime was play baseball. Kids now have traded in their glove and bat for a joy stick. The "X-Box", Nintendo and the Wii.
Kids no longer have baseball heroes. Nor do they know the fantastic history of the game.
Shear laziness enters in to the equation, too. Try to pry a kid off the sofa or away from the computer or video game. We hear all the time about the problem of obesity in this country. Maybe if these kids were rounding third for real instead of sliding into home in a video game, that would change.
My own 14 year old grandson told me just the other day that he wasn't going to play baseball this summer. He said it was because he was in the band and his school work. He didn't have time for baseball. Really, band and school work in the summer?
Well, things sure do change. I'm so glad I grew up in the "pre-technology" years, playing little league baseball for Fire Company #2. Getting a free 8 ounce Coke when we won, which the coach sprung for. Being upset when the game got rained out.
Going to old Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia with our little league team to see our heroes in person, wow! Even hustling home from school to catch the end of a World Series game. Now kids would have to stay up until midnight to do that.
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