Last month, the national Little League organization released new rules for the 2014 baseball season that adjusted eligibility requirements and compensation for traveling expenses.
What was missing from the list is what irked Lutz baseball organizers the most — changes in Little League playing style that could help better develop young players, and give them the skills they need to advance in the sport. Skills like stealing bases, leading off of base, bunting, and what players can gain from more tournament play.
But Little League isn’t budging from its decades-old style, and after more than a half century of affiliation, Lutz will break away from Little League on Jan. 1, and join Babe Ruth League.
“What’s been happening is a decline in membership and an increase in costs,” said Rick Parker, a board member and coach for both the current Lutz Little League organization and the upcoming Lutz Baseball operation. “The evolution of the youth leagues have been more toward traveling teams, and that’s where many are going. And during all this, Little League has been akin to the Vatican — they don’t move, and they don’t want to change their doctrine.”
Little League and Babe Ruth have a lot of similarities. Both were born during the golden era of baseball, targeting youth to participate in America’s Pastime. The Little League World Series is one of the best-known youth athletic events in the world, taking place every year in the league’s birthplace of Williamsport, Pa., while Babe Ruth has its annual championship games in various parts of the country.
Where the two leagues split, however, is how they play the game. Little League holds on to its basic game style first established in the 1940s that focus intently on batting and fielding, but not running.
Yet, thanks to its growth at the professional levels, the running game — base stealing, leading off, fighting for extra bases — has become a key part of the sport. Running game skills are necessary not just at the professional and collegiate level, but even at the high school level, which puts Little League players at a disadvantage.
“Kids want to play baseball, they want to have fun,” Parker said. “But when you get to ages of 7, 8 and 9, these are key development years. High school baseball is very competitive, and if you want a chance to potentially open the doors, you’re going to have to know the broader nuances of baseball.”
The Babe Ruth League, named after one of the sport’s most famous players, has two divisions: Babe Ruth Baseball for teenagers, and Cal Ripken Baseball for younger ages.
Lutz joins New Tampa, Bloomingdale, North Brandon and other local communities to make the switch to Babe Ruth, and the decision was virtually unanimous among not only the Lutz board, but its parents and players as well.
“It was not an easy decision,” said Dave Crawford, the president of Lutz Baseball, and formerly of Lutz Little League. “Little League has been good to us, but it’s just a different way of doing business from Cal Ripken. Little League has been around for a long time, and been able to grow and evolve. And just with any business model, they have to do what they need to do.”
Little League officials in Pennsylvania would not comment on the status of its Lutz operation, but did say they would welcome the league back if it ever changed its mind.
“Little League is constantly changing to adapt to today’s standards,” spokesman Brian McClintock told The Laker/Lutz News in an email statement. “As the world’s largest and most respected youth sports organization, we will continue to provide a positive, safe baseball and softball experience for every child in our programs.”
McClintock added that Little League did amend its rules this year to allow for children to play for a Little League in the same boundaries their school is located. They also added an intermediate baseball division this past year for children 11 to 13.
But it was still difficult for the organization to bring in players that with other youth leagues, they’d be able to attract otherwise, Crawford said.
“The Little League boundary policy is the one they are set on. They do that for the protection of the local leagues, and that is very honorable,” he said. “With Cal Ripken, we have a little more latitude, to expand our boundaries for our continued growth, and it seemed very appropriate for us.”
The new league will have much wider boundaries, allowing them to bring in players from parts of central Pasco County and northern Hillsborough County.
Although Ruth and Ripken are popular names in baseball, the Lutz program still has some work to do introducing the program locally, and moving people away from its Little League attachment at Oscar Cooler Park.
“Little League is similar to Kleenex,” Parker said. “Everyone uses the phrase ‘Little League,’ but a larger percentage of them don’t understand that Little League is kids baseball. That as you get to the older groups, the Little League brand is not necessary.”
Registration costs for players will actually be less than last year, typically by $10, Parker said. And the hope is that bringing in more tournaments through the new league will help generate more revenue, and defray even more costs in the future.
To learn more about the new league, how it will complement travel teams, and to register, visit LutzBaseball.com.
“There’s no hard feelings on our end,” Crawford said. “We just did some research on some options, and chose the one that was the best for our teams and our future.”