Youngsters begin rite of 'ping' Play ball: That familiar sound of Little League aluminum bats making contact is back. So are the high cost of equipment and the threat of lawsuits.

March 31, 1996|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

In that traditional rite of spring, made all the sweeter by the brutish winter, kids across Maryland are dusting off cleats, oiling gloves and stretching muscles in preparation for the baseball season that begins in the coming weeks.

It may be Opening Day at Camden Yards tomorrow, but the opening day that really matters to these children will be at the local baseball field.

A few things have changed from the innocence of their fathers' Little League days, however.

Legal liability is a major concern: Little League saw its insurance premiums skyrocket 1,000 percent in the past five years. The sport faces increasing competition from other activities, such as soccer, lacrosse and even computers. And the equipment and accessories many kids consider essential will widen their parents' eyes and lighten their wallets.

Walk through any sporting goods store and it's easy to see what kids' baseball is up against. A visit to Dick's in Glen Burnie shows that baseball has been literally shoved into a corner.

Right by the door is a big display for soccer equipment, stacked on both sides of the aisle. Next comes lacrosse. Then basketball. Pass the shoes, sweat suits and T-shirts, and in the back corner of the store is baseball.

Although most of the national organizations report steady growth in recent years, last year's baseball strike may have dampened enthusiasm for the game.

Little League Baseball, the nation's largest youth baseball organization, with 2.5 million players -- including 35,340 in Maryland -- has grown by an average of more than 100,000 children a year since 1990. But last year, the program grew by just about half that figure. And Pony Baseball lost players in almost all its divisions.

Charles Blackburn, executive director of the Bowie-based National Amateur Baseball Federation, said fund raising fell sharply last year. "It [the strike] hurt amateur baseball, because people were taking it out on us," he said. "You would have thought we were on strike."

Soccer, in particular, is encroaching on baseball's popularity. There are 40,000 kids registered to play soccer this year in Maryland, nearly double the 22,000 playing five years ago, said Helen Houser, administrator of the Maryland State Youth Soccer Association.

Most of the growth is in the suburbs, with Montgomery and Howard counties leading the way. The Soccer Association of Columbia, which registered 2,600 children five years ago, has 4,500 players this year.

Aficionados say soccer is easier and has more action. "You have 11 kids on a field always running," said Louise Waxler, director of operations for Columbia's soccer association. "Soccer is something any kid can play. You don't need to necessarily be large. My feeling is that baseball, they're probably the finest athletes, as far as the eye-hand coordination."

Sedrick Smith, 12, who plays second base in the baseball league at Carroll Park in Southwest Baltimore, said most of his friends play basketball or football, because they want to be like the stars they see on television. But baseball is still his game.

"To me, it's more competitive than the other sports," he said. "It doesn't take one good player to win the game. It takes everybody to win."

For the person organizing a baseball league these days, the first person to contact might not be a prospective coach or player, but an insurance agent. In the old days, if a kid got banged up, "You'd just put a Band-Aid on it," said Bill Warfield, president of the Highlandtown Exchange Little League. "Nowadays they want sue you."

Fear of such lawsuits has prompted two rule changes this year in Little League.

Players 12 and younger will be prohibited from sliding head-first. And the on-deck circle will be eliminated to avoid the possibility of a youngster's being hit with a bat by the player warming up.

Still, making such changes requires balance. "You can make the game so safe that it no longer is competitive," said Lance Van Auken, director of media relations for Little League Inc.

Increased liability also means more expense for leagues because they must replace equipment more often.

"Because of lawsuits filed over the country, we have to keep our equipment in top shape," said Mr. Warfield of the Highlandtown league. Catcher's masks, for example, must be replaced every couple of years. "I can't afford to let a kid get injured on something I save money on," he said.

But Little League, which bemoans the litigious '90s, has threatened lawsuits itself.

The Highlandtown league received attention after it was featured in photographer Harry Connolly's book, "Heading Home: Growing Up in Baseball." One photograph featured players holding a banner that read "Highlandtown Exchange Little League."

But Highlandtown is not formally associated with Little League Inc., and the league threatened to sue. The threat was dropped when the photograph was taken out of the book.

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