Little League needs a change

Posted September 19, 2013 at 12:47 pm

SEPT. 18 OFF THE MARK COLUMN — MARK SPENSLEY, CO-PUBLISHER

Change can be good. Change also can be scary. And sometimes a change is needed. In the opinion section this week you will see two opinions about change. The topic of change is about youth baseball in our community.

Representing the change is Bud Johnson. Bud has spent a great deal of time being around summer sports. He is a huge supporter of both the baseball and softball programs at all levels. Bud wishes to change the age status of our Little League programs as well as forming a committee to oversee the programs as well as maintaining the fields.

Representing the current status is our Parks and Rec Department leader, Tami Bartram. Tami has been involved with both summer programs for a number of years. She is on record of not wanting to dismantle the current Little League programs. She also feels her department is doing an adequate job of maintaining the fields.

A community forum is being held to discuss both sides of this issue. I think that’s great and a wonderful way of gauging the community’s feelings on this issue.

Here is how I feel on the issue. I agree 100 percent with Bud. And I feel I have a strong background with this issue to share my reasons for making this change.

As most of you know, I have been involved with baseball in Monticello for over 25 years. As a player and coach, for the Monticello Cubs, as a coach at the Peewee, Little League and Babe Ruth level. I have been commissioner of the Babe Ruth program for three years. And most recent stint was coaching for five years in the Panther program.

When I first entered the Little League program as a coach it was being run by the Lions Club. I coached the Monticello Express team as well as my two fourth grade sons, Dillon and Devin.

As a parent, I was a little nervous for my sons. Even though they had seen live pitching on their travel team, the pitching was being done by kids their own age. The jump to little league meant they would be facing fifth and sixth grade pitchers.

Despite my nervousness, my two sons were well prepared for the jump to Little League due to the countless hours we spent practicing.

As the season played on I do not recall either boy being successful at the plate until the last week of the six-week season. It was that way for the entire class of fourth graders on the other teams.

Pitching dominated their first year. Both Benny Welsch and Matt Lee, two of the older players, threw unbelievably hard for their age. I’m sure there were others but these two hurlers stand out in my mind.

One thing I noticed that year there were quite a few fourth graders who were afraid to stay in the box. They were physically overmatched at the plate. Other than contributing on the defensive side of the game, it was what I considered tough learning curve for hitting for our fourth graders.

For many, that fear followed them for their short-lived careers. Several never made it to playing Babe Ruth. Sure, attrition was inevitable, but a few of these kids were good all around ballplayers. Not hitting or being fearful of staying in the box soured them on the game.

After that first season coaching, I wrote a letter to the Lions Baseball committee asking for two changes to the program. The first, and most important, I drafted a plan reorganizing the age structure of the youth baseball programs.

Much like Bud’s idea, I thought the fourth graders shouldn’t be forced to play with kids in fifth and sixth grade. I carefully explained my reasoning. I suggested a second Lions Club league where the third and fourth graders would ease into the transition of seeing live pitching for the first time.

My second suggestion was taking the six-week league and extending it to eight weeks. As I noted earlier, it seemed like the fourth graders were just starting to come around at the six-week mark. Plus, as I was traveling to other towns playing town team ball, I would see that most of their youth leagues were still in progress. Long after our kids were no longer playing.

My question to the Lions Club on length of season was how do we get caught up to the Maquoketas and Dyersvilles of the area (two programs that ran extended seasons) if our kids are home sitting on the couch playing video games?

As expected, I got the answers I didn’t want to hear: Why change the age structure, we’ve done it this way forever and we don’t want to interfere with summer vacations by extending the season two weeks.

Well, I am going to give you one good reason to make these changes. It would BENEFIT OUR KIDS!!

A wise person who I have the upmost respect for, Dan Dailey, always told me to keep asking this question whenever we were making decisions for our youth.

The argument to not make any changes because it’s how we have always done it doesn’t cut it with me. Tami brings up the travel issues. I’m sorry but that is more of an excuse then a reason. Yes, traveling to play can be an inconvenience for the parents but it will better prepare the kids.

Kids will not be left out and I do not believe our coaches will treat kids any differently just because they will be playing games in other communities.

On a side note, we had a traveling basketball league for both boys and girls at the Berndes Center. Teams from Anamosa, Cascade, Dyersville, Manchester and others came here to play. When it got to be too much work, it disappeared.

Two teams of girls that benefitted from that program went on to the state tournament in high school.

As far as forming a committee to oversee the diamonds, this might just be the most important idea that Bud has brought up.

When I coached youth programs here are a few of the things I did on my own that were not being addressed by the Parks Department or the Lions Club. Before each season I personally obtained a sod cutter and straightened out the base paths, the foul lines and trimmed the infield grass.

I purchased weed killer on my own dime and sprayed for weeds. I leveled the infields so they would drain properly. I made sure the bases and pitching rubber were set where they were supposed to.

I erected and painted new foul poles yellow, made sure torn up bases were replaced by the city. I fixed fencing, backstops and dugouts when needed and hauled in lime to level out batter’s boxes.

And I took the time to show other coaches how to maintain the diamonds after games and practices took place.

After a while it got to be a lot to handle. And I seemed to hit a brick wall when seeking help or financial support. A former city administrator told me that it wasn’t high on his list of things that were important to get done.

It’s time to form this long overdue committee. I will be the first volunteer to sign up for it, to answer Tami’s question. And I don’t have a dog in this fight.

So as we approach this open forum about change, I ask the question: Are we doing what’s best for the kids by sticking to the old status quo?

Bla