The crack of the bat followed by the shouts of young voices are sounds being heard less and less these days.
Recent surveys by the National Sporting Goods Association have indicated the number of kids playing baseball is down, way down.
From 2000-2009, 24 percent fewer children between the ages of 7 and 17 played youth baseball compared to a previous survey taken in the 1990’s. There were 2.5 million Little League players in 1996 but only 2 million in 2010.
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But there were no signs of that decline on a recent Sunday at Miller Park, where multi-colored jerseys displaying names like “Tigers,” “Eagles,” “Bombers” and “Bears” glistened in the early morning sunshine as youngsters from all across southeast Wisconsin lined up for a chance to play on the same hallowed ground as Yovani Gallardo and Ryan Braun.
“Oh, it’s awesome,” Blake Luedtke, whose 10-year-old son Brock plays in the Union Grove Youth League said. “He was excited the moment we walked in and kept moving closer and closer to the field. To be this close is amazing.”
Brock Luedtke was one of over 200 players taking part in the Chevrolet Youth Baseball Clinic. The clinics are run by coaches at Ripken Baseball, an organization founded by Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. The coaches travel the country, working with Chevy to teach the game. They had been at Target Field in Minneapolis earlier in the week continuing their educational and goodwill tour to promote the grand old game.
“That’s one of the things Ripken Baseball was founded on, growing the game worldwide, trying to get more kids involved in baseball,” Brett Curll, who played at the University of Maryland and is now a Ripken Baseball coordinator said.
“The numbers have been slipping recently,” Curll said. “So we just get ‘em out here, get that energy going, tell ‘em what baseball is all about, tell ‘em that they can have fun and get the game going again at the youth level.”
The kids, who had taken their seats behind the first base dugout, eagerly moved towards the field when the clinic began with looks on their faces that were a combination of joy but disbelief that they were being allowed to stroll through the gates and onto a Major League Baseball diamond.
“This is just great,” 10-year-old Ryan Streuli of Mukwonago said. “It’s fantastic, a real pleasure.”
The players work on fundamentals at four different stations, hitting, throwing, infield and outfield. Some of the drills are definitely outside the box; hitting soccer balls off a tee and playing catch while on your knees.
“The kids are having fun and we’re having fun,” Curll said. “I think we have more fun than they do. We’ve got a great group of guys. We’re high energy. We enjoy running around and yelling along with the kids.”
Chevy Dealers across America support over 850,000 Little League baseball players as part of Chevy Youth Baseball. The dealers partner with local leagues and help with supplying equipment, refurbishing playing fields and fund-raising.
Having a decent place to play and good equipment with which to play goes a long way towards keeping young athletes interested in baseball. But in this tight economy, money for fields, bats, balls, gloves and helmets can be tough to come by.
“All of the things Chevrolet does for the organization, it’s been extremely helpful,” Todd Streuli, whose son plays for the Mukwonago Bears, said. “They really step up to help the families and the leagues out there.”
For Chevrolet, which has always branded itself in red, white and blue, getting involved was a no-brainer.
“Baseball is so fundamental,” Andy Schlesinger, president of Andrew Chevrolet in Glendale said. His 9-year-old son Ethan took part in the clinic. “It teaches sportsmanship, teamwork and all of the fundamentals people need in life. The kids love to play. They’re so enthusiastic and we love to support it.”
The sessions last about two hours and are well-organized. But when you have 200 kids with the attention spans of, well, 200 kids, it can be a bit challenging.
“The kids go crazy,” Curll said. “But the stations are short enough so we can keep their attention enough. It’s a challenge sometime, but it’s also rewarding, rewarding to see the kids having fun and for us to get a chance to promote the game of baseball.”