Youth baseball just got a big boost in OKC
Grant Hansen had been working for Oklahoma City Parks and Recreation less than a month when he had to make one of the toughest decisions of his life. Cancel baseball. Not a game.
“It broke my heart,” he said.
Hansen has the sport in his blood. He playedat Edmond Santa Fe High School, then pitched at Oklahoma City University before spending a couple years in the minors in the mid-2000s.
Butit wasn’t his personal passion alone that made it difficult to cancel youth baseball last spring. It was the kids— kids who wanted to play and kids who didn’t even knowthe opportunity existed.
Hansen and many others hope that problem is now past.
On Wednesday, the Oklahoma City Dodgers announced a partnership with parks and rec thatstrives to boost youth baseball in the city. The Triple-A affiliate will provide jerseys and hats for the kids and everything
from bases, balls and bats for the teams in hopes that more kids will play ball.
Out of the disappointment of last year’s baseball season being canceled, the OKC Dodgers Rookie League has been born.
The unveiling was done at Eugene Field Elementary, a school nestled in the heart of the city between Midtown and The Plaza District, as rows of kids sat crisscross applesauce on the gym floor.
“We’re not doing it for your moms and your dads,” parks and rec director Douglas Kupper said. “We’re not doing it for me.
“We’re doing it for you.”
Baseball participation among kids in this country has been in freefall in recent years. Overall athletic participation is down — a study last fall from the Aspen Institute said the skyrocketing cost of playing sports was the biggest culprit — but baseball has seen the biggest drop. In 2008, 16.5 percent of all kids in America played baseball. Less than a decade later, that number is 12.4.
A 4.1-percent decline, a bigger drop than basketball (down 3.5 percent), soccer (2.7) or even football (1.9).
And baseball’s drop is likely even bigger in cities because kids who do play are migrating to travel teams or suburban leagues.
Kupper believes part of baseball’s drop is due to the variety in skills and the dearth of equipment. Unlike soccer or basketball where one ball is just about the only thing you need, baseball has tons of gear. Similarly, you have to learn a bunch of different skills. Hitting. Fielding. Pitching. Baserunning.
Sometimes it’s just easier to play something else.
That’s where the Dodgers hope to make a dent in the decline. To get kids active and expose them to the positives of sport — learning life lessons, gaining self-confidence and being better students — they are trying to eliminate some of the barriers that have existed in the past.
Dodgers president and general manager Michael Byrnes recognizes that declining youth baseball participation is a complex issue. The team’s efforts might not fix things. But he figures it’s a little like eating an elephant.
“We just gotta take a bite,” he said.
Byrnes, one of four brothers who played baseball as kids, wasn’t willing to sit idle and let another spring go by without baseball in OKC Parks and Rec. This is a city, after all, with a proud baseball heritage. Minor league franchises put down roots here. Major league talents blossomed from here. Add in the fact that this is the home of USA Softball and Hall of Fame Stadium, and we have a storied batand-ball history.
That’s why news of last spring’s shutdown of parks and rec baseball came as a surprise to many.
“The first time I heard that, it certainly made me sit up a little more straight,” Byrnes said. “I had to ask a lot of questions.”
Now, Byrnes and the Dodgers hope they’re part of the answer.
So does Hansen. The former player couldn’t believe he had to make that tough call about baseball only three weeks after becoming an athletics coordinator at parks and rec. He beat the bushes. He worked the phones. He tried everything imaginable to find enough kids to make the leagues feasible.
In the end, he knew they couldn’t be successful with such low numbers.
He chalked it up as a loss — a big one — but then, he took the same approach that he used to have as a player.
“We’ll get ‘em next time,” he thought.
Now with an enthusiastic partner and a ton of forward momentum, Hansen hopes the baseball season is never in question again.
Game on. Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook. com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/ jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.
Students at Eugene Fields Elementary School model baseball jerseys while posing with OKC Dodgers mascot Brix on Wednesday.
Douglas Kupper, director of Oklahoma City Parks and Recreation, speaks during a news conference Wednesday to introduce a youth baseball program called the OKC Dodgers Rookie League.