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Creating Opportunity: Administrative Staff in New York District 4 Appeals to Communities Needs to Charter Leagues in Rural, Metropolitan Areas

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa., (Feb. 15, 2011) – Little League volunteer Ken Liesegang is in his second year as the New York District 4 Administrator. Since his election, he and the District 4 staff have generated new interest in Little League by actively promoting the program and by emphasizing Little League's “everyone plays” message.

“Helping today’s children make Little League memories is a big part of what we do,” Mr. Liesegang said. “When I see grass growing on an idle baseball field, I see that not as a failure, but as a challenge, and as an opportunity for us to get more kids back into baseball, back into making memories.”

“Our District 4 team is working together to promote Little League’s message and to extend Little League’s footprint in our district,” Mr. Liesegang said. “We are currently working on three separate growth initiatives: two are with local communities (Victor and Rush-Henrietta) and one is within the city of Rochester (N.Y.).”

The diversity of the areas in District 4 poses unique challenges for presenting the benefits of Little League. The District 4 staff is taking a personal and direct approach by meeting with each group individually to inform and educate all on how Little League operates, while highlighting Little Leagues offerings best suited for each community.

One of the first initiatives coordinated by New York District 4 was to personalize the League Development materials provided by Dan Velte, Little League International’s Director of League Development. A PowerPoint presentation was developed that highlighted points of interest relevant to the district’s upstate New York location.

“In the case of Rush-Henrietta, the process began with a simple phone call,” Mr. Liesegang said.  “Rush and Henrietta are in a combined school district, with youth athletics served by the Rush and Henrietta Athletic Association (RHAA). I called RHAA to find out more about their current youth baseball program, and to see if there was an interest in Little League.”

Over a nine-month period Tom Bellucco, Assistant District 4 Administrator, and Mr. Liesegang met with members of the RHAA baseball and softball programs, and also visited its field complex.

“We wanted to make sure their values were in line with those of Little League,” Mr. Liesegang said. “What we found was a great group of people focused on providing every child in their community with the opportunity to play baseball and softball. Conversations with RHAA explained the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of the rules and policies that govern Little League. Questions were posed, and answered by the District 4 staff.”

To deliver Little League’s message to the RHAA in a clear and concise manner, the district staff met with the entire RHAA board to explain operations of District 4 at a local level. This included a review of the existing strong inter-town program at the Junior, Senior and Big League level, both the baseball and softball programs, a review of  all tournaments in District 4 (both in the International Tournament and local), and the value of running a consistent, well-organized program throughout the entire district. 

“If parents see a well-organized, well-run and structured program, they will appreciate that,” Mr. Liesegang said. “When parents recognize consistency with rules, and have confidence in the league and district procedures, that’s also a plus.”

It was decided by each of the groups that all of the RHAA needs could be coordinated under the Little League umbrella. For the baseball and softball programs, District 4 already has an existing strong inter-town program.

“Everyone liked the idea of an interleague mix, where different communities play each other,” Mr. Liesegang said. “This approach resonated with RHAA board members and they are chartering with Little League for the girls softball program and for teenage baseball, with plans for all of RHAA 800 players to charter with Little League in 2012.”

“After having several discussions with the local Little League leadership, we decided to join them because our philosophy on what we wanted to teach our children was very similar,” David Toole, President of Rush-Henrietta Little League, said. “Little League also provided us the flexibility to allow our kids to experience playing children from other communities with similar skills under the same consistent rules from game-to-game.”

In the case of Victor Community Baseball and Softball (VCBS), the process began with a visit to the Little League website (www.LittleLeague.org). 

Victor Community Baseball and Softball has more than 800 players in their programs. The Victor school system is in the same scholastic and athletic conference as most of the programs in District 4. There is also a competing baseball program that was only serving part of the community.  The VCBS members wanted to provide their players the opportunity to participate in the Little League tournaments, and they wanted to offer programs across all levels of play, including the Challenger Division. 

Through the enthusiasm and persistent drive of Chuck Lamagra, Victor Little League Vice President, meetings and calls were conducted with the VCBS board, baseball families in the Victor community, Pat Holden (Little League’s Eastern Region Assistant Director) and Little League Districts 4 and 5 (Mike Kelsey, New York District 5 Administrator). Victor Little League, like RHAA, is bringing a part of their program into Little League for 2011, with a plan to consider the whole program for 2012. 

“Victor Community Baseball and Softball has had a strong, encompassing program for many years and the process of evaluating Little League was certainly challenging, as it quickly became apparent that our needs throughout all of the brackets were not consistent,” Eric Morrell, Victor Little League President, said. “Thanks to Little League’s flexibility, we are able to take a first step into Little League with just our seven-and-up (Minor Division) baseball program. Victor Little League provides the opportunity for our youth to play more baseball and have quality tournament exposure with other Little Leagues playing by the same rules and with an appropriate level of competition.

“Perhaps of greater importance, our burgeoning community has been somewhat lacking in opportunities for our kids with special needs to play sports,” Mr. Morrell said. “In our first year with Little League, we are chartering the Challenger Division, so our kids with special needs can play baseball this upcoming season.”

In the city of Rochester, there are many different challenges. Lack of playing fields, and limited community support and tradition have resulted in a low level of participation in youth baseball in general. The existing charters in Rochester are working with the District 4 staff to promote softball and baseball participation, and looking to combine forces, where possible. At one time there were as many as 16 youth baseball leagues in Rochester, but that has dwindled to three active Little League charters specifically covering the City of Rochester along with several independent leagues. 

While efforts to recruit players from the center of the city have been made, results have been mixed. A recent inquiry from Hiram Hernandez, a local Hispanic business owner interested in starting a Little League program, resulted in a meeting with the Eastside Little League (ELL) Board of Directors to explore opportunities for cooperation. 

Mr. Hernandez discovered ELL’s “everyone plays” philosophy matched his own, and he was invited to join the Board. His role as Community Relations Coordinator has enhanced the opportunity for children in a historically-underserved area to participate in Little League, as well as improve the diversity within Eastside Little League. 

These efforts resulted in a successful three-day special games tournament in August 2010, involving the other Little Leagues in Rochester (Southside Little League and Genesee Valley Little League), and four additional independent leagues operating within the city. This collaboration illustrated the positive aspects of Little League for many children, parents and operators of small independent Rochester leagues, and is expected to greatly increase participation for Eastside Little League for the 2011 season and beyond.

Eastside Little League also has chartered softball in areas of the city covered by other baseball charters, but with no current programs for softball. The goal of this initiative is simply to get more girls playing, and includes reaching out to the schools within the Rochester City School District to help promote the local Little Leagues.

Across these three initiatives, there are many common issues. “Most of the people we talked to did not know enough about Little League,” Mr. Liesegang said. “The first perception was Little League was very rigid, too structured, too controlling. We had to first eliminate those misperceptions. I explained that there is a lot of flexibility on how teams are formed and leagues are run, while emphasizing the value of the Little League rules and policies on pitch counts, participation, ASAP, and background checks.”

Mr. Liesegang sees the value of communication, and emphasized talking directly with local leagues to answer questions and promote the Little League message.