Youth base­ball just got a big boost in OKC

The Oklahoman - - SPORTS - Jenni Carl­son jcarl­son@ oklahoman.com

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.

The sea­son.

“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 jcarl­son@oklahoman.com. Like her at face­book. com/Jen­niCarl­sonOK, fol­low her at twit­ter.com/ jen­ni­carl­son_ok or view her per­son­al­ity page at newsok.com/jen­ni­carl­son.

[PHO­TOS BY DOUG HOKE, THE OKLAHOMAN]

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.

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