The stories of the demise of youth baseball, largely national in origin, seem to crop up with regularity, all with a message of doom and gloom:
It’s no longer the national pastime but instead its time is past. It’s not fast enough to appeal to kids in this era of instant gratification and constant digital awareness.
A recent article in the Washington Post lamented, “The sport must address its flagging connection to young people.”
In Minnesota high schools, however, a much different picture emerges. High schools are filling multiple teams — many having to make cuts or add squads — even with the growth of lacrosse as a spring sport. According to participation numbers kept by the Minnesota State High School League, basketball and baseball have been neck-and-neck as the third- and fourth-most popular sports among boys — behind football and track and field — for more than a decade.
Baseball might be old, but at the high school level, it’s more like a classic car than a dilapidated rust bucket.
On the surface, the sport appears to be in trouble. The sport, which drew 13,145 participants in the 2013-14 school year, has experienced a 13.5 percent decline over a seven-year span since 2007-08, when there were 15,026 participants.
But 2007-08 appears to be an anomaly. Participation was up more than 1,000 athletes from 2006-07. The following school year of 2008-09, it dropped back by about 900 to 14,120 participants. Since then, participation has slid 6.9 percent over six years, which most baseball coaches agree is little more than the usual ebb and flow that has frequently occurred over the years.
In 1978-79, the first year in which the high school league kept participation numbers, there were 13,252 participants in baseball. That dropped to an all-time low of 8,193 in 1990-91 and grew to a record high of 15,685 in 1998-99 before leveling off roughly between 13,000 and 15,000 each year since.
Staying strong in Coon Rapids
In recent years, athletic success for boys has been scarce at Coon Rapids. The football team has won only four games over the past three seasons. Its boys’ basketball team won three games. Baseball, however, has long been a source of pride. The team has made eight state tournament appearances, including three since 2008, when it won the last of three state championships.
The school’s student body reflected the city’s aging and growing diversity in the past three U.S. censuses, but the high school baseball program has remained a constant.
There was enough interest in baseball to field five teams this spring: a varsity, junior varsity, sophomore and two freshman teams.
“That’s what you do at Coon Rapids,” said Jason Fairbanks, a member of the Cardinals’ sophomore team. “Baseball is kind of our sport.”
But Coon Rapids coach Jerry Coe, while understandably proud of his program, sees signs that things might be changing.
“Our Little League numbers are down significantly from a few years ago,” he said. “There are spikes in those numbers — many 10-year-olds but not too many older players. It is hard to say whether interest is down or just changing dynamics are the cause in our community.”
There is an upside, however. Coe, like many coaches, believes players are as skilled as ever. It’s the age-old quality vs. quantity equation. The pool of players may be down, but the quality of those still playing is at an all-time high.
“Baseball today is as strong or stronger than at any time since I’ve been coaching,” said Coe, in his 23rd year at the school. “Players are smarter and … are more competitive than ever. At the present time, [I see] no demise yet.”
Too many options
Reasons for the slight decline in participation are varied. Some coaches feel two consecutive years of a late-arriving spring played a role in the recent decrease.
“We can’t control the weather, and that has impacted us a little bit [over] the last couple of years,” said Cambridge-Isanti coach Todd Smrekar, a past president of the Minnesota State High School Baseball Coaches Association.
Others have cited the recent growth of lacrosse for chipping away at baseball’s numbers. Lacrosse has 73 boys’ teams this season, up from 32 in 2006-07, when the sport was first sanctioned by the high school league.
“We’re way down this year. Lacrosse is killing us,” Breck coach Brian Wright said.
But lacrosse, especially outside the metro area, is far from being as widespread as baseball, which currently has 372 teams.
Two areas that coaches and administrators are most concerned about are specialization and baseball’s lack of immediacy.
“We lost maybe five players to lacrosse being added,” DeLaSalle coach Douge Schildgen said. “We’ve lost more to the fact that guys want to focus on their main sport all spring and summer.”
In Minneapolis and St. Paul, as well as some of the inner-ring suburbs, baseball has long struggled with a perceived lack of interest. Minneapolis Edison coach Tony Schrepfer, himself a product of city baseball, often battles just to get enough kids to field a team.
“It’s not cool any more,” Schrepfer said.
Most coaches say changes in how the game is taught are integral to its vitality.
Schrepfer is one of many coaches who have made efforts to make baseball more interesting. Each summer he runs a camp that introduces inner-city athletes to the sport.
“We call it Camp Tommy,” a reference to Edison’s team nickname, he said. “Last year we had 80 kids show up.”
All agree that with teenagers’ shorter attention spans and multitude of options for spending free time, coaching must change with the kids. For baseball, that means days of standing around during practice, shagging fly balls or chasing down grounders while waiting for a turn at the plate are gone.
“It used to be that kids would get bored during practice,” said Jim Gess, a 15-year head coach at Bloomington Jefferson. “Now you have a coach and assistants and even parents involved, working at stations, keeping kids’ attention. What we’re getting on the field as a result is better than what we’ve had in my years as a coach.”
Which is boiling baseball down to its basics. As long as kids are having fun, baseball will thrive.
“I love baseball,” Coon Rapids junior Nick Speltz said. “A day playing and watching baseball is better than most other days.”