Summer baseball: Where have all the players gone?
WORTHINGTON -- Baseball may be America's pastime, but over the last decade or so, the number of players going out for summer leagues around the area have been decreasing to the point where some towns can no longer put a team on the field.
"When we go into these other towns, like Milroy, their numbers are down and teams like Morgan have dropped out altogether," Windom Legion coach Doug Kneeland said. "A lot of teams are struggling because of a lack of numbers even if they have a team. I've talked to a few coaches and they have told me that they are having troubles just fielding one team, let alone a VFW team."
Towns such as Adrian and Slayton were unable to field Legion teams this season due to a lack of numbers and even posts that were able to put together a full team needed to seek out some extra players from other towns in order to have a full squad.
"Adrian didn't have a team this year and they used to be such a big baseball town," Worthington Legion coach Todd Rogers said. "As a team, we had to go out and get a few other kids from the surrounding area to even get a full team on the field."
One of the reasons that numbers are down at the Legion level is that more and more kids are changing their focus from summer baseball to other sports that have not traditionally been summer sports.
"There are so many other summer sports going on these days that kids are having to choose between summer baseball and playing another sport," said Danny Kneeland, who played for the Windom Eagles baseball team before graduating last spring. "Kids are going to camps for sports that they play in the fall or winter season and that is a big part of why the numbers are down for summer baseball.
"Some kids might not be playing because of money or time problems, but for the most part kids are choosing to focus on other sports in the summer and are just saying that baseball is kind of not as important any more."
Like many of his fellow teen-age athletes, Danny decided during his high school career that he would focus exclusively on one sport, which meant all the other sports he used to play fell by the wayside.
"There are a lot of one-sport athletes that pick one sport and just play that sport," Danny, who helped coach the Windom Legion team this summer alongside his dad, said. "A lot of kids are realizing that if you want to compete with the best players in the state, you have to give that one sport you want to play all the time you can, especially during the summer months.
"For myself, baseball has always been my top sport and I wanted to focus on just that. So, I quit football and spent all my time playing baseball."
Another reason for the decline in numbers many teams are seeing is that most players have some kind of summer job or want to go on vacations with their families.
"I think kids have got a lot more important things to do with their time in the summer," Rogers said. "Kids are working a lot more these days than they did before too. So that might be another reason that we are seeing such low numbers. I started to see this trend back when my son was in ninth or tenth grade. There were 24 kids on his VFW team, but when he moved up to the Legion team, there were a lot less players."
For most coaches, this new trend is baffling considering baseball used to be the only thing a kid could do during the summer months to keep busy.
"Kids are just busier in the summers than they were even five years ago, let alone when I was younger," Luverne Legion coach Barry Shelton said. "Back when I was a kid, all there was to do in the summer was play baseball. We didn't have all these other sports to compete with during the summer months."
Rogers also remembers the days before kids had so many distractions during the summer and baseball was the center of almost every young boy's life.
"All we did was play baseball seven days a week," Rogers said. "And all we thought about was baseball because there was no technology like cell phones or the Internet to take up our time."
Along with all the other things summer baseball has going against it, the biggest problem may be a lack of funding.
"Overall, when talking to my Legion commander, the thing that is hurting us the most is a lack of funds," Doug Kneeland said. "I don't know if it is a league-wide thing, but we are scraping together jerseys and hats and other things for the kids to play in."
Despite the lack of numbers for area teams this summer, Danny, along with every coach in the area, hopes that it is just a passing fad that will pass in time.
"I hope this isn't a trend and it is only a cycle we are going through with the numbers being down this year," Danny said. "I really hope, for baseball's sake, that things pick up again and more kids come back to play again next year."
Shelton is also hoping that the numbers bounce back in the next few years, especially for his own team.
"We were able to come up with enough kids this year, but we will have to have a team next year because we are hosting the Legion tournament," Shelton said. "And another thing that won't help us is that come 2015, we will not be able to use college kids on the teams any more since the national rule was changed recently."
The Windom Legion team continues its season today in the consolation bracket of the Sub-District B tournament, with Luverne starting its Legion tournament Friday and Worthington getting back in action next week for its tournament.