The mother’s advice was sound: “Don’t lay on the base!” The 7-year-old boy obliged and the PeeWee Baseball game continued in the way that these types of contests do, with occasional breaks for tutelage on fundamentals or to straighten out a kid’s pant legs that have been pulled up over his knees.
This is how the seeds of America’s pastime are planted, with the spirited efforts of parents and volunteers, the continued interest of budding ball players and the ubiquitous presence of well-maintained diamonds in towns across the nation. While debate persists as to the degree that Major League Baseball has lost its popularity, at the community level the sport is alive and well.
Look no further than Kalispell, where youth baseball is more popular than ever. This year, the 462 players and 150 coaches represent all-time highs for the PeeWee Baseball league, which consists of kids ages 7 to 12. There are 39 teams. At the older Babe Ruth level, for ages 13-15, the numbers are similarly high. Two teams were added this year to accommodate the growth. Kids above 15 play American Legion Baseball.
Much of the popularity can be chalked up to the Kidsports Complex, said PeeWee Baseball president Alan West. Since the complex was built a decade ago, participation in youth baseball has steadily climbed. It’s a nice facility – kids like to play there and parents like to cheer there.
Greg Adkins, a local coach and member of the PeeWee Baseball board, said when he was a kid in Kalispell in the 1970s he played at neighborhood parks that had fields set up. There wasn’t anything like the Kidsports Complex. Though the quaint fields at local parks had their appeal, the modern complex is certainly a major draw, Adkins said.
“It’s the best youth sports complex in the state,” Adkins said.
Some of the growth can also be attributed to the new schedule, where the regular season is done by June and kids no longer have to dedicate their entire summers to the sport. Furthermore, Kalispell’s community is active in its support for youth activities, said Mike Schwaller, whose son Ben plays baseball and soccer. Having moved from Anchorage, Schwaller said he’s amazed by the commitment of parents and volunteers here.
While all of those factors play their roles in baseball’s local popularity, Adkins said it’s important to remember the overriding reason: Americans love baseball. It’s a tradition long ingrained into our culture. For generations, youth baseball has been a cornerstone of communities, small and large.
When Adkins was young, he said it seemed almost all kids at least gave baseball a try. That still appears to be the case, he said, even if it’s only for a year or two. Today, however, more kids are sticking with it for longer, as evidenced in the high numbers at the Babe Ruth level. It’s a sign of what Adkins says is a reinvigorated interest in baseball and the efforts of the league.
An appeal of baseball is that it’s inviting to almost any youth. Kids don’t necessarily have to be the biggest, fastest or strongest to excel on the diamond. Baseball is a true skill sport and success largely rides on the honing of those skills. Batting, fielding and pitching techniques are of utmost importance. Athleticism, of course, helps. Adkins said sometimes kids who don’t excel in other sports find solace in baseball.
PeeWee Baseball was established in Kalispell in 1952 and operated until this year as an independent league unaffiliated with the two major youth organizations: Little League and Cal Ripken Baseball. But in recent years, the league has integrated Cal Ripken rules and standards. PeeWee officials decided to fully affiliate with Cal Ripken Baseball this year, which West said allows for more affordable insurance and invitations to more tournaments.
“We’ve been trying to make it more fun so kids keep coming back year after year,” West said. “And they are.”
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