John Habib's City Sports: Big concerns about the Little Leagues
American Legion and Babe Ruth organizations are not the only baseball leagues in Manchester facing a shortage of players.
Registration numbers are down this spring compared to last year at four city Little Leagues, while the fifth league, Manchester North, reported its enrollment is holding steady.
According to the league presidents earlier this week, Manchester Central (down 100), Manchester East (50), Manchester South (45) and Manchester West Side (30) had fewer registrants than they did at the same time last year.
While every league was optimistic that more kids would be signing up soon — mainly because spring has arrived — the overall picture in Little League compared to only five years ago remained discouraging.
Compared to 2009 — when, the league presidents said, their program were serving between 300 and 325 kids — the numbers are down anywhere from 75 to 100 kids per league.
League presidents John Ryan of Manchester West Side, Kim Roy of Manchester South, Patrick Landroche of Manchester East and Sally Dreckmann of Manchester Central all said AAU baseball, soccer and lacrosse are making an impact on Little League baseball.
South, which had 306 total participants in its Major, Minor, Farm and Tee Ball divisions two years ago, had 266 last year. So far this year, 219 kids have signed up.
“We’re living in a different era from the one I grew up in,” said Roy. “We now live in a high-tech age where kids want to play video games instead of hitting baseballs. I can remember a time when kids would play their Little League games, go home to eat and then play more baseball in their neighborhood sandlots until it was time to go home. You don’t see that happening much anymore, and it’s very unfortunate.”
Roy — in her 22nd season at South, including 10 seasons as president over two separate terms — said her league isn’t giving up on registering more kids.
“Communication is the key,” she said. “We rely on social media and e-mails, and we even send out newsletters. We want kids to play Little League baseball. We want kids out in the fresh air and exercising.”
South and Central are celebrating milestone anniversaries this season — the 60th for South, No. 65 for Central, the oldest Little League circuit in the state. Central enters its landmark season with good news.
“We won the bidding to host the District I tournament this summer,” said Dreckmann, the league president.
Last season, Central hosted the state tournament, which Little League District I commissioner Don Kirkland deemed an “overwhelming success.”
“The job Sally, her entire staff, Mayor (Ted) Gatsas and the city did to renovate that field was phenomenal,” Kirkland said.
According to the commissioner, Manchester isn’t alone in experiencing declining Little League registration numbers.
“I’m not sitting here saying I’m fat and happy, because there’s a decline in most communities around the state,” Kirkland said. “But we’re still doing well. In District I, we have 17 teams, two more than we had last year. I know Manchester is down in numbers, but I’m confident more kids there will sign up soon. It’s a strong baseball city, and they have a rich tradition. Remember, we’re just coming off a long, hard winter season, and with warmer temperatures coming, kids will begin thinking baseball soon.”
Dreckmann, needing 100 more kids to register to match last year’s total of 267, said she’s confident her league will close the gap.
“We’re making every effort to sign up kids, and I’m confident we’ll have better numbers to report soon,” she said.
Landroche said three years ago East LL was serving 325 kids. He had 200 by the middle of last week and was confident a late push for the Farm and Tee Ball divisions will get that number up to 260.
Ryan said Manchester West Side is off by 10 percent compared to last season. He, too, was expecting more to sign up soon.
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RYAN and Landroche agree that if American Legion and Babe Ruth programs want to raise their registration numbers, they need to talk to the Little League kids at the end of the season.
“I would welcome coaches from Babe Ruth and American Legion to come and speak to our kids,” said Ryan. “Some kids don’t think they’re good enough to play at the next level, and they just lose interest. That’s where a Babe Ruth or Legion coach can come in and encourage them to continue playing. Those coaches can tell a Little League player that they’ll work with them to make them better players next season. Something like that makes a difference.”
Landroche agreed, saying, “It really breaks the ice. A face-to-face meeting where you’re encouraging a kid to continue to play goes a long way. Now that kid goes home and realizes he does have a chance to play at the next level. All they need is a little encouragement. If Babe Ruth and Legion want their numbers to go back up, they really need to take the time to reach out to our Little League kids.”
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THE LATE Brian West served Manchester East as umpire director and league president for many years. The league, which named its Major Division field after him now plans to induct him into the East Little League Hall of Fame.
Along with West, Bill Trombly Jr. and longtime sponsor East Side Club will be inducted during the annual Hall of Fame Dinner at the Yard Restaurant next Saturday, April 5, in a program that begins at 6 p.m.
Trombly is a longtime volunteer who coached in all four divisions and was a member of the league’s board of directors as president and treasurer. Along with being a team sponsor, East Side Club has hosted fundraising events for the league for many years.
Tickets can be purchased online at manchestereastll.org or, from 5-7 p.m. on April 3, at the East Clubhouse on Tarrytown Road. Tickets, $30 per individual guest or $50 per couple, also will be sold at the event next Saturday. Guests will enjoy a buffet dinner, dancing, a silent auction and raffles.
“City Sports” is published Saturdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader. Email staff reporter John Habib at firstname.lastname@example.org.