A Closer Look at Youth Baseball (Part I)
Challenges Facing Youth Baseball
In recent years, there has been an effort on the part of Major League Baseball to encourage more young people to pick up the game. The Play Ball initiative focuses on getting more youth participation in the game through community outreach efforts and the Little League Classic has connected MLB with the annual Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
For a number of years now, Rob Manfred and MLB, have been concerned with the decline of baseball as a spectator sport among young Americans. The average age of a MLB fan is 53 years old according the a 2017 Nielsen report (NFL – 47, NBA – 37). We have all heard the criticisms that baseball is too slow and the games last too long; that it’s out of step with the fast paced world of 21st Century. To baseball fans, it’s often the pace and rhythm of the game that is most appealing, especially in world as fast paced as it is today.
Yet, while the spectator side of baseball has its challenges, the youth participation in the sport is not as dire as sometimes reported. Youth participation in organized sports is declining across the board, but youth baseball has shown considerable growth in the past five years, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. None is this is more evident than in the state of Florida.
Baseball in Florida
Having grown up playing ball in a cold weather state, baseball was mostly reserved for the Spring and Summer. Warm weather creates a whole different dynamic, where baseball becomes a year round sport. It is no surprise that Florida has become the state producing the most MLB draft picks per capita than in any other state. In fact, nine of the first thirty five picks (26%) in the 2018 MLB Draft came from Florida high schools or colleges.
The Florida youth baseball scene is vast and expansive. There are thriving local Little Leagues with Spring and Fall seasons and travel ball teams that start as early as eight years old all throughout the Florida baseball landscape. As a parent, it can be difficult to navigate this process and find the right place for your aspiring young ballplayer. In the months to come, I will be diving into topics related to youth baseball; from t-ball to college. There will be a specific emphasis on the game in the state of Florida.
In a recent conversation with Legends on Deck founder, David Conde, I learned that he has been involved in the formation of a new Babe Ruth / Cal Ripken League in Southwest Florida. His story peaked my curiosity about the youth game and the opportunities available for young ballplayers in their local communities. This conversation got me thinking about a whole number of issues regarding youth baseball and even more specifically youth baseball in the state of Florida.
An Interview with David Conde
I spoke with David Conde on his experience in building this new youth league down in the Fort Myers area. Here’s our Q&A about what lead him to this new endeavor:
Q: David, first of all thank you for all the work you have put in over the years coaching your sons in baseball. Baseball has always been a game passed down from one generation to the next, particularly among fathers and sons. Can you tell me a little about when your boys began to play, your involvement as a coach and how that’s progressed over the years?
A: I have loved this game since I was a young kid living in Brooklyn, NY. I shared it with my boys, but I never pushed them to play it. I guess I wanted them to love it on their own first. I remember one day, my oldest son Christopher and I were in Target, he must have been like three years old. Well, I was in the toy aisle and when I turn around he had a baseball helmet on and was just swinging a bat. He had such a sweet left handed swing. From that point on, he just had a interest in the game and would also watch it on TV with me.
As for my younger son Matthew, he followed along watching his brother play and one day he too came to me with batting gloves on, a helmet and grabbed a bat and wanted me to pitch to him. He must have been around 4 at the time.
I started coaching my oldest first in Little League, when he was 10 years old, and stayed with him until he played through the Minors division and then the Majors. With Matthew, I knew I had to give him the same time and attention as I gave to Christopher. Watching them both play the game from t-ball on up has brought me some proud moments as a dad and it makes me feel good that they both truly love this game.
Q: You have recently been involved in creating South Lee County Cal Ripken / Babe Ruth Baseball, Youth Baseball Inc. Can you tell me a little about what brought this new league into existence about why you chose to affiliate with Cal Ripken / Babe Ruth?
A: For a few seasons, my two partners, Mike Interbartolo and Pete Alcantara, had their kids play in the local Cal Ripken team on the 50/70 fields, while at the same time having their boys involved in Little League. Mike, Pete and I, had all been coaches in Little League and I was kind of confused as to where I wanted Christopher to play after his Little League career was over.
I happened to just make a call to Mike and he shared with me how he and Pete were given the rights to a Cal Ripken charter and that they were looking to create the Babe Ruth charter as well. I looked into it and realized it was just a perfect fit for Christopher. A way to continue to develop in the game and also keep playing with his friends, the same way when we were kids.
Regular travel ball organizations, which are great for some people, was just not a good fit for us. I know that it offers many kids the opportunity to play against talented teams around the state, but I was looking for something that was less expensive and could also offer some travel opportunities. The Babe Ruth charter offered just that. It also leaves the door open for travelling outside of our local area for tournaments.
I knew that there are many kids that may not be on travel teams, but still very talented, which would allow my son to play in a competitive environment. After speaking with other parents, they felt the same way. This just seemed like the perfect fit for the boys and their families.
Q: Many of us grew up playing baseball in different types of recreational and travel leagues. And of course, we all have followed the Little League World Series tournament that is showcased in Williamsport, Pennsylvania every year. What makes Cal Ripken / Babe Ruth unique from some of the other leagues that exist — like Little League or various travel ball opportunities that exist?
A: Well if you want to compare Little League baseball against Cal Ripken, Ripken allows the boys to play the game the way the pros play it. You know I never really understood the whole stand on the base and don’t steal until the catcher has the ball, especially when kids are 12 years old. I believe at that age , kids should already be playing on a bigger sized field (50/70) then the regular (46/60) and learning the real parts of baseball, like leading off, stealing and pitchers trying to pick off runners. I feel that it allows the kids to adjust to the game faster and makes it easier to jump to the big field (60/90). I believe there are little league programs that apply the 50/70 game, but certainly not all. I know travel ball does it.
I really didn’t know much about Cal Ripken when Christopher was playing through the Little League levels, and if I had, his path to the big field may have been a bit different. Now with our charter, I can bring Matthew along the right way a bit earlier. He has done well in Little League, but I think this will help him to gain knowledge of the real game at a younger age.
I am proud of both my boys because they have done very well in their development in the game, so having this charter just ensures it will continue as long as the love of the game remains with them.
Q: This is a very exciting endeavor you have ventured out on and I am certain your sons are excited about the opportunities to be involved. What do you and the others involved see as the future for South Lee County Cal Ripken / Babe Ruth Baseball? Are there plans to expand to different age groups? Perhaps include girls softball? What kind of things does it take for an organization like this to grow and be a long term fixture in the community?
A: Well being that we just started the 13-15U Babe Ruth team this Fall, we are hoping to possibly add another 13-15U team and also a 12U Cal Ripken team this Spring. The key is not bringing on as many kids as we can, it’s about finding the right coaches to truly develop the kids and not favor just the best players, but teach every kid on the team and allow each to grow in his/her own way. Not every kid develops at the same time, some take longer than others, so we feel that if we can give kids an opportunity to play the game, we will.
Growing the program will take time, and we are not in any rush, but finding the right coaches is key. When we can do that, then we will be able to provide another option for kids in our county. We would never tell a kid where he can or can not play, we are just offering another opportunity for kids to keep playing. When we grew up, baseball was played until our parents had to drag us in the house and when the sun rose the next day, we were out playing it again.
A lot of kids fall away from the game when they are forced to make the jump to the big field when some are just not ready, so offering some an opportunity to play on maybe a mid-sized field and keep them involved should be a goal. To us it’s not about how many championships the program gains, it’s about providing kids an opportunity to keep developing in the game and keeping that love alive. I think we are on the right track and I am grateful to be apart of this program.
I believe that just bringing in the right people to be apart of the program and instilling the idea that we are here to help kids pursue their love for this game. I believe that reaching out to all communities and introducing the game to kids that may just not know how to play it and give them an opportunity to learn it as well.
In my short time with this charter, I have met some amazing people who are also part of the Cal Ripken/Babe Ruth family and they too want to help bring awareness to what both Cal Ripken and Babe Ruth can offer kids and families. One thing is certain is that we do not see ourselves in competition with either travel ball or Little League. We just see an opportunity to reach kids that maybe can’t play travel ball or have decided to hang up their baseball cleats because there aren’t any other options. So we hope in time that we can be that option.
And the best part is not only are we able to reach and teach the kids the game on the field, but also help prepare them for what’s to come off the field. We know that we can help to mold the next generation of leaders and the lessons taught in baseball can be beneficial to their lives, in whatever path they pursue.