Taking Ownership: Darien, Conn., Has Woven Little League into the Fabric of its Community
For more than five decades, generations of parents and players in Darien, Conn., have embraced the ideals of Little League, and today Darien Little League (DLL), the largest chartered Little League program in the United States, serves as a well-respected model for what’s possible when a community comes together in support of Little League’s mission.
More than 70 years ago in Williamsport, Pa., Carl Stotz enlisted children and parents from his neighborhood, and they assembled three teams and played baseball.
Today, those teams are recognized as the forebears of thousands of Little Leagues around the world.
The Darien Little League’s American and National divisions operate under a 22-person board and combine to field nearly 140 teams in the Tee Ball through Major Baseball divisions. It offers a Challenger Division for physically and mentally disabled children, and the Darien Little League Softball program has more than 350 players in Tee Ball through the Junior Division.
“Our league goal is not about winning district games and going to the Little League World Series,” Tony Farren, Darien Little League President, said. “Last year, we had a team reach the district final in all divisions (we charter), but everyone who volunteers in our league is in it for all of the players, not just the top 10 percent.”
Darien, a community of nearly 20,000, is located in Connecticut's Fairfield County, about four miles from Stamford and 15 miles from Bridgeport.
Darien Little League was first chartered in 1952 and each year the children, families, volunteers and sponsors have turned to DLL for its spring and summer activities despite the influx of other organized youth sports opportunities. In 1958, DLL reached the Little League Baseball World Series, going 1-2 representing the East Region.
“We have so many people who want to get involved and we still have a lot to do,” Mr. Farren, who has been a volunteer in the league for 11 years, said. “Each volunteer in our league has the understanding that the success of our league comes from knowing it’s not always what’s good for your kid, but what is good for the league.”
In part, Little League’s mission states: “Through proper guidance and exemplary leadership, the Little League program assists youth in developing the qualities of citizenship, discipline, teamwork and physical well-being. By espousing the virtues of character, courage and loyalty, the Little League Baseball and Softball program is designed to develop superior citizens rather than superior athletes.”
Darien Little League has listened to the opinions of its parents, volunteers and players and meshed them into a program that has training, education, competition and fun at its foundation.
“Five years ago, we started an improvement committee,” Mr. Farren, who had four children play in the league, said. “Now each year, we ask parents what we can do to improve the Little League experience. The committee provides the suggestions and the board votes on the proposed changes and improvements.
“We listen to the families and kids alike and adapt and adjust the league to what is best to suit the kids,” Mr. Farren said. “Our number one goal is to have them enjoy the game.”
Turnover in leadership and the volunteer base is an annual issue for many leagues, but for DLL fresh faces and ideas are welcomed and encouraged. Blending experienced volunteers with newcomers is a key to keeping families excited and interested.
“We want to get younger parents involved right away,” Mr. Farren said. “We love to keep volunteers from year to year, but we also like the new blood because those people bring new ideas and enthusiasm.”
One of the many ways that Darien Little League has created a welcoming environment is by focusing on education.
Younger children are introduced to Little League through a clinic format that includes games. By their third season in the league, DLL players are enjoying the games, but also participate in more skill-specific clinics such as proper throwing techniques.
“If kids get interested in baseball and having fun when they’re five and six years old, some might develop into quality players down the road, but many more will grow into good people.” Mr. Farren said. “We do have to coordinate with other sports leagues in our area, so our kids don’t have to choose between different activities. We don’t want to be the reason why kids don’t play a sport.”
To give the children a well-rounded experience and keep them motivated to learn the game, Darien Little League requires that all its players in their Minor Division play a minimum of two innings defensively on the infield each game. Major Division players are required to play a minimum of three defensive innings each game and one of those innings must be on the infield.
The league’s policies and philosophies have proven successful, with 216 players (league-age 10-12) in the Major Baseball Division.
“A successful league is not determined by how many wins it has each year, it’s about the next year’s registration and how many of the players come back,” Mr. Farren said.
During the summer, DLL enters teams into the annual Little League International tournament at various divisions, while also operating “Friendship Games” for players who want to continue to play, but were not selected to a tournament team. The league also holds a season-ending fun day with a skills competition for its minor and softball players, and in the fall, it runs a training and development program.
Darien (Conn.) Little League is the largest local Little League in the United States, with nearly 1,500 children participating. Founded in 1952, Darien Little League operates spring, summer and fall baseball and softball programs, a Challenger Division, along with several winter clinics for players and coaches.