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June 24, 2011 > Take me out to the ball game

Take me out to the ball game

Despite an abundance of talent, local Little League Baseball District 14 lacks players

By Giovanni Albanese Jr.
Photos By courtesy of Mark Alexander

They're still kids, but for some reason, there is a major drop off. Little League Baseball is an organization that hundreds of thousands of kids participate in, from T-ball, advancing to Minors (for ages 9-11), then to Majors (11-13), going onto Juniors (13-15) after that phase, followed by Seniors (15-16) and finishing up the progression with Big League (16-18).

In California's District 14, covering Fremont and Newark, the participation for the younger divisions is extremely high. Eight teams took part in the recent Tournament of Champions postseason playoff for each of the Minor, Major and Junior divisions. However, there is an extreme drop off once you reach the Senior and Big League divisions. In the Senior playoff, won by Niles-Centerville Little League Nationals, there were four clubs -- two from NCLL; two from Mission San Jose Little League. In Big League, there were just three clubs.

"Little League Baseball is rich [in talent]," said Mark Alexander. "But when it gets to the Senior level, as of five or six years ago, it tails off."

Alexander managed the club that won the Big League TOC. His Giants club, the top seed (above Mission San Jose and Warm Springs little leagues) going into the tournament, is a 14-man roster made up of six leagues. His roster consists of players from Centerville National, Centerville American, Niles-Centerville, Newark National, Newark American and Fremont American.

Why does something like this happen? It's a combination of things. It seems the overriding issue is that not enough kids sign up. But Alexander is a believer in baseball and helping kids stay active and off the streets. He was determined to put a team together, so he spent his time by "going to all the high school and recruited players to put a team on the field."

But it wasn't a matter of that kids didn't want to play baseball. According to Alexander, all the kids he recruited wanted to play ball; they just didn't know they could play baseball in Little League at their age. A lot of kids are pressured into playing travel ball, which costs more than $1,000 just to be a part of the club.

"It's expensive to play travel," said Alexander. "So the alternative is to play Little League."

But still the turnout is low. In some cases, playing with the travel clubs can increase your chances of playing for your local high school club; playing for Little League -- something that costs $90 to play -- can hinder your chances of playing in high school.

"High schools pressure the kids to go to travel teams or they won't make the high school team," said one parent of the Big League runner up Mission San Jose Astros team. "Mission San Jose High School doesn't do that which is probably why we have so many kids."

There is also a conflict of schedules for many of the players, who are also likely playing for their high school clubs -- if not pressured into travel ball. Big League, for instance, starts its season while high school is still ongoing. Players, then, opt to finish out the high school year before joining their Big League club, which, according to Alexander, is another reason the turnout is so low. He also confirmed Little League is looking into changing the start of the season to after Memorial Day.

"Baseball in the East Bay is alive, but as far as the numbers are, it's pathetic," said Alexander. "We need to utilize resources to capitalize on this talent."

Players aren't always pressured. They sometimes feel that opting for the travel club, they will have more exposure to scouts for both college and professional ball, and have better competition. Even D14 Administrator Reggie Torres has succumbed to that belief.

"Players in that age group [Seniors and Big League] want better competition and feel they can get it playing travel ball," said Torres.

Torres has a solution to this ongoing problem.

"I'm looking into trying to start a District wide travel team in the Junior and Senior levels," said Torres. "If we can get it off the ground, hopefully we can extend it to the Big League level."

That would certainly open the floodgates to better competition while still playing in Little League Baseball -- this the same D14 that saw its Niles-Centerville Senior League club come a game short of winning the Senior League World Series in 2009.

But, in 2011, as they stand today, they will continue to go out there and play. Next up for D14 Big League baseball is the Sectional tournament, which will consists of Alexander's Giants, along with some of the MSJ club that fell to the Giants in the championship, including coach Dave Foster of the MSJ Astros. First game of the tourney at Sequoia High School is Saturday, June 25. Log onto the Tri-City Voice Sports website, http://sports.tricityvoice.com, to follow the team throughout the postseason.

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