In the middle of Coyle Street and Avenue Z, a block nestled between the South Brooklyn neighborhoods of Sheepshead Bay and Gerritsen Beach, two junior baseball teams, Brooklyn Baseball League and Our Lady of Guadalupe, are in the midst of their first game of the season. Relatives and friends of the youths from both teams are either sitting in folding chairs or have their elbows and hands pressed upon the black fence enclosing the field, peering through the square shaped openings to watch the young athletes’ training unfold on the baseball diamond.
The energy is high amongst player and spectator alike, but outside of this scene it is no secret that there has been a general loss of interest in youth baseball. Little League International says it has seen a “slight year-to-year decline of about 3 percent.” But around the five boroughs, a large number baseball programs have also seen a more dramatic decline in registration in the last four to five years.
No one culprit is blamed for this loss. Instead, it’s pinned on an array of factors: competition from other sports like soccer, the increased popularity of digital devices, rising league fees, longer school days and even immigration, which has in some neighborhoods replaced the Louisville Slugger with a cricket bat. The sport itself, from the recent rise of travel teams to the age-old quirks of baseball—its pace, its difficulty—also get blamed.
For Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, an avid baseball fan who as a City Councilmember pushed legislation to ban metal bats in some baseball leagues for safety reasons, says the explanation is right in kids’ hands. “We’re in a 140-character culture with Twitter, the marketing of the game has to change” says Oddo. “What we need to do is show the game in its most positive light.” Oddo does not agree with sentiments that youth baseball rules should be changed to make the sport more fast paced as this would challenge the integrity of the sport.
The executive director of Yorkville Youth Athletic Association Inc., Arlene Virga, believes that the influx of new sports programs offered to aspiring athletes is a probable reason for a drop in baseball registration there. “Three or four years ago we were the largest little league,” Virga says. “We had 1,400 kids in our program, now we have around 800.” The Manhattan program is among a handful of youth baseball leagues in the boroughs that still report more than 500 registrants.
The executive director of Great Kills Little League, Nick DeFendis, also credits the loss of registration in his organization to the multitude of other sports programs offered to the youth. “Not enough kids are serious about playing baseball. We’re seeing less committed kids,” says DeFendis. “They’re interested in other sports, like lacrosse and football.”
The lower numbers don’t just mean fewer kids sitting on the bench. League officials say more games are being forfeited because of an incomplete team. In some cases, leagues have not had enough registrants to fill out an age bracket.
Robert Brokman, president of Amittyville Little League of Brooklyn, has seen his organization, which has been in operation for over 30 years, suffer low numbers for the past few seasons. “We have had a loss of about 70 percent. We originally had around 800 at peak,” says Brokman. “Now we only have 150 or so.” Currently, Amittyville’s roster is short by around 50 registrants and will be unable to compete in tournaments for certain age brackets.
Brokman attributes this loss largely to the youth lacking interest in sports because they are preoccupied by social media and other technologies.
The low numbers can create a vicious cycle. At the Mosholu Montefiore Community Center in the northwest Bronx, which used to field as many as eight teams in some of its six divisions, falling registration in the past few years left only two teams in an age bracket. Parents and players tired of facing the same kids and coaches every game, and declined to re-register. Numbers having fallen further this year, the league has had to combine its tee-ball and “coaches pitch” divisions, potentially putting four- and eight-year-olds on the field together, and merge two higher divisions to create an 11-15 age bracket.
The executive director of the Forest Hills Youth Athletic Association, Larry Berkowitz, attributes the decline in registration for youth baseball teams to the influx of immigrant communities that do not identify with baseball. “Baseball was the top sport in our program for years,” he says, “but now it is ranked number 3. We have about 600 kids in our baseball program.” FHYAA offers baseball, basketball, and soccer to the Queens community; soccer is currently their most popular sport in terms of registration numbers.
Eli Martinez, president of Jaws Little League of the Bronx, has seen a sharp decline in the registration for his program. “The way it is right now it’s about to disappear, we don’t have enough kids” says Martinez. “I guarantee that Little League in the Bronx will disappear in a few years.” This organization has been active since 1978. In days past its registration numbers exceeded 300 players annually but Martinez predicted that this season would attract far fewer.
Yet another factor in the decrease in registration numbers in recent years is the influence of travel teams. These travel teams allow their athletes to compete with other organizations, across the region and even the nation. Founder and Executive Director of Manhattan Youth Baseball, Bobby Hoffman, believes that the travel teams are a large factor in the loss of registration in regards to committed players throughout the five boroughs.
Hoffman also believes parents are interested in having their children be involved in more participatory sports and baseball does not allow for the active participation that can be found in many other fast-paced sports.
“Baseball is a very difficult game,” Hoffman says, “and it’s not really fun unless you know how to play.” According to Hoffman kids, who have gravitated away from youth baseball are seeking out sports such as soccer which does not require a child to be a star player in order to have an active role in the game.
The junior division match on Coyle street resulted in a loss for Our Lady of Guadalupe but the loss will not deter team member Daniel Flores from improving his craft. Flores’ commitment to the sport has him playing for two teams: his youth baseball program as well as New Utrecht High School. He has known teammates who have left baseball for other sports but he feels that their departure from the team was due to baseball not being their primary focus.
“I want to be part of a travel team. The people who make it there are the people that go farther,” Flores says. “The only problem is that not everybody can make it.”