Vancen Waters, 12, stepped up to the pitcher’s mound as the heat in Millwood soared to 98 degrees.
Baseball caps shielded the sun and families filled the sidelines with umbrellas. At 6 p.m. Wednesday, action began for the University and Broadway teams, facing off in the Spokane Valley Baseball League Championship.
A few 8-year-olds played the final six-inning game of the season for the 9-12 split, and plenty of 12-year-olds went over a header. Normally kids under 12 play in several separate divisions, but there just aren’t enough players.
Broadway Elementary shut out University 15-0 for the trophy – minutes before sunset.
With fewer young kids in baseball compared to years ago, the trend worries Valley League President Bill Kreider, who wonders if the tradition of recreational summer games is fading like this sun.
“I’ve been involved in Valley baseball for 35 years, and decline isn’t the word for it; he fell off a cliff,” Kreider said, attributing trends that go beyond the impact of COVID.
“I know at one point we had over 1,500 players and 103 teams playing with Valley Baseball. That was probably 20 years ago, and since we hit this point the trend has been down, down, down. We are now between 250 and 300 players. This is the trend. It’s youth baseball nationwide.
The University Elementary baseball team sits in the pit before the Spokane Valley Baseball Championship game against Broadway Elementary at West Valley High School on Wednesday, July 27, 2022. (James Snook for the spokesperson-review)
Other sports leaders say a number of changes are at play in baseball for kids ages 4 to 18.
Some national trends show a decline in youth baseball, although it is still ranked in the top three organized youth sports along with basketball and soccer.
The Aspen Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes youth sports participation, uses data compiled by the Sports Fitness & Industry Association. He reported that nationally, 14.4% of children aged 6 to 12 played baseball in 2019, compared to 12.2% in 2020, a year affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. But the age group turnout was 16.5% in 2008.
Spokane Youth Sports Association chief Randy Schwaegler said kids are returning to organized sports post-COVID with more than 11,000 kids in 2022 across all sports — about 2,500 more than in 2019. The numbers n does not include baseball, which has been absorbed elsewhere, but sports such as soccer, volleyball, flag football and track and field.
Where’s the baseball?
According to the location in Spokane, youth baseball still has players – but across programs and in multiple seasons.
Otto Klein, senior vice president of minor league High-A team Spokane Indians, said his youth league involvement has increased over the past four years. The Indians run the program in partnership with SYSA.
In early 2014, Spokane’s programs for Pony Baseball, Babe Ruth/Cal Ripken, and SYSA’s baseball and softball divisions all came together under the Spokane Indians Youth Baseball umbrella. At that time, organizers said around 3,000 players were expected to compete in the spring, summer and fall at various levels.
“We don’t have total numbers for 2022, but the trend is for another increase,” Klein said.
This year there was an increase of 81 girls playing summer softball.
Spokane Indian Youth baseball and softball in 2019 had a total of 2,824 players. In 2021 amid pandemic adjustments, the number increased to 3,081 players. Games are mostly played on municipal grounds, such as the Dwight Merkel Sports Complex, and in city parks.
In June, the former adult softball diamonds at the Plantes Ferry Sports Complex were converted into five baseball diamonds for use by the program.
South Hill Little League board member Gordy Cummings said boys and girls aged 4 to 12 play in different divisions for a spring season, usually April to June. A spring league fits families’ summer schedules, he said. However, the program is considering a fall league and more players showed up last season.
“We had just under 400 kids enrolled in our Little League program, up from maybe 300 in 2021 and maybe 325 in 2019,” Cummings said.
“We had 32 teams last season, and the cool thing is that not only do we have 32 teams, but 18 of those 32 teams were in the younger divisions: T-ball and coach-pitch.”
Cummings acknowledged that “at the time” Little League numbers were considerably higher. Organizers have worked for the past six years to rebuild that, he said. He suggested that an informal regional grassroots effort could help programs share ideas for attracting enrolments. The group’s use of a QR code for registrations had a big impact.
“I know summer leagues have traditionally been tough because so many families, especially with multiple kids, have so much to do,” he said. “If it’s baseball-type families for one of the kids, sometimes they join a club team or a travel ball team and go that route for a year or two.”
Parent Kate Harmon said she noticed Valley’s baseball league numbers were dropping. Other kids she knows in the Spokane Valley have moved on to a Liberty Lake league, Spokane Indians Youth Baseball or club teams.
“There were a lot more teams when my oldest son was playing 10 years ago,” Harmon said after Wednesday’s game at West Valley High School. “This year they had to combine more teams.
“We like this level. This is where children learn to play on an even playing field. They are there to learn sportsmanship and have fun from an early age. It’s old-school American family baseball, and we need to keep it.
Varsity Elementary coach Kevin Herbst had two key players miss Wednesday because they were away on a family vacation, and a third was ill. He’s heard that some teams are struggling to fill rosters.
“My son’s coach, his son who is 13, has progressed,” he said. “They barely had enough boys to make two teams, and they were traveling all over the North West.”
But summer baseball is important to “keep them busy” and to see skills improve, he said. “The more they come back, the more they grow. I’ve had boys who have grown tremendously over the past three years.
His son Taylor Herbst, 10, pitched early in the game. “I’ve been playing for six years; it’s just fun,” he said.
The valley league began in the 1960s. Organizers tried to group each team closer to a neighborhood elementary school and use facility grounds. Traditionally, matches are held in June and July, Monday through Thursday, to leave weekends with the family.
Kreider has a few theories about what changed.
“I know football is probably growing. I know we play lacrosse in the summer. My general opinion is that I think there are fewer kids playing organized sports than there used to be.
Pressure on players could play a role, he said.
“I see so many parents pushing kids so hard, and I think some of those kids end up having the guts and end up not playing the game.”
Kreider could ask for changes next year, possibly limiting the number of older kids who can be on a team.
Ideally, with enough children signed up, groups are T-ball, ages 4-6; coach, 6-8; pee, 9-10 and dwarf, 11-12. “And we used to have 13-14 year old giants,” he said, but the older players started going elsewhere. “Now the 9 to 12 year olds are combined. It’s not good baseball like that.
And neighborhood pickup games seem to have evaporated, he said.
“When was the last time you saw unorganized kids playing baseball at the stadium? It doesn’t happen anymore.
“Kids always have fun there. Lately, with all computer games, everything is instant gratification, and baseball is not. There is no clock. The rhythm to play is the rhythm to play. With baseball, you could go out and hit. I don’t know if it affects children.
Broadway coach Jason Waters said COVID impacted his team in 2020 when the kids weren’t playing and he lost two players to other sports. Some younger kids fall to older kids, and 12-year-olds get less of the competition they need, he added.
“A year is a huge difference in weight and height,” Waters said, adding that more parents should encourage the sport. “I think a lot of kids are down there with an Xbox.”
On Wednesday, some children went on strike. Classic “ping” sounds sounded as players hit the ball. Outfielders had to decide whether to throw first or third.
Jeff Howald, a parent and Broadway third base coach, said he remembered as a kid, “everyone played baseball.” He grew up playing sports. “You were lucky to play,” he added. “There was a line of children who wanted to play.”
Another assistant coach, Gary Field, watched his 9-year-old son Parker play left field. It was her son’s first year in any sport. “We always asked him, do you want to go out and do something active, take the controller out of your hand, let’s do something that will create memories.”
The Fields will let him do that for next season. He thinks some parents push too much or steer kids into a sport to reach elite levels. “They’re trying to build a prodigy, instead of just letting a kid have fun.”