Ah, baseball. It fills many with nostalgic, childhood memories—the smell of fresh cut grass and leather gloves, the sound of a bat connecting with a ball, the joy of high-fives and team celebrations after a well-played game. This beloved sport, long established as America’s favorite pastime, is as popular as ever. Each year thousands of local kids participate in Little League ball. In recent years, San Diego has collectively cheered as a series of dominant, South Bay teams have represented our region at the Little League Baseball World Series.
Little League has grown significantly from its original three teams in Williamsport, Pennsylvania in 1939, to over 200,000 teams today, located in all 50 states and in more than 80 countries. The league offers baseball and softball for ages 4-16. Additionally, the Challenger Division allows kids with special needs to play, with the help of a volunteer “buddy.” Along with teaching fundamentals such as throwing, catching and batting, another primary goal of Little League is for kids to develop lifelong skills and character traits like sportsmanship, fair play, citizenship, discipline, courage, loyalty and teamwork. Players can then take these essential skills off the field and apply them in all aspects of their lives.
Although all skill levels are welcome, it is a competitive game. The most competitive teams ultimately qualify for the Little League Baseball World Series, a culminating event held in Williamsport every August. In 2009, the world watched as our Chula Vista champions, Park View Little League, won the series and became World Champions. Since this astounding breakthrough, three additional South Bay teams—also located within Little League California’s District 42’s boundaries—have followed Park View 2009’s footsteps to Williamsburg. These teams include Eastlake 2013 (United States Champions), Sweetwater Valley 2015 and Park View 2016.
Ernie Lucero, who became the district’s administrator in 2008, has traveled to the event with all four teams. He describes the kids (all 12-year-olds) as “amazed, with mouths wide open” as they stepped onto the world stage of baseball, playing in front of huge crowds, with their games broadcast via ESPN.
“Prior to the 2009 Little League season, there was a Forbes article that labeled Chula Vista as the most boring city among the 100 largest cities in the United States,” Lucero reflects. “Make no mistake that the 2009 Park View Little League team changed the perception of Chula Vista forever.” He suggests that Park View’s success inspired and gave confidence to other kids in the community; and also says it was a great honor for all of them to be recognized by President Obama at the White House.
“It is safe to say that Chula Vista is no longer a boring city,” Lucero adds.
Lucero attributes his district’s success to a number of factors. First, most of the championship players start young, initially playing tee-ball and working their way up. Second, District 42 hosts large leagues (Park View, Eastlake and Sweetwater Valley all have 500+ players); so there are plenty of skilled players to choose from when putting together all-star teams. Finally, a strong community bond—with players growing up together, living within blocks of each other and attending the same schools—is a major contributing factor to these teams’ impressive accomplishments. The whole community—including extended families, friends and neighbors—comes out to cheer on the kids.
San Diego also has the advantage of mild weather. Clear, sunny skies mean that kids can play year round. While specific dates vary league to league, spring season generally consists of try-outs in January, followed by a player draft to create balanced teams; opening day is at the end of February or early March; regular games are played through June, followed by an all-star season until August. After that, kids can either play travel ball or participate in an informal Fall Ball season, lasting through December.
Lucero stresses that parents don’t need to spend a lot of money on fancy gloves and bats, but they do need to always model positive behavior and make sure their kids are having fun. If your child wants to play this year, but you’ve missed the neighborhood league’s tryouts and/or registration deadlines, Lucero encourages you to contact an administrator. Every effort will be made to place your child on a team.
“Our focus is this—make sure your kids (boys or girls) enjoy what they’re doing, what they’re playing. That’s what makes these teams go,” Lucero says. “We have kids of all abilities; it doesn’t matter—they all get to play on a team. Kids want to enjoy Little League baseball with their buddies in the neighborhood.”
Although the vast majority of Little Leaguers won’t play ball beyond high school, their childhood memories of the formative experience will remain with them forever. For more information, visit www.LittleLeague.org.
Did you know?
Each year the San Diego Padres donate custom uniforms—Padres-branded fashion jerseys with matching caps—to more than 15,000 youth baseball players in over 50 leagues in the San Diego area. This gift allows lower Little League registration fees, or for funds to be re-allocated towards field improvements or essential team equipment.
Lisa Pawlak is an award-winning contributing writer and Encinitas resident.
Published February 2017