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Little League opens play in Houston April 13th, 2007

Editors note: This story, written by Gene Duffy, is courtesy of MLB.com. It refers to the second annual International Little League Opening Day, held in Houston, Texas at East End Little League, on April 13, 2007.

HOUSTON -(April 13, 2006) Myrna Flores first became acquainted with the East End Little League when her son Nathan, then 6, started playing tee ball.
"The first year I was just a parent," she said. "There were things I didn't like, and I was kind of vocal. Someone said, 'If you don't like it, why don't you join the board and do something about it?'"

Jimmy Wynn

She did. Three years later, she became president of the league.

On Friday morning, the same East End Little League became the focal point of the sport when the International Little League held its Opening Day at Diez Park, just across the Gulf Freeway from the University of Houston.

Former Houston Astros outfielder Jimmy Wynn spoke to approximately 50 children ages 4-9 who took part in Friday's activities that included working on skills such as hitting, fielding, baserunning and throwing.

The children, dressed in colorful jerseys of red and yellow or green and blue were divided into six groups and moved from station to station. Some talked with Wynn, others took a break for a Snickers candy bar.

"I liked hitting the best," said 9-year-old Roy Guerrero III, a pitcher/third baseman/catcher for the East End Braves and known as "Trey" to his friends. "It was fun."

Guerrero read the Little League code over the public address system preceding the National Anthem.

Wynn, 61, started playing Little League at age 7 in Cincinnati. His father, Joe, coached him until he reached high school.

"He loved the game and taught it to me," said Wynn, who played 15 seasons in the Majors.

Wynn, who works part time for the Astros and Minute Maid making speeches, talked to the kids about more than just baseball.

"I tell them three things," he said. "One, education is a must. Two, stay away from drugs, because drugs can kill. Three, always say 'I love you' to your parents."

Near the end of the activities, the kids were presented with red nylon gift bags filled with presents from Little League sponsors from a baseball autographed by Wynn to a T-shirt and cap to a water bottle.

Wynn turned serious when he spotted a boy in a red uniform trying to be too cool, wearing his baseball cap on backward.

"Young fella, turn that hat around or you don't get anything," Wynn said sternly.

Friday's participants were chosen from the East End Tee Ball League, boys and girls. Flores said they had to beg parents to allow the kids to miss school.

Flores spent many years begging people for all kinds of favors to keep the East End Little League, entering its 54th season, a sound organization.

Leagues such as East End have struggled across the country, which prompted International Little League to begin its Urban Initiative Program in 2000.

"We saw in certain cities where we had a league, then suddenly we don't have one, or the numbers [of players] were declining," said David James, director of the program. "Kids are trending more toward football, basketball and video games. Little League is a volunteer-based organization. The common problem is [the urban leagues] aren't getting that adult volunteer participation."

Reversing such a trend can be difficult. Little League has concentrated on educating coaches and umpires and using resources from corporate sponsors to supply equipment and build better facilities.

"We want to give minority kids a chance to benefit from Little League programs," said Steve Keener, president and CEO of Little League Baseball, which runs baseball, and softball for girls, from ages 5-18.

"We're seeing a turnaround [in the urban leagues]," said James, who actually played Little League as kid in Williamsport, Pa. ("I couldn't hit a curveball," he laughed.) "They get to 13 or 14, then we see a significant drop-off. We have to find a way to stop losing them as teenagers."

American Honda presented a check for $100,000 on Friday to help the Urban Initiative Program. Eleven Little Leagues in Houston participate in that program.

Flores said the East End Little Leagues, which includes approximately 50 girls in its softball program, has slipped in enrollment from 520 to 320.

"Our numbers have gone down consistently," she said. "We have to compete with Select Ball.

"You have parents who have the mentality, 'If you're going to be good at a sport, any sport, you're going to make money,' [to them] their child is going to be a superstar. That's the way out. Do you really expect to get 300 professional baseball players [out of one league?]" Flores agreed with James' assessment that recruiting adults to help can be difficult.

"It's harder to get coaches because a lot of people have to work two jobs, or go to school at night," she said.

The East End Little League developed into a model program in many ways, particularly in terms of facilities.

Flores remembered when it was not a city park, just two fields. And center field in one of them used to flood regularly.

Through Flores' perseverance, Houston made it a city park in the late 1990s. Diez Park is now composed of four well-manicured fields with nice fences and permanent restrooms.

"We used to be jealous of Pearland," Flores said of a nearby Houston suburb. "We never had tournaments here. We always had to go to Pearland. We compete against them now, field-wise. We have tournaments here, which was unheard of before."

One of the fields is used for softball, which Flores helped begin when her daughter, Blanca, wanted to play at age 13. Alanna Felan, 4, Blanca's daughter and Flores' granddaughter, took part in Friday's activities.

The circle of life, Little League style.

Flores said there are two or three girls on each team in tee ball and machine-pitch leagues competing against the boys. Leah Rodriguez, 9, is a pitcher in the minor league.

Flores grew up 2 1/2 miles from the fields. Three years ago, she and her family moved to Katy, a western suburb and a traffic nightmare of a commute to the East End Little League. But she can't pull herself away.

"It's like raising a little kid," she said. "You can't let go."

This was the second year International Little League held an official Opening Day. Last year's inaugural event took place in Harlem in New York City.

Houston was chosen to serve in conjunction with Little League's 24th annual International Congress, which meets every three years. This year's meetings begin Saturday in Houston.

Dawn Hall of International Little League said approximately 1,300 volunteers, mostly district administrators, are expected to attend the conference, including representatives from 25 countries. Little League is played in 70 foreign countries.

"It's to help the local administrators get set up," Hall said of the congress, which covers such items as rules changes. "On the local level, it's easier for them to give us input. They know what's going on."

"We have a terrific volunteer base here," Keener said of Houston. "We had local leadership in Houston that wanted to host the event. It was an easy choice."

Unlike Major Leaguers in Cleveland and Chicago, the Little Leaguers didn't have to worry about snow or cold disrupting Friday's festivities.

It truly was an international event with Robert Szwajkowski of Mazowsze, Poland, a rural village of 400, attending Opening Day. Szwajkowski, a physical education and English teacher, runs a Little League of 35 kids from ages 6-15.

"It's very difficult, because people don't know about [baseball in Poland]," he said. "We don't have any media saying anything about baseball." Szwajkowski admitted he had never played a game of baseball, wasn't completely clear on the rules and was trying to learn by watching CDs. "It seems to becoming more popular," he said of the game. Keener created Little League Opening Day to give the sport more visibility earlier in the year.

"We get a lot of attention late in August through the Little League World Series being telecast on ESPN and ABC," he said. "We ought to do something at the beginning of the season to bring attention that Little League season is under way."

Gene Duffy is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.