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Little League's Losing Streak

August 17, 2004

Let's see now. The choice for youngsters is to play Little League baseball and stand around in the hot outfield for two or three interminable innings of nothing but grass-picking and butterfly-watching. Or play most of an active soccer game. Or lacrosse. Or ice hockey. Or volleyball. Or ....

The choice for youngsters -- and the adults who finance these healthy physical flings -- is so much greater today than when that lanky Yankee home run hitter married Marilyn Monroe. A growing number of today's youngsters (and their folks bearing bored witness in the stands) apparently see baseball's occasional episodes of activity as so last century. So they're not signing up in droves. And Little League, holding its 58th World Series this week, is worried.

According to a recent Times story by Dave McKibben, 300 of 6,400 Little Leagues disbanded in recent years, and 40,000 kids -- 2% of total players -- drop out annually, most migrating to another sport. Despite some nostalgic sorrow about the shift, a nation decrying increasingly obese and, not coincidentally, inactive youngsters should be celebrating any physical activity, other than running from crime scenes. We'll take any sport in a video age of somnolent sedentariness.

Once, children desiring competition, grass stains and floor burns could choose among baseball, football and basketball. That was pretty much it. Those sports, or Stamp Club. Now, just as countless cable niches corrode network dominance of TV, new activities compete for childhood's increasingly limited free time. These wide-ranging sports open new doors for lifetimes of physical activity. They also cater to Americans' apparent hunger for speed, offering longer player involvement per game; a sense of exhilarating, exciting flow and, hello, more exercise than tapping dusty shoes with a bat. Even volleyball players now outnumber amateur baseball participants.

Little League contemplates changes: nine in the field but everyone bats, a minimum three innings of play. Fine, though cosmetic. Youth hockey sets leagues by skill so players gain success among their peers.

None of this detracts from the volunteers who coach and run Little Leagues, having positive effects on so many children not their own. But the goal is enhancing America's pitiful physical condition, not protecting one hallowed -- and for many, stale -- sport.

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