HARTFORD, Conn. — It’s not an easy time to run a youth baseball league.

Participation across youth sports has declined steadily, as kids choose among more entertainment options than ever. Major League Baseball’s popularity is down among members of Generation Z, who say they prefer basketball and soccer. And travel teams continue to siphon away top athletes at younger and younger ages, draining the player pool.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that Little League International reports steady annual declines in participation and that many Connecticut leagues have seen steep drops over the past 10 or 15 years. Some local leagues have merged with rivals to fortify depleted rosters. Others have eliminated age groups or drastically reduced their number of teams.

Coaches and administrators maintain that youth baseball is far from doomed — that participation has leveled off, in many cases, after years of decline and that player enthusiasm remains as high as ever. But they also acknowledge the challenges of sustaining leagues whose numbers are down, often steeply, from former peaks.

Below are the stories of five Connecticut Little Leagues: one that guards its idyllic vision of youth sports, even as participation dips; one that struggles to draw interest in an area where baseball has lost cachet; two that share a city that may not be big enough for both of them; and one that has already found strength through a pair of mergers. Together, they help explain the state of Connecticut youth baseball in 2019.

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During spring Little League season, a weekday night at Glastonbury’s Ross Field can feel like something from a Norman Rockwell painting.

Small boys in large uniforms chase each other across foul territory. Coaches congratulate kids for good plays and reassure them after bad ones. Teenagers sell hot dogs to hungry parents at a well-stocked concession stand. Stadium lights flicker on, illuminating a catcher who struggles to strap on his gear and a third baseman who smiles sheepishly when a ball sneaks past him in warm-ups.

Inside a storage shed along the first-base line, Don Longtin rummages for a dark green hat to give to a boy whose dog has chewed through his first one. Longtin has been part of Little League baseball for more than 50 years, and as Glastonbury’s commissioner, he prides himself on promoting values that sometimes seem to have disappeared from youth sports: inclusion, sportsmanship and fun.

“We’re not in the baseball business, we’re in the kid business,” he says, pointing to a wall bearing that slogan.

But idyllic as things might seem, Glastonbury Little League has its issues. Over five decades in town, Longtin has watched the local Little League grow and grow, then shrink again. This year, he said, the league had a total of 947 kids, including both baseball and softball players, down from nearly 1,500 in the mid-2000s.

This pattern broadly mirrors trends across youth baseball. Little League International says its participation peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s (with an estimated 2.7 million players) but has declined by an average of 1-3% annually over the past 18 years. An annual survey from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association has found youth baseball participation rates to be relatively flat in recent years, even as total participation, across all age groups, has risen.

Baseball participation rates were lower in New England than in any other United States region in 2018, according to SFIA, following a decrease from the previous year.

A decline in baseball participation have also been noticeable the high school level, where the sport’s total participation in Connecticut declined about 7.6% between 2015 and 2018, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Longtin has numerous theories on why participation has fallen in Glastonbury, including a decrease in the town’s population, the rise of travel teams and, above all, the trend toward focusing on one or two sports year-round. Longtin said when he was young, it was typical to play football in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring. Over time, though, athletes began to specialize at younger ages, choosing a single sport and sticking to it. Now, a kid might decide each spring not only between baseball and, say, lacrosse but also between baseball and AAU basketball.

“The truth is there are more choices today,” Longtin said. “Basketball has gone year-round, soccer is pretty much year-round. The seasons are different now than they were 40 years ago.”

From Fairfield to Meriden to Hartford to Glastonbury, Little League administrators cite the rise in alternatives as the biggest cause of youth baseball’s participation woes.

“You see kids leaving just because there are other options,” says Fairfield Little League president Neil Stekloff, whose All-Star team has won the state championship seven of the past nine years. “And you can’t do everything at the same time.”

Administrators worry (and experts agree) that kids who focus on a single sport year-round miss out on athletic and social benefits of trying different games, while risking injury or burnout. But specialization comes with a silver lining for Little League, Longtin says: young athletes who continue to play baseball do so not out of lack of options but out of passion for the sport.

“The kids who do select the game really like it. They’re fanatics,” Longtin said. “I think there are a tremendous amount of kids who love the sport. That’s the world I live in, and the kids truly enjoy it.”

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About 10 miles away, Lewis Kelley wages a similar fight on different turf. Kelley runs the Hartford Northend Little League, which he helped found in 1989 and which has seen participation drop sharply in recent years. A decade ago, the league welcomed several hundred kids spread across three age groups. Now, it has fewer than 100, mostly concentrated at the T-ball level.

Some of HNLL’s problems, Kelley said, owe to baseball’s relative lack of popularity among kids in the North End.

“Our kids in our community are more about basketball and football,” Kelley said one evening at Hartford’s Waverly Park. “They play until basketball comes along, football comes along. We’ve got them from May when we start to the first part of June, then we lose them because they start doing travel basketball and getting ready for football.”

Baseball has long struggled for currency in urban areas, prompting a series of Major League Baseball initiatives to drive inner-city participation. Kelley said it doesn’t help that kids in the mostly black North End lack role models in MLB, where less than 8% of players were African American, as of 2018.

“They like LeBron James,” he said. “They don’t know any (baseball player) on TV that they can associate with. The guys are from the Dominican Republic or wherever, but that ain’t their heroes. LeBron is, and the football players are.”

As HNLL vice president Anthony Lilley notes, baseball requires equipment, space and a fairly large group, making it more difficult to play casually among friends.

“It’s hard to play baseball,” HNLL vice president Anthony Lilley said. “You’ve got to get a glove, got to get a bat, get a ball, get nine players. Whereas with basketball” — he looked toward players shooting on a blacktop court behind him — “that’s all you need.”

Like many inner-city leagues, HNLL suffers from a lack of funding and manpower, with just a few volunteers to coach the teams, tend to the fields, apply for grants and promote the league.

As other local leagues closed their seasons in early June, Kelley was just beginning his. The start was delayed, he said, by a longer-than-usual rainy season that left the fields soaked with puddles.

“We don’t have people to maintain the fields,” he said.

Kelley said HNLL has not received funding from MLB, whose Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities and Play Ball programs have helped spur baseball participation across the country, including in Hartford (through the Boys and Girls Club). For now, he’s left fighting to keep his league afloat – and hoping the players show up.

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In Meriden, three youth baseball leagues serve a population of about 60,000 people: the Jack Barry Little League, the Ed Walsh Little League and South Meriden Youth Baseball, which is not affiliated with Little League International.

Once, that arrangement worked. Now, as interest has dipped, it has caused some issues.

“Back when they first did it, there were so many players,” Ed Walsh coach and president Michael Duffy said. “With more kids, two Little Leagues would make sense.”

Jack Barry president Andrew Adams said there wasn’t any single inflection point when participation declined in Meriden. Instead, he said, “It was just a gradual decline in kids wanting to play baseball, I guess.”

Meriden’s leagues have attempted to combat their participation problems in several ways, including by playing games against each other and against teams from neighboring towns. Jack Barry Little League, Adams said, recently cut registration costs nearly in half and has begun strategizing about how to attract more female players.

But so far nothing has particularly worked. Registration has continued to decline.

Duffy and Adams have both weighed what looks like an inevitable solution: If participation remains an issue, Jack Barry and Ed Walsh Little Leagues could soon merge into a single league, as others across the state have done. A merger would erode a decades-old youth baseball structure but would also assure that kids in Meriden have proper teams to play on and ample opponents to play against.

“We’ve definitely talked about it,” Duffy said. “If the numbers get low enough, absolutely.”

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For an example of what a successful merger can look like, Meriden might glance toward Windsor, where the town’s two leagues consolidated in 2012 to form a bigger, stronger operation.

“We had a couple teams on this side and a couple teams on that side, and we said, ‘Why wouldn’t we put everything together?’ ” recalls Andrew Lattimer, president of the unified Windsor Little League.

The merger, Lattimer said, allowed Windsor to slot kids at the proper level of play, instead of assigning them to whichever team needed to fill out its roster.

This year, Windsor Little League grew once again, when it absorbed Bloomfield’s ever-shrinking league, which had been reduced to about 50 players and had already been sending teams to play in Windsor.

“It just seemed like a natural fit,” said former Bloomfield Little League president David Nolan, who remains involved in the league. “We already had some relationships with Windsor, we were structured the same, the pricing was fairly similar.”

Lattimer and Nolan say the merger has benefited both sides. Bloomfield players got a stable league and a steadier schedule, while Windsor got a new crop of players to replenish its declining pool.

In less than 10 years, Windsor and Bloomfield went from three leagues between them to just one. And if participation continues to trend downward, Nolan said, other towns could follow similar paths.

“I would say that the future is probably in regionalization,” Nolan said, “just so you have enough kids to participate.”

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©2019 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

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