The seasons change but not the sports Dedication: Youth league teams, especially baseball, don't always follow nature's schedule.

October 21, 1997|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

On a sunny fall Wednesday, young girls kick soccer balls at Howard County Park in Glenwood as a flock of geese squawk overhead, flying south.

Then out-of-season noises erupt. "Clink." "Throw it home!" "Four! Four!"

Timmy Siders, 11, rounds third, legs pumping, arms flailing, barely beating the tag at home plate.

These are the kids of October, still at home with this summer game amid the dying leaves of fall.

Siders plays infield for the Western Howard Renegades, an under-12 fall baseball team. It's one of a growing number of such teams, in the area and the nation, for youngsters who don't let the season dictate their sport -- football in fall, basketball in winter, baseball in spring and summer.

It's a trend that brings smiles to the faces of baseball-loving youths even as it causes concern among some who worry about year-round specialization for those so young.

"The sound of the bat certainly seems out of place," says Chuck Evans, 43, who's coaching 8- and 9-year-old girl soccer players on an adjacent field. "It's certainly an unfamiliar sound in fall."

The Western Howard Youth Baseball League has two fall traveling squads -- one 12-and-under, the other for 13- and 14-year-olds -- and plans to expand next year.

"You get kids who are dedicated to baseball out here now," says Al DeRemigis, the league's president. "Yeah, it gets cold. But they want to work on their games, improve."

This is only one of the fall leagues in the area. Howard boasts others in Columbia and Atholton, while in northern Anne Arundel County, about 600 players, ages 7 to 14, compete on 17 teams in the Lake Shore Baseball League that runs from early September through late October.

But could such an intense focus on one game be worse for young athletes than the days when a youngster played quarterback, then shooting guard, then shortstop? Some think so.

Tom McMillen, the one-time University of Maryland basketball star who went on to be a congressman -- his 1991 book, "Out of Bounds," dealt with the hypocrisy and greed of American athletics -- says the specialization is creating "robo-kids."

Youngsters could become turned off as sandlot games become ultra-organized affairs, says McMillen, who played 11 years in the National Basketball Association.

"Pretty soon we'll have prenatal competition," says McMillen, co-chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. "This is an East German concept in capitalistic America where every parent wants their kid to be Michael Jordan."

Fall competition

In Baltimore County, about 455 youths play fall baseball -- a number that has risen steadily during the past five years, says Keene Gooding, assistant director for the Recreation and Parks Department.

"It stems from competition," says Gooding. "Kids face tougher competition in high school, so they have to specialize earlier. It can be tough on 14-year-olds."

Franklin Chaney, sports supervisor for the Anne Arundel Department of Recreation and Parks, agrees: "We have fall lacrosse leagues now. A lot of parents just want their kids to focus on one sport, their best sport."

There are 7,000 spring Little League Baseball programs around the country and about 1,100 fall baseball programs, with participation increasing about 7 percent a year, says Lance Van Auken, spokesman for Little League Baseball.

Richard Jenkins, Howard High School's varsity baseball coach, says he loves to see his prospects play more ball but also worries they could burn out or hurt themselves.

"The more they play, the better they get," says Jenkins, who has been coaching baseball for about 20 years. "But you really don't want a kid putting all his eggs in one basket. Pitchers only have so many pitches in their young arms."

Love of the game

Back at fall baseball practice in Glenwood, the Renegades, half of whom play soccer on Saturdays, say they practice in chilly October for another reason.

"I just love baseball," says catcher Michael Richardson, 11, after a practice. "I love hitting. I love catching. I love winning games."

That was evident a few Sundays ago when the crunch of dry leaves underfoot put football in the air. But the Renegades are playing baseball.

Parents, lounging in lawn chairs near the right-field line, point out that their children play two, even three, sports at one time.

"We've had just beautiful weather all fall," says Ceil Lyons, 42, whose son Matthew plays on the squad. "It's just not as intense out here. At this age it's either soccer or baseball and we -- Matthew really -- opted to play baseball."

Coach Paul D'Angelo paces in front of the dugout, kicking up dust. He crosses his arms, then eyes the blue sky as he contemplates a shift.

His center fielder misses a play at second.

A batter hits a burner that hops over the third baseman's head.

His right fielder misplays a grounder.

Soon, the score is 14-3 in the bottom of the fourth.

"We're a little off today," says D'Angelo, 45. "We didn't play last week, and we didn't practice on Wednesday, and it shows. Usually, you can see improvement with every game."

The Renegade's best pitcher, Michael Corona -- with a knuckle curve that "does the tango" -- says the league is pretty competitive, because all the youths really want to play ball.

"I don't want to get rusty," says Corona, 11, as he watches a teammate ground out. "It's important to work on the skills. I want to have fun."

Corona takes the mound and mows through three Sykesville hitters.

In the end, the Renegades lose, 17-3. A few mumbles are heard. Someone says something about a soccer game.

But Matthew Lyons, 11, doesn't understand why anyone would play the most popular sport in the world. "Soccer stinks," he says, holding his aluminum bat. "All you do is run around and kick a ball. Baseball's better. Why would anyone just want to run around a field all day?"

Pub Date: 10/21/97

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