by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Each year, the Little League World Series, a tournament of 12-year-old baseball players, is broadcast on ESPN over two weeks in late August from Williamsport, PA. Little League is quite simply the biggest and most famous youth sports organization in the world, heading toward its 75th anniversary in 2014.
A parents group from Otsego, headed by Randy Welch, wanted local kids to be part of that.
After working on it for three years, they launched Otsego Little League in 2012, with 29 kids age 8-12 on four teams. This summer, Otsego has 97 kids age 7-13 on nine teams in four divisions, mainly from Otsego, Rogers and Elk River, with Ramsey and St. Michael also in their boundaries.
“I’ve been working on this for six years,” said Welch, who visited Little League organizations in San Diego and Texas and attended the LLWS in Williamsport. “When you are there watching the Little League World Series, it sends chills up your spine.”
The regular season is done, and next week Otsego’s 12-year-old all-stars will enter District 1 playoffs, the first level of competition leading to the fabled LLWS. Otsego will open against Plymouth/New Hope in Wednesday, July 10, in St. Louis Park.
Most youth baseball organizations are local in scope. The majority of kids play against other teams from their own town. There are also traveling teams who compete against neighboring towns. There’s no state tournaments per se, although some organizations will host a tournament labeled a state tournament.
In Little League International, obviously the opportunity is there to aim much higher. Welch knows this first-hand; he was a Little Leaguer growing up in St. Louis Park. His dad, who played minor league ball in the Cleveland chain, helped get it started.
“I had a great experience with Little League,” said Welch, who coaches a 10-12 team that includes his son Brandon, a pitcher. He added, “In Little League, players wear regulation baseball uniforms — no tee shirts. They play on regulation Little League parks.”
That means 225-foot home run fences, infield safety fences, grass infields, scoreboards, and covered dugouts. Otsego doesn’t have such a park yet. They play a few home games adult softball fields at Prairie Park and Zimmer Park. But the group plans to build ballparks in the future.
Aaron Cavanaugh, one of the organization’s 10 board members and coach who has a son playing, said the goal is to offer “challenging, yet competitive, play.” He adds that nobody is cut, and “we build teams within each division as equal as possible based on the evaluation.”
Why go to this much trouble to launch a Little League program, as opposed to playing in in-house leagues or local traveling teams? Cavanaugh said there’s three main reasons.
First, as one parent told him, “There’s just something magical about Little League” and being eligible to shoot for the LLWS.
Second: providing the opportunity to aspire to play baseball at a high level.
“We invest time, energy, resources, clinics, and so on, to players of all levels, not just players who appear to be elite,” said Cavanaugh. The best ones at the end are rewarded with a place on the all-star team. “There are no opportunities for that to happen in local house/traveling systems, and it’s a vital part of our philosophy.”
Finally, the association wanted to give its community something special.
“Otsego has never had a local league of its own,” said Cavanagh. “We do now, and as we grow, it will bring more and more people to Otsego. We have had very good feedback.”
Otsego’s teams are the Skeeters, Owlz and Green Jackets in Rookie League (7-9); the Mud Hens, Rock Hounds and River Sharks in Minor League (8-11); the Cubs and Reds in Major League (10-12); and the Eagles, a “50-70 team” of 12-13′s, who play on a slightly larger field than than Little League’s 45 feet to the plate and 60-foot base paths.
The program is open to girls, and Otsego has one this year. Little League International offers a softball division for girls. Otsego plans to add that option in 2013, said Cavanaugh.
The best of the Cubs and Reds are picked for an all-star team. The rest will play in the Mauer Cup, an annual St. Jude’s Hospital fundraiser in Coon Rapids, July 13-27 this year.
The association is funded with registration fees and community sponsorships, along with a $165 participation fee for each player.
Not everyone is enamored with Little League, Welch acknowledges. Local associations complain to him that Little League depletes their programs.
“We’re not trying to destroy their program. We just want to offer another option,” he responds.
Elk River High School coach Ryan Holmgren says he is wary of Little League from his years coaching Spring Lake Park, when that community banded with neighboring Blaine for a Little League program. Local groups lost players, he said, while kids on in Little League weren’t playing with kids who would be high school teammates, and sometimes rules were different.
On the other hand, Rogers coach Brian Harapat, who played Little League himself, said he had “no problem with it” and figured it was a good baseball experience for the kids.
Welch noted that the organization tripled in size this year, and he anticipated that it will double next year.
The LLWC is a true world series, with the 16-team field including eight region champs from the U.S. and eight more from Canada, Mexico, Latin American, Japan, Europe/Africa, Caribbean, Australia, and Asia-Pacific/Middle East.
While it’s obviously a long shot to try become one of the teams in Williamsport, the idea is to have a lot of fun trying, and to learn a few things about baseball, teamwork, sportsmanship and working with coaches. Welch and his cohorts are pleased to be providing that opportunity.