Little League signups are almost over for the 2014 season, and some Kent County teams are finding themselves short of players.
The temperature outside still may be hovering near the freezing mark, but activity at area Little Leagues shows spring definitely is on its way.
On Saturday, prospective Dover Little Leaguers were showing off their hitting and fielding skills while Camden-Wyoming coaches were getting pointers from former Delaware State University pitcher and Arizona Diamondbacks draftee Tim Vaillancourt.
In Marydel, parents and players were at the town fire hall on the last day of signups for the Marydel-Hartly Little League.
It all seemed business as usual, but the apparent drop in enrollments as signup periods were closing brought a tinge of uneasiness to at least one central Kent County Little League president.
The reason: a new rule put out by Little League headquarters could threaten the viability of some of the smaller divisions.
Prior to this season, youngsters played for the Little League division where they lived; they only could play elsewhere if granted a waiver.
The rule change now incorporates school attendance into eligibility requirements, meaning a player may play for a league other than where he or she lives if they attend school inside that league’s jurisdiction.
The rule is a particular concern for Marydel-Hartly President Carmine Poppiti: with only one school in his division – Hartly Elementary– students older than 10 years of age all attend schools in other Little League divisions. That means every student who normally would play in Marydel-Hartly’s Major Leagues could opt for other districts.
As of Feb. 25, MHLL had 138 players signed up, compared to 171 for the 2013 season. That will be enough to field 13 teams, two less than last year. MHLL had approximately 190 players in 2012, a number that’s about half of that from the 1990s, when up to 400 players were on the rosters.
“It hurts,” Poppiti said. “We want the kids who live here to play baseball in this area.”
If enough players move to other divisions, Poppiti worries it could spell the end for the 42-year-old MHLL, which owns its playing fields on Taraila Road, on the Delaware-Maryland border.
“That would be a shame,” Poppiti said. “The Little League is turning its back on people who have done this for decades.”
Dover numbers also declining
The numbers also are down for the Dover Little League, said President Elizabeth Riecks.
Now in its 60th year, DLL has registered only 300 players for 2014, not including Big League and many of the Senior League, who have until March 15 to sign up.
“Even with them, we are behind,” Riecks said, adding that DLL had 530 players on 45 teams in 2013. Riecks estimates the Dover league possibly will have 40 teams this year.
Riecks doesn’t think the domicile rule change has hurt DLL, particularly because the league has picked up a few players from other divisions. It’s also a new rule, one some parents may not yet know about.
“I don’t think you’ll see much of an effect this year,” she said.
A greater problem might be that kids now tend to specialize in just one sport, such as lacrosse or soccer, starting at younger ages and then staying with that sport as they grow older, she said.
Player numbers seemed better at the Camden-Wyoming Little League Park, where President Matt Knight said approximately 700 players had signed on, with more expected.
The CWLL fielded 76 teams with more than 800 players last year, Knight said.
The league actually has benefited from the domicile rule change, with a handful of players coming not only from Marydel-Hartly but from Felton and Dover, Knight said.
But he also understands how that rule change can hurt, he said.
“I don’t like to see them suffer because they are our neighbors,” Knight said.
Knight, Poppiti, Riecks and other Little League district staffers serve without pay, depending on other volunteers, including players’ families, to help raise money, maintain the fields, drum up sponsorships and even run the snack bars during games.
It makes for an incredible amount of camaraderie and community togetherness.
“It’s all about kids being able to come out and play a game they love to play and to do it in a safe and fun environment,” he said.
Knight, who played ball on the same fields where he’s now in charge, considers Little League play extremely rewarding, both for the players and their parents.
“I remember what it was like to me as a kid,” he said. “That’s what I want for all the kids out there to have – the same kind of memories.”
Little League District 1 Administrator Robert “Biff” Newnam has been looking at the numbers and agrees they’re not as good as they could be – yet.
“Let’s look at the numbers about two weeks from now, after we start the tryouts,” he said. “People wait until the last minute to sign up and that has an impact.”
Newnam agreed with Riecks in that potential players could be finding other outlets for their competitive energies.
“Little League is like any youth sport and we have to compete with other sports,” he said. “There’s too much for kids to do.”
“I don’t see any shocking results at this time,” Newnam added.