Coach Mike Tate is trying to stem the steep and pervasive decline in participation in youth baseball from the ground level.
Many days, he’s herding tiny T-ball players through practice at North Commons Park in Minneapolis. He chases down errant throws. He makes sure his 6-year-olds put the right gloves on the right hands. He leads them in chanting the names and order of the bases before running them.
His North Commons Bulldogs are a thriving team, bucking a trend of declining interest in park and recreation baseball programs in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The numbers continue to slip, despite efforts by the Minnesota Twins and Major League Baseball to prop up the cities’ youth leagues with annual contributions of at least $150,000.
In the 1990s, when the donations began, as many as 180 teams of players age 9 and older registered in Minneapolis. There were 79 such teams last year. In St. Paul, 89 teams registered last year for the same age group, compared with 180 as recently as 2007.
Former Twins greats Dave Winfield and Kirby Puckett prompted their team to get involved, hoping to lure kids back to the sport. “They had seen that there just wasn’t a lot of kids on the field anymore. They came to the club and said, ‘Hey, what can we do?’ ” said Bryan Donaldson, executive director of the Twins Community Fund, which was funded partly from the sale of Homer Hankies during the team’s World Series years.
Disparities by neighborhood
The disparities across the cities can be stark. Some parks in higher-income areas of the South Side field three teams per age bracket while participating North Side parks manage one.
In 2013, the North Side had only four T-ball and coach-pitch teams — the levels where youths learn the basics before graduating to more formal leagues. But an extra dose of funding from the Twins and intensifying recruiting nearly tripled that turnout the following year, and it doubled again last year.
The city’s East Side now has been added to that effort, and youth sports coordinator Kent Brevik is hoping to expand that soon to the city’s southeastern quadrant.
“I think it’s really important to get to kids at an early age,” he said.
Brevik attributes much of the decline in numbers to the proliferation of kids specializing in one sport year-round, leaving little time for participation in other recreational leagues. Colleague Amy Bassett notes the growth of competing sports such as lacrosse and soccer. Some opt out of Park Board baseball for more competitive teams.
In some cases, other sports are more familiar to immigrants. Almost one-fifth of St. Paul residents and 15 percent of Minneapolis residents are foreign-born.
“We’re seeing a shift away from some sports such as baseball. It’s a slow game,” said Clare Cloyd, a St. Paul park and recreation spokeswoman. Immigrant populations often prefer faster-paced sports such as volleyball, kato and tuj lub, a Hmong sport for which St. Paul is finishing two courts, Cloyd said.
Andy Rodriguez, a St. Paul recreation supervisor, noted that baseball — a game with myriad rules — typically has relied on parent coaches. With fewer adults who grew up with the game, he said, fewer coaches are available.
At Farview Park in Minneapolis, another venue working to boost baseball numbers, recreation center director Huy Nguyen said football players outnumber baseball players 4 to 1. That’s despite a new artificial turf field designed to accommodate multiple sports, including baseball.
Indeed, the falloff in players could prompt a reshuffling of park space. A master plan proposal to the Park Board calls for slicing the number of baseball diamonds in the area south and east of Interstate 35W from 46 to 30 to make way for larger athletic fields adaptable to several sports.
Slight increase in 2015
Although baseball participation has plunged nationally, especially in inner cities, Donaldson said that major league officials are excited about a reported 4 percent increase in 2015 youth baseball numbers nationally after a yearslong slide.
But that takes hard work. At North Commons, park director Adam Lares said a combination of marketing to players in other sports, going door to door, and spots on KMOJ radio have revived a moribund program. There were just 27 players registered from ages 5 to 18 in 2014, but baseball registered 127 players last year and held those numbers this year.
Coach Tate, 57, is a foundation for that growth. The sales representative for a packaging company began coaching at North Commons in high school and coaches several sports. It’s the way he’s chosen to help out a troubled section of the city.
“Some of my players are coming back to coach and now I’m coaching their kids,” he said.
“He’s got great people skills and knows everybody,” said Aaron McLaurin, 18, a North High School graduate like Tate, who is working this summer for the Park Board. “The guy’s passion for the community — not just kids but families, too — is second to none.”
The Bulldogs play on a two-year-old artificial turf field that would be the envy of any youth team, one of several in Minneapolis and St. Paul funded by baseball-related foundations. The Twins pay for the caps on the heads of younger players, the uniform pants and shirt, and even their gloves, plus team equipment.
But for Tate, it’s about helping kids grow and refocusing families.
“If I can give the kid a positive day for two hours, the parents may see more positive in their kids,” he said.