Changes mark start of Little League season

By Doug Snover

Great things may come in small packages but even for Little League baseball sometimes too small is just not enough.

Faced with declining enrollment in recent years, two south Tempe leagues have merged to form the Tempe South Little League in time for the 2005 season.

“The reason for the merger was declining enrollment, both in terms of volunteers and the players,” said Bob Wacloff, president of Tempe South Little League.

The merger combines Tempe American and Tempe National Little Leagues, affecting players in an area generally south of Baseline Road who attend Fuller, Rover, Norte, Niños, Waggoner, Cielo, Manitas and Mariposa elementary schools.

Enrollment for the 2005 season is under way, and showcases, or tryouts, for many players are scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 5, at 8 a.m. and Thursday, Feb. 10, at 7 p.m. at Kiwanis Park. Players who have not yet registered can sign up at the showcases, which put players through a series of hitting, catching and throwing drills under the watchful eyes of team managers.

More information and sign-up forms should soon be available on the new league’s website at: www.tempelittleleague.com.

Little League baseball is operated under the auspices of the Little League headquarters in Williamsport, Pa., where the famous annual tournament is held in late summer. Little League is expected to approve the merger of the two small Tempe leagues, according to Maria Brady, a board member of Tempe South Little League and this year’s player agent.

“A player agent makes sure each kid is treated appropriately,” she said.

“Both leagues were experiencing reducing enrollment” as a result of the aging of the local population, Brady said.  Enrollment also is declining in part because some youthful athletes are dedicating themselves to a single sport, such as soccer, she noted.

Other factors in the decline of Little League enrollment include competition from other leagues such as the Babe Ruth League and the recently introduced Matt Williams League, said Ken Botelho, a long-time Tempe National Little League volunteer who has coached, umpired, and served on the board of directors.

“There’s a schism between recreational players and maybe more serious players.  A lot of the kids that are going to be more serious players want a more competitive, perhaps year-round, experience,” Botelho said.  The drain away from Little League to more competitive leagues is especially felt as players become older, he noted.

Little League is noted for its “everybody plays” approach to baseball, with rules that require managers to get every player into every game or risk of forfeiting. Little League begins with players as young as five years, who play T-ball until they are about seven, then move up to the Farm Division, where batters hit against pitching machines.

When players reach about nine years, they move into the Minors division and face live pitching for the first time.  Eleven- and 12-year-olds compete in the Majors Division, the most popular of all Little League divisions and the age group that competes in the televised tournament in Williamsport. Once players reach 13 years, they move up to Juniors Division, followed by Seniors for players 14-16 years old, and a Big Division for those 16-18 years old.

Younger players compete on scaled-down ballfields, but once they reach the Juniors Division, they play on regulation-size fields with 90-foot basepaths.

Practices begin in March, and the regular season runs from late March through May.  An all-star team will be created from the best players in the league in mid-June to participate in local tournaments that are the first step on the road to Williamsport.

Declining enrollment in 2004 brought the number of teams in the premier Majors division down to four teams in Tempe National and six teams in Tempe American.  To fill out their schedules, the leagues began playing their own version of “inter-league” baseball last year, Wacloff noted. 

He and Brady both predicted there will be only enough players to field eight teams in the combined Majors Division in 2005.

Both leagues played the majority of their games at Tempe Sports Complex, often on adjoining fields.

Inter-league competition last year “helped smooth over the transition,” Wacloff said.  “Everybody found out that they are just the people across the street from us.”

In fact, the Little League boundaries are such that players on either side of a major street often found themselves in different leagues in previous seasons.  By merging Tempe National and Tempe American to create the new Tempe South Little League, “We are working together to boost the numbers of players back up and letting the kids just get out there and play,” Wacloff said.

The merger brings the added benefit of having more volunteers to coach, umpire, announce, and maintain fields, Wacloff said.

“We are scrambling for volunteers and good coaches,” added Botelho, who said the merger is “better off for the kids.”

Following the two scheduled showcases, managers in the Majors Division will meet in mid-February to draft players for their teams. 

“We draft so we can have an equalization of talent across the teams,” Brady explained. No one team tends to dominate because each manager selects what he or she considers the best available players in the age group.

The merger of the two south Tempe Little Leagues may be part of a trend. Two Little Leagues in northern Tempe--the Tempe Rio Salado and Tempe Old Town leagues--merged just over a year ago.