Cultivating The Future Of San Diego Baseball
Max Shabestari loves the challenge of hitting the ball when he plays baseball.
"There's so many ways they can get you out. There's nine people trying to get you out and you're one against nine," Shabestari said, wiping the sweat out of his bleached hair.
The 13-year-old played his first organized T-ball game when he was five. Eight years later, he's one of the top players in his neighborhood league, the San Carlos All Stars.
"It's kind of like playing in the major leagues where every team's real good. Like it's the top-tier talent. And then you play each other to go to the World Series," Shabestari said.
That's the Little League World Series in Pennsylvania. The dreams at this age are as big as a hitter's eyes when a soft high pitch comes floating over the plate.
Pete DeLuca, who coaches the San Carlos All Stars, sees this as a special time for the "boys of summer," although they might not realize it right now.
"Little League for me is something that they'll grow up and remember forever and say, 'Hey, remember Johnny when we played and you did this and we did that or you hit that two-run homer that won the game?' I mean, I still have good friends of mine that live in the neighborhood. We played Little League together. We still have stories. It just makes it great," DeLuca said.
But these aren't the best of times for baseball.
The Sports Fitness and Industry Association, which tracks sports participation, found more than a million fewer 6- to 12-year-olds played baseball last year compared to just eight years earlier.
Association President and CEO Tom Cove said baseball is no longer the No. 1 option for kids seeking a sport.
"It is not 1947," Cove said. "Back then, it was boys but it is clearly, well, we're seeing girls, is not going to just pick up a baseball and start throwing it around with his or her friend."
Baseball is dealing with a number of challenges, including competition. Cove said there is also pressure to limit kids to one sport so they can improve. Finally, the recession kept some potential ballplayers off the diamond because of the cost of playing.
Even so, Cove said participation rates did inch up in the group's 2016 survey, ending a decades long slide.
"It is not a niche sport. It is not something that's dying. It's not something where we've seen the end and it's right in front of us," Cove said. "But the challenge of making it interesting to kids and make it something that they got to get over the hump between start and complete a commitment to it."
Major League Baseball took a look at the declining participation numbers last year and launched an effort to connect kids with the game.
Slick, highly produced television ads show kids and adults playing baseball in organized settings, in backyards and on the streets.
The ads are part of Major League Baseball's campaign to get more people to slip on a baseball glove or swing a bat. Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has only been on the job for a year and a half, but he is already trying to win back kids who dropped the game.
On the league's website, the commissioner says one strategy is baseball clinics.
"Our early efforts with these programs have shown us that, not only do the kids have a great time but it provides a unique opportunity for the community to work together on a project that's in everyone's interest," Manfred said.
Manfred is also tapping the sport's stars to preach the gospel of the game. Instructional videos feature the players that kids see when they watch the game on television.
The San Diego Padres are on board. The organization gave out 25,000 jerseys, caps and headbands to local baseball and softball leagues.
The team also renovated more than 40 baseball fields all over the county.
Coach DeLuca welcomes efforts to bring the game to kids.
He said it takes effort to keep kids playing. Supportive coaches have an important role to play, DeLuca said, but ultimately, it is parents who will make a difference.
"I think in reality, parents will come to their sense and really understand that it really is a big part of their lives," DeLuca said. "It's something that, to me, I would never have done without it. I mean, I played in the same San Carlos Little League when I was seven."
Hard work, dedication and teamwork are just some of the lessons Little League helps teach.
The game also builds memories that can connect generations and creates a bridge that brings more kids to the game, Deluca said.
That could help preserve the game so the nation's pastime will have a future.