Is Little League still a hit in Waterford?

Play ball! The first pitch of the 2014 season is on the way Monday at the Waterford Little League complex.

Waterford - If you ask Little League families and organizers, they'll tell you: Waterford is a baseball town.

But as league enrollment drops across the country, even this town has seen some players migrate to other sports. Trends in Waterford, however, are less pronounced than they are nationally and in the neighboring league in East Lyme.

"We've lost a few people, but most of them do come back," said league President Timothy Jerome as he stood at the batting cages at the league's south complex Monday of last week.

A trend is hard to pin down since Little League requires town leagues to keep numbers for only one year. Available data shows fluctuations over the years.

Little League baseball enrollment in Waterford dropped by 42 to 350 players this season, according to data from Player Agent Sheri Smith and Greg Bakken, one of Waterford's two league presidents. Enrollment in softball fell only slightly, from 179 to 173, according to data from the league's softball co-commissioners.

Enrollment in Little League has been in a steady decline nationally for the past few years, according to Brian McClintock, spokesman for the international nonprofit organization.

The Wall Street Journal reported in 2011 that the number of children aged 7 to 17 playing baseball fell by 24 percent from 2000 to 2009.

Enrollment in baseball in the Waterford North league, which combined with Waterford South this year to comply with a new national Little League regulation that allows children to play in whatever league is affiliated with their schools, jumped from 174 to 202 players from 2008 to 2009, then declined steadily to 164 players in 2013.

Nearby, East Lyme Little League has 315 baseball players this year, which is 85 fewer than it had in 2012, according to Player Agent Scott Fraser.

Members of the Waterford league's board point to numerous reasons for changes in enrollment.

Jerome said that for starters, each age group is a different size to begin with due to the number of kids born in a given year. Smith noted that some players move with their families to other towns.

As for what draws players away, board members say that kids these days have a lot more options.

The choices aren't just baseball, basketball and football anymore, said Jerome. There's soccer, lacrosse and tennis, he pointed out. Furthermore, kids can play these sports year round whereas before they were restricted to short seasons, he said.

Bakken said, "Unfortunately, I think there's also an element of kids (who) aren't playing anything."

Data for softball divisions in leagues of both towns going back to 2011 in Waterford and 2012 in East Lyme show moderate fluctuations over the past few years, as opposed to steady decline.

Waterford's softball co-commissioner Becky Hall, who previously led the softball program for Waterford South, said she viewed the softball numbers as strong.

"I think that we glorify softball here," she said.

She said a new clinic with Waterford High School softball players has drawn in new players. She also said that the softball program's emphasis on competition and the challenging nature of the sport keeps players engaged.

Waterford Little League families say Little League continues to play the same role in town that it has for generations.

Carlene Lange, whose son and daughter play in Little League, played softball in Vernon as a child, then stuck with it through college. She said that a lot of players' parents played Little League in Waterford when they were kids.

"A lot of people played and stayed," she said.

Hanging out next to the fence of one game last Monday, a group of current and former Little League players said that the popularity of baseball compared to other sports is far from waning in Waterford.

"I think it's the most popular in Waterford," said former Little League player Travis Gladstone, 13.

Lions coach Duke Speller, left, gives his team a final pep talk before they take the field against Rotary for the opening day of the season Monday at the Waterford Little League complex.
Lions coach Duke Speller, left, gives his team a final pep talk before they take the field against Rotary for the opening day of the season Monday at the Waterford Little League complex.


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