It’s a question which seems to crop up every summer – what is going on with the youth baseball and softball leagues? The questions start the same time the ball field lights at McMinnville Civic Center begin dotting the sky, but usually die down after a week or two as people settle down.
Not this year.
Dwindling participation. Spotty umpiring. Lack of direction. A growing number of travel teams.
Pick a topic and it’s probably already been brought up by coaches. They lament and often hearken back for the days when concession stand lines were filled with dozens of people craving chicken sandwiches, every field had a game going and weekends were planned around battling for youth championships.
Nowadays, scoreboards are turned off during T-ball games, some league games are wrapped up before the sun sets and fields sit empty. There’s yet to be a night this season when all seven of the fields were each in use for games.
Maybe that’s why the questions continue to pour in. The nightly visual of empty fields, contrasted against memories of nights spent at the ballfields, make more and more wonder if youth baseball and softball are slowly dying.
A boiling point was reached June 5, when Gary Steele Karate took the field against Womack Printing in the boys 12-14 senior league. Both teams played with seven players, the most they could manage to get to the game in the three-team league, which features just 28 players.
Both teams tried to play defense with three infielders and two outfielders in a league most closely associated in age with school teams. But is it doing them any good?
The WCMS baseball roster for 2018-19 released by coach Chad Young last month featured just two players currently playing in the McMinnville Youth Baseball and Softball leagues. The WCMS Lady Pioneer softball team, which won the Central Tennessee Conference in April, doesn’t have any returning players competing in the leagues.
Three years ago, in an exit interview with the Southern Standard, then athletic director Kevin Roberts shared an overall vision for what the leagues would become.
“We want to create leagues that are not just based on winning,” Roberts, who was hired as the first city athletic director in January 2015, told the Standard in July 2015. “Our leagues needs to be based on fundamentally growing future players for our middle school and high school while having fun.”
Roberts accepted a different position within the city in January 2016. His assistant Terry Beard was promoted to city athletic director a month later.
Have the goals changed? Not necessarily, according to Beard.
“First and foremost, we’d love to see the leagues grow,” said Beard. “Secondly, we want kids to have fun and learn the game. I want it to be a recreation for them to get physical activity and grow bonds in a team setting.”
And yet, school coaches are finding out quickly it is getting harder and harder to find developed players.
“A healthy feeder system combined with hard-nose, consistent, transparent coaching in schools will lead to success,” said WCMS baseball coach Chad Young, who recently had just 21 players show up for a tryout. “I would like to see more competitive leagues and teams. We have awesome fields to play on.”
WCMS softball coach Joe Damon – who helps coach a city league team and works with travel teams as well – added, “The oldest softball league plays with a smaller ball and the rubber is a shorter distance than we play in school. I think it hurts a lot. All the girls we travel with, they didn’t play in the league. It’s not going to benefit them.”
Participation is down all around. From T-ball up to senior leagues in baseball and softball, Beard estimates 360-370 youth players at McMinnville Civic Center, compared to Morrison's 470 participants. Morrison officials reported being down from a peak of 550, while Midway officials estimate a loss of 25-30 players from just a few years ago.
Beard also estimates a drop of 25 participants in the city league since last year.
But the city leagues are the only ones to offer baseball and fast-pitch softball, sports where the school coaches count on youth development to succeed. And in those numbers, the drop has been massive over the decades.
In 2016, the decision was made to change the age groups for baseball and softball. In baseball, boys 7-8 machine-pitch changed to 6-8; boys 9-10 junior league moved to 9-11; and boys 11-12 senior league turned into 12-14. Girls softball took 7-8 coach-pitch and turned it to girls 7-9 while the girls 9-10 junior league morphed into girls 10-12 division, eliminating a 11-13 senior division.
This season, only 22 teams play in the five leagues. In 2008, there were 45 teams in seven leagues. In 1998, there were 77 teams in eight leagues. Just the year before the city assumed control of the leagues (2014), there were 37 teams in six leagues.
Is there coming a time when youth recreation baseball and softball no longer exist in McMinnville? It may be possible.
In the coming issues, reasons for dwindling participation will be discussed, highlighting such topics as travel teams, youth inactivity, league direction and umpiring supplemented with candid interviews with coaches, past youth league organizers and city employees.
Sports editor Jeffery Simmons can be reached at 473-2191.