When I stepped foot on a baseball diamond recently for an 11U practice, I gazed out at 27 young men who came to play my favorite sport. There were 23 5th graders who signed up to play ball, and we asked a few 4th graders to join us in order to make two solid teams.
This is a rarity today in a community our size and even in larger schools: a bunch of kids who want to play baseball or softball. We’ve witnessed a decline in numbers of these spring/summer sports in recent years. For junior high baseball this year, there were a total of 22 players between two grades. That’s not too bad except only six of them were 8th graders. Junior high softball saw nine each in 7th and 8th grade.
And our numbers were higher than most conference schools! I can’t remember another Gopher Conference foe that had at least nine in each grade for softball; one school didn’t even have enough to field one team total! Our JV softball team at the high school only played ten or so games because so many area schools only have enough high schoolers to field a varsity team.
One of the reasons might be weather. It’s disheartening to be stuck inside for weeks at the start of your season and then play ball in 35 degree weather. Fans of spring sports know to have plenty of layers for every event! Kids get turned off by this; it’s tough to hit or throw a ball in those temperatures.
The problem with that theory, though, is that the numbers drop even more in the summer, a time where you’re more concerned with sunscreen and shorts than you are with mittens and stocking caps. I’ve told kids for years that if you’re in track or golf in the spring, but enjoy baseball or softball, at least play in the summer. You can run and golf most of your life, but you’ll reach a point where the ballfield is good only if you’re watching the game.
Kids are busy, and that’s part of the issue. I’ve long bemoaned the fact that the Minnesota State High School League allows varsity coaches access to their players most of the summer. Once that Pandora’s box was opened, coaches felt obliged to run summer camps and leagues for basketball, volleyball, etc. Even if, as a coach, you thought it was too much, you’d have to do it to keep up with everyone else. If you don’t have workouts in the summer and you don’t have success, fingers will point at your summer.
I’m a big basketball guy, but even I think playing hoops nine months or more out of the year is too much. Some kids get to a point where enough is enough. Unfortunately, baseball and softball often pay the price of that. Just look at my daughter’s typical summer schedule: basketball or volleyball in the morning, along with marching band practice, and two nights a week a softball game. For older kids who want to make some money at a job, that’s a tight schedule.
It would be tough to get the genie back in the bottle though. I can’t imagine the MSHSL turning around and changing back to the way it used to be. But I know a number of coaches who wouldn’t be opposed to that. It doesn’t just hurt baseball and softball, but it also drives some kids away from those other sports that now demand so much of their summer.
But here’s the other side of this: kids don’t just go out and shoot a basketball or toss the football around on a regular basis. They need everything planned for them. Think of your youth and how many times you and the neighbor kids would be out until you couldn’t see the ball anymore. There are too many other distractions today, mainly on screens, that unless you schedule a session with a ball, it’s not going to happen. It’s a lot easier to sit in the air conditioning and watch Netflix than it is to shoot 100 free throws when it’s 85 degrees outside.
Baseball and softball are not the most glamorous sports either. The NFL and NBA are more popular than MLB, so most kids emulate those sports’ stars. If you fall in love with baseball or softball at an early age, as I did, you wouldn’t trade it for anything. I worked to instill this passion in my own kids, bringing them to ballgames at a young age. They will both tell you that their favorite sports are the ones with pitchers and catchers.
How do we bring kids back to baseball and softball? It’s a tough path and would need a lot of changes to how we approach other sports. Still, I have hope. Anton had a ballgame the other night, and I saw about four other teams vying for space on other fields to practice. If you saw our district ballfield schedule for this summer, it’s packed with various levels of baseball and softball teams needing a place to play.
Most of all, kids need to know how fun the games are. Our goal with our large group of 11U players is to show how fun baseball can be and learn and improve every game. We want to keep enough kids out to have two teams for many years to come.
Word of the Week: This week’s word is mistetch, which means a bad habit, as in, “The coaches worked with the ballplayer to rid him of the mistetch of not watching the ball when he was hitting.” Impress your friends and confuse your enemies!