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Rough Diamond

Photo: Little League Baseball.

The leadership of youth baseball in the U.S. is optimistic that local recreational baseball leagues will play out their regular seasons in 2022. Their joint level of optimism follows some promising experiences in a somewhat disrupted 2021.

“While faced with continued challenges from the impact of the pandemic, we are proud that we were able to accomplish our two goals for the 2021 season — helping our local leagues return to the field and hosting the Little League Baseball and Softball World Series,” says Stephen Keener, Little League Baseball president and CEO. “Many of our local Little League programs around the world have already begun their 2022 season and others across the United States will be starting their seasons here in the coming months as the weather starts to warm up.”

As it has done throughout the pandemic, Little League continues to encourage each league and district to adhere to the guidelines set by state and local government and health officials in terms of public gatherings, organized youth sports and sporting events when determining how and when to return to Little League activities.

Keener says Little League Baseball is focused on a few key objectives for 2022, one of which is to keep all events virus-free.

“Our goal this year is to once again help our leagues return to the field and bring back our World Series tournaments in full effect, including international participation and the return of our teenage divisions, as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Little League Baseball World Series,” says Keener. “With these goals in mind, we will continue to follow guidance from experts, as well as local and state health officials, and ultimately make decisions that are in the best interest for the safety and well-being of our participants.”

PONY Baseball is also confident that baseball participation will be better in 2022 than it was in 2021, which certainly showed an improvement over 2020.

“Our goal is to get back to where we were in 2019,” says Abe Key, president of PONY Baseball & Softball, pointing out that in 2020 the entire year was washed out with only local competition and no national tournaments. In 2021, PONY was 65 percent of where it was in 2019.  

“Many of our leagues were impacted by a lack of access to facilities or limited availability to fields at schools and parks,” Key points out, although it was able to conduct national tournaments in eight different age groups — but PONY had no international play. In 2022, he expects to be at 85 percent of 2019 levels.

One outside factor that may impact youth baseball participation is the current work stoppage/lockout by Major League Baseball.

“Back in the mid-1990s, we saw a drop in participation during the last strike by Major League Baseball,” Key recalls. “There was some parental pushback on baseball, which negatively impacted our registration numbers at the time.”

In 2021, the baseball experience for participants of Babe Ruth League was filled with far more positives than negatives.

“For the 2021 season, Babe Ruth League was happy to welcome back many participants who were eager to play,” reports president and CEO Steven Tellefsen, adding that despite the uncertainties, 2021 will be remembered as a year where youth baseball and softball, as well as people who love the games, made much-awaited returns.  

“People wanted a distraction from the everyday stress we all live under now. Just a few hours at the ballpark, watching kids play and laugh, along with parents cheering -- and even yelling at the umpires -- was priceless,” he says. “We did anticipate smaller turnouts as we expected coaches, players, parents and fans to opt out of the spring season due to COVID safety concerns.”  

Babe Ruth also predicted that some leagues would not be able to have a season due to lack of access to school and recreational fields that remained closed because of the pandemic. So even though its participation numbers were higher than 2020, Tellefsen feels the organization still has a ways to go before it returns to full strength.

“Our goal this year is to once again help our leagues return to the field and bring back our World Series tournaments in full effect.” – Stephen Keener, Little League Baseball

“We were able to end the season with a safe, exciting and competitive tournament trail that culminated with 17 Babe Ruth League World Series events,” he reports. “While these events required more safety preparations than in the past, we were able to preserve the experience that make these events special.”

Moving forward, Babe Ruth League officials are keeping one eye on the calendar and one on the state of the pandemic. “Most of our leagues start playing during April and we expect and hope that this trend will continue for the 2022 season,” says Tellefsen. “We have learned plenty about putting on a safe event and making sure all participants and fans feel comfortable in a local league and tournament setting.”

Photo: Dixie Boys Baseball.

Dixie Boys Baseball leadership is cautiously optimistic that 2022 will be better than 2020 and 2021.

“Baseball played in 2020 caused some sleepless nights,” recalls executive director James “Sandy” Jones, who noticed during the 2021 season a renewed excitement for the game. “I’m not sure what 2022 and beyond will look like, but if there was any positive with the pandemic it has at least forced us to stop and think.”

For Dixie Boys Baseball, the last two seasons have been totally different from one another.

“Our primary focus for 2020 differed slightly as the goal was to make the program available for those that were able to participate based on a wide-range of state mandates,” explains Jones.  “We managed to successfully implement our action plan. In 2021, many more avenues for participation were available than 2020.

“We are looking forward to the 2022 season and anticipate some of our states will start local league baseball in early April while others will wait until the conclusion of high school/JV baseball season,” he adds.    

According to Wes Skelton, executive director of Dixie Youth Baseball in Marshall, TX, local leagues are expected to play their games as originally scheduled in 2022.

“We expect to begin play in February and March in all states and to begin tournament play in June,” he says.

Optimism also runs high for the American Amateur Baseball Congress (AABC), which had a good recovery in 2021 from 2020, according to executive director Richard Neely.  “Participation in 2021 was much better than 2020 and we played 13 World Series,” he says. Play has already started in 2022. “The virus has not impacted us, yet,” he says.

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Jan 24, 2022


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