A baseball celebration

April 07, 2006|By MARK HYMAN

Tomorrow morning in North Baltimore, I expect to be surrounded by Crickets. I'll probably catch a glimpse of 14 Gophers. And it would not be surprising to encounter roving bands of Knights and Wizards.

It sounds harrowing, but it's Opening Day of the youth baseball season.

Of all the traditions and rituals of kids sports, nothing compares with Opening Day. For the parents, there's the challenge of finding a parking space and the risk some chilly mornings of losing a finger to frostbite. For kids, Opening Day is big-league fun, the first chance of the season to put on the uniform and see if last year's batting glove still fits.

At the Roland Park Baseball Leagues, where I've gotten my Opening Day fix the past 10 years, we're planning a big party, with Crickets, Gophers and 55 other teams assembled for the ceremony. There will be banners, balloons, an a cappella rendition of the national anthem and Ernie Tyler, Orioles legendary umpires' attendant, throwing out the first ball. Pandemonium? Picture a bookstore when the latest Harry Potter book hits the shelves.

Not every youth baseball league is celebrating these days, though. Last April, a front-page article in The Sun by reporter Joe Burris detailed the steady erosion of participation in youth baseball leagues. He reported that four years ago, 2,003 teams competed in Little League Baseball in Maryland. In 2005, participation had dropped to 1,721. Nationally, the article noted, enrollment in Little Leagues was down 300,000 players from its high point of 3 million in 1996.

Those statistics should weigh heavily on baseball fans, to say nothing of Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig. If boys and girls aren't playing baseball today, they're less likely to be hooked on the sport as adults, to pore over box scores in the morning paper and splurge on box seats at Camden Yards. Forget about investigating whether Barry Bonds' last 200 home runs were steroid-aided, Commissioner Selig. This is really something to worry about.

Roland Park Baseball is the unusual league that gets bigger each season. I say this with some knowledge, having spent the last month sitting, and sometimes dozing, at the sturdy dining room table of Louise Macsherry.

Mrs. Macsherry has been the unflappable league secretary of Roland Park Baseball the past 30 seasons. This year, I am commissioner, a lofty position in which I shake a lot of hands and artfully delegate difficult jobs to coaches and board members.

Occasionally, I'll pitch in with some real work, as in March, when I assisted Mrs. Macsherry and her husband, Charlie, in counting this season's registrations.

Two weeks ago, we finished thumbing through player forms and concluded that Roland Park Baseball set a new record: About 725 boys and girls ages 5 to 15 signed up to play baseball. Last year, the number was 652. That's three records the last three years. Youth baseball in a slump? Wouldn't Miguel Tejada love to be in a slump like that.

I noticed that some of my favorite players are back.

Marin, the fearless 12-year-old girl who hits line drives and throws darts from third base. Will, the unfailingly polite 14-year-old who displayed his versatility last season, playing catcher, first base, third base and outfield in the same game - and had the dusty uniform to prove it. And Anebi, the determined 11-year-old who had never played in a youth baseball league until last year. I saw him slam what I think was his first fair ball. Anebi is back this season. That tells me he is hooked on playing baseball.

Who knows why these players, and their parents, are drawn to Roland Park Baseball, which got its start in 1952? Maybe it's because in many ways, we're old-school. Win or lose, our players say a cheer for the opposing team after the game and meet at home plate to shake hands. Or maybe it's because we're not that old-school. This season, our 9- and 10-year-olds will be playing under an experiment: "No walks in April." If a pitcher can't find the plate after four balls, the batter sets the ball on a tee and takes a whack.

Or just maybe, with apologies to all 12-year-old lacrosse goalies, baseball is still the best game for kids. Check it out on Opening Day. Good seats are still available for the Bearcats and Junior Orioles.

Mark Hyman, a contributing editor at Business Week, lives in Baltimore. His e-mail is balthyman@aol.com

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