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Sunday, September 23, 2018

Little League Seeking to Boost Participation


It is estimated that between 60 and 70 percent of all of today’s major league baseball players got their start in the Little League. The world’s largest organized youth sports program, the Little League counts nearly 2.7 million participants and 1 million volunteers worldwide.
The official league website has culled lots more statistics, including a list of 30 Major Leaguers who played in the Little League World Series. Jason Varitek and Ed Vosberg are notable on this list for not only participating in the Little League World Series—in 1984 and 1973, respectively—but participating in the College and the Major League world series too.
There’s also a list of the13 Hall of Famers who played Little League, and finally a list of 43 other notable people who have played Little League, ranging from entertainer Huey Lewis to George W. Bush.
The South Mountain Little League, which marked its 53 anniversary in March, may not stake its claim to fame on presidential endorsement yet. But its supporters and volunteers say that, as one of the Valley’s first leagues, the group has touched too many to count, including the parents and grandparents of boys playing today.
“If you see the way [the kids] walk up to home plate to bat, they look at the scoreboard, they look at the lights, and they get smiles on their faces,” said SMLL president of 13 years, John Espinoza.
The SMLL, which leases the three fields on 7th St., south of Southern Ave., from the Roosevelt School District, has had its ups and downs over the years, said the 46-year-old Espinoza, who first got involved as a coach when his stepson brought home a flyer. Now he has ambitious plans to restore his league’s participation to what it once was. When he first took the job, about 800 youth were playing. There are 250 youth enrolled this year, slightly up over last season.
“We really struggle to get the parent participation,” Espinoza said. “That’s what I’m trying to get back. I remember my parents coming to practices, volunteering … parents of my days aren’t like the parents now.”
But Espinoza said participation is on the rise because the community is noticing all of the work volunteers are pouring into the league. His goal is to double enrollment next year and reach 1,200 to 1,500 participants in three years. The game day crowds, he said, are the biggest he’s seen in six or seven years.
For Espinoza, who owns an auto upholstery and specialty shop, Creative Interiors, volunteering for the Little League is a labor of love. His kids are grown—John Espinoza Jr. is a wrestler in his junior year at Arizona State University—yet he still gives about 40 hours a week to the league and is responsible for everything from cleaning the bathrooms to cutting and marking the smaller fields to rebuilding fences.
“My reward is people are noticing,” he said. “Kids are having a blast—they’re having so much fun. The kids grow on you, and you develop relationships with them.”
Baseball became known as “America’s Pastime” by the end of the 19th century. Youth leagues started cropping up as early as the 1880s in New York, but more often than not, kids played pickup games in the streets with cast-off gloves and bats retrofitted to their smaller size.
In 1938, Carl Stotz, an oil company clerk, organized the first baseball league for young boys in Williamsport, Pa. and named it the "Little League."
SMLL participants live in the geographic square that stretches from 40th St. to 75th Ave., and from “the river bottom to the mountain.”
The SMLL may not boast a nationally-renown legacy yet, but four former SMLL players– Raoul Torrez, Riccio Torrez, Josh Garcia and Andrew Angulo–are currently part of the Brophy College Preparatory baseball program learned the game there.
“And that’s our goal—from Tee Ball up to high school, and then you hear of them getting drafted,” Espinoza said. “We’re going to get back on the map.”

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