Downward enrollment in Little League is a national trend.
MANCHESTER, NH – Sally Dreckmann apologizes for being a few minutes late to the field as she grabs some paperwork and squirts some ketchup on a hot dog for one of her players. Dreckmann’s mom, Fran Giroux, is already at work inside the concession stand, prepping cheese fries and hot dogs for the evening rush.
“I just came from a funeral,” says Giroux, wiping her hands on her apron. “But I made it. We were once voted the best hot dogs in the city, you know,” she says with pride, as she checks the grill.
League vice president Bob Field is also there, as he’s been for years, making sure he has umpires lined up for the Wednesday night game. “It’s hard to find umpires,” he says, explaining that one of the volunteer umps hasn’t had enough experience for home plate, yet. “The parents can be rough if they don’t like a call.”
After 20 years with the league –18 of those as Central Little League president –Dreckmann has learned that every player counts.
She’s also learned that a hungry player can’t focus on the game.
“That’s actually why I was late. I had to pick up one of our kids who didn’t have a ride, and then I found out he hadn’t had dinner yet, so I picked up some dinner for him at the concession stand,” Dreckmann says.
It has been years since her own three kids came through Central Little League – the oldest Little League in the state – but she continues in her role as League president, with no end in sight.
“These are all my kids, and as long as I’m around, there will be baseball here,” she says. “If we play, they will come.”
So far, it’s been a challenging season. Her numbers this year are down. A lot.
“We have two teams in four divisions this season, about 1oo players. Last year we had three teams in four divisions. Two years ago I had 267 players,” she says.
And that’s not unique to Central Little League – Dreckmann, who also serves as Safety Director for the District Board, says numbers are down in almost every division, a reflection of a national downward trend.
According to a recent Washington Post article, Patrick Wilson, Vice President of Operations for Little League International, says they’ve seen a steady decline over the past dozen years across the board, at a rate of 1 to 2 percent each year.
“There is a generation of parents now that don’t have a connection to the game because they didn’t play it themselves, and if you didn’t play, you’re less likely to go out in the back yard and have a catch,” Wilson told the Washington Post, which reports that Little League enrollment dropped from 3 million players in the 1990s to 2.4 million two years ago, when the league stopped releasing player statistics.
Dreckmann says she can only speculate that it’s a combination of things at Central Little League – kids going for other sports, like soccer or lacrosse, compounded by the changing demographics of the neighborhood.
“We service the highest immigrant population of all the leagues. We have 14 languages spoken here. We try to do outreach. I can get to the kids, but I can’t communicate with the parents because many of them don’t speak English,” says Dreckmann.
Two years ago she needed a Vietnamese translator. She flagged down a mailman who she knew spoke the language.
It’s also economically tough – 80 percent of her players can’t afford the $60 registration fee, which caps at $100 per family, regardless of how many players – the lowest registration in the district.
“We don’t turn anyone away for inability to pay,” says Field, which means an added expense for the league.
“But we still have our own expenses, our charter, insurance, uniforms, field maintenance, electricity,” says Dreckmann.
They make it work, with the help of sponsors and fundraisers – and this year, thanks to a huge boost from Project Play, which last week donated three dozen bats, 18 helmets and a number of gloves. They also donated $1,200 to the league to help bridge the gap in registration fees, according to Project Play co-founder Kate Aiken.
“We also got 40 used baseballs, which are good for practice, and softballs, which we can’t use, but we took them anyway because we pay them forward. There’s always someone out there who can use equipment,” says Field. “We had a lot of batting helmets that were too big for our kids, but we contacted the Pawtucket Boys and Girls Club, and they were able to use them. It’s about helping every kid play, not just our kids.”
Monica Mardones has served as a team mom in the past. Her son, Michael Negron, is 12 and this will be his seventh season.
“He’s one of the few who’s been here since day one of T-ball,” Mardones says. “The donation of equipment means a lot. It’s really helpful and gets kids off the street.”
She says she’s also noticed the decline in players at Central over recent years.
“We did lose a lot of kids this year because they moved up to Ponys. But we didn’t get a lot of new players,” she says.
Dreckmann does what she can to encourage young players. She continues to run the only annual T-Ball tournament in the state, the David Anderson Memorial Farm Tournament.
“We do 63 games over 11 days, and teams come from around the state,” she says.
But for all she does, Dreckmann can’t do much about the other thing she’s noticed over the years, perhaps the biggest contributing factor to her declining numbers: lack of commitment.
“Parents don’t care like they used to. There are a few who come to every game or practice. And the kids have changed, too. Used to be we couldn’t get them off the field to go home when the games were over. We had to chase them off the field. It’s not like that now,” says Dreckmann.
In an adjacent parking lot Daren Blais is suiting up to umpire for the Pony League. He says he’s played the game for 30 years, and has ben umping for nine.
“I’ll tell you why the kids don’t want to play anymore: The game is too long, and they are starting too early. Compared to soccer or lacrosse, which is timed, and finished in an hour, these games go on for hours,” says Blais. “And some of these kids start playing at 4 and 5 years old. It’s boring at that level. They stand out in the field for what seems like an eternity. By the time they are old enough to enjoy the game, they’re burned out.”
He says kids today also have more choices for how to spend their down time, which includes the lure of other sports, like year-round hockey and, of course, video games.
“In my opinion, it all starts with MLB. It now take 3 or 3 ½ hours to play a game. I still watch because I still love baseball; it was my first love,” says Blais. “But kids today, they aren’t learning to love the game. They don’t have the patience for a three-hour game.”
Manchester Central Little League is hosting a Stand-up Comedy Show Fundraiser on May 29 at 8 p.m. at the American Legion Henry J. Sweeney Post at 251 Maple St. Tickets are $1o. Click here for details.