Don Mahler: Long-Distance Call; Baseball Must Be Flexible to Attract New Players
Ty Gagliardone of the Norwich Sharks reaches out to make the catch as Oliver Morgan of the Hanover Green Machine slides into second during their game at Thompson Terrace in Hanover yesterday. Ty Gagliardone is at right. Base paths at the field measure 60 feet and the pitcher’s mound is 45 feet from home plate. Unless changes are made to Upper Valley fields before they arrive in middle school, the young players will have to transition to full major league dimensions — 90-foot base paths and a 60-foot, 6-inch distance from the pitcher’s mound to home plate. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Norwich Sharks co-manager John Olszewski heads back to the dugout with Ivan Hacker, left, at the close of an inning during their game with Hanover yesterday. “This game is the quickest game you have until you get to college,” said Olszewski of the youth league, because field dimensions are a good fit with the players’ abilities. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
To be blunt, baseball is killing its young.
First, the game’s officials and team owners have sold their soul to the television gods, supporting a postseason schedule that makes viewing your favorite team virtually impossible for baseball’s young fan base. But losing kids from watching the TV isn’t nearly as bad as losing kids from playing on the diamond — yet that is happening at an alarming rate as well.
Baseball — the game our fathers gave us, the game our fathers taught us — is dying.
On a national and cultural level, representation of African-American players in professional baseball is at its lowest point since Jackie Robinson first integrated the game, at just about 8 percent. That marks a significant decline from the 1970s, when some estimates placed the representation of black players at about 27 percent.
Locally, you can also see the numbers dwindling. And it’s easy to see why. Who would want to play a game that sets its players up to fail?
I’m not talking about being on a losing team, I mean being unable to make the game’s most fundamental plays. It’s happening all over the Upper Valley with middle-school age kids.
The problem has nothing to do with playing ability. It’s all about field dimensions.
These youngsters have just graduated from Little League, where the base paths were 60 feet and the pitchers threw from 45 feet. Now, in middle school, these 13-14-year-olds have graduated to major league dimensions — 90-foot basepaths and 60-feet, 6-inches from the pitching mound.
Think it doesn’t matter? Think again.
If a kid gets a walk, he might as well just leave the batter’s box and head straight to second base — the catcher has as much chance of throwing out a base stealer as he does dunking a basketball on a regulation rim.
And the pitcher, who may have been the dominant fireballer a year before in Little League, is now throwing what amounts to batting practice speed — and getting ripped all over the lot.
Simply put: At their age, at their level, the field is just too big to handle.
Hank Tenney, the Hanover recreation director who runs the town’s middle school athletic programs, agrees.
“We should be playing at 75 feet,” Tenney said. “The way it is now, kids aren’t getting anything out of playing the game.”
Doug Beaupre is also frustrated by what he sees. “There’s a big difference for the catcher throwing the ball to second base and, obviously, for the pitcher,” said Beaupre, the Newport AD and former baseball coach. “Some kids may be dominant at one level, but then at the next level takes a while to get used to (the field differences).
“Pitchers might sometimes change mechanics to overcompensate, and that’s where injuries can happen.”
The answer seems like a no-brainer: Shorten the field’s dimensions.
The problem is we don’t have available fields.
“You can’t go out there and tear up grass fields and start putting in bases,” Tenney said. “There’s just not enough teams to warrant that switch.”
“In an ideal, perfect world, we would change the field,” added Beaupre. “But there’s only one regulation field in our town. We can’t go cutting things up.”
Unfortunately, what has happened locally, according to Bob Field, longtime coach, former board member of the Hanover Baseball Association and the unofficial godfather of Hanover youth baseball, is that while most of the country — including Cal Ripken League Majors — is now shifting to 70-foot baselines for 12-and-under players, most youth baseball fields in the area are still configured to Little League’s 60-foot baseline dimensions. The jump to full dimensions then feels like a quantum leap as opposed to a gradual step.
The best solution is to use what are known as ‘skinned fields’ where the infield and the basepaths are all dirt. That way the bases can be placed at whatever distance without harming the field, and the pitcher throws from a portable mound set to any distance.
“People will argue that we simply don’t have the option, locally, of building ball fields that can accommodate 60-foot, 70-foot and 80-foot baselines prior to kids playing high school ball (at the standard MLB 90-foot baseline dimension),” Field said.
“However, if we were to play on skinned infields, and make use of portable mounds , I think this could be a viable solution.”
Right now there are four such fields in the Upper Valley — Eldridge Park in Lebanon, the proposed auxiliary field coming to the new Maxfield project in White River, Sachem Field in West Lebanon and the Dothan Brook School in Wilder.
What has happened is that we have sport that is turning off the very players we need to be attracting. The marginal player is not learning the game, not getting better and feels he is wasting his time. At the same time, the bigger, more talented player is not learning the game, not getting better and feels he is wasting his time.
So, they start looking around for other options. And believe me, there are plenty of other options. There’s Lightning soccer or AAU basketball to name the most prominent summer diversions. They just hang around and pick off the plum athletes from the low hanging fruit off the dying baseball tree.
And suddenly there are fewer kids in double-knits and cleats throwing the ball around, and a whole slew of kids wearing shorts and dribbling a ball around.
Baseball people must recognize the old days are gone. The old, inflexible rules don’t work any more. Youth baseball is in competition for its very existence. Look at Lebanon. This is the second straight year there will be no middle school-age program in that once baseball-mad city. If it can happen in Lebanon, it can happen anywhere.
Why not make use of what we’ve got? Play a round-robin season using the four available fields, giving kids a chance to play at the 75-foot dimension and see how that works?
Because I’m telling you, baseball is running out of time and chances. Either revamp the existing fields to fit the needs and abilities of the young baseball players, or sod the fields over, paint new lines and put up a pair of soccer goals.
Don Mahler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3225.
A caption for a photograph associated with this story has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction appeared in the June 25 edition of the Valley News:
Norwich Sharks second baseman Ty Gagliardone was shown backing up second base during a play against the Hanover Green Machine in a photograph in the June 16 Valley News. He was incorrectly identified.