Bay Area’s Little Leagues Overflow With Would-Be Giants: New York Times, April 2011

SAN FRANCISCO — The good vibrations from the San Francisco Giants’ World Series victory last fall continue to reverberate in the Bay Area, where children inspired by the improbable success of the Giants’ assemblage of castoffs have overwhelmed local Little Leagues.

The Mets of the Mill Valley Little League's Minors Division (Photo for NY Times by Penni Gladstone)

Youths who had never played the game suddenly saw themselves as Cody Ross or Tim Lincecum, and local leagues have had to scramble to find enough coaches and fields to accommodate the interest.

“We knew we were reaching capacity, and then the Giants had to do something stupid like win the World Series and add to the fervor,” Mike Singer, the president of San Francisco Little League, said jokingly. San Francisco has about 1,100 players this year, up 100 players, or 10 percent, over last year. The league started a waiting list and had to place some players in suburban Mill Valley, 12 miles north of the city.

Yet Mill Valley felt its own squeeze, with an increase of 181 players in leagues of 750 kids, according to the league president, Chris Kearney.

Ned White, the district administrator who oversees the leagues in San Francisco and its northern neighbor Marin County, which includes Mill Valley, said he had never seen such an increase among so many leagues. “It was really a big jolt into the system to have that many kids coming out,” he said.

The leagues are struggling to find enough fields for games and practices. San Francisco Little League controls three fields on Treasure Island, a windswept former Navy base in San Francisco Bay just off the Bay Bridge, and is seeking more from the city’s parks department. In addition, more players mean a need for more coaches.

“We had to twist some arms,” said Bill Johnston, the commissioner of Mill Valley Little League’s minors division.

And coaches are particularly needed because some of the new players are truly new to baseball. “We had a couple of kids who didn’t know which end of the bat to hold,” Johnston said. “They’re going to be real challenges for the coaches.”

White, who said he had been involved in Little League for 38 years, said he had to write 200 waivers to receive permission for Little Leaguers to cross boundary lines. The most he had to write in a previous year was 20, he said.

Dave Wetmore, administrator for the Little League district east of San Francisco that includes Danville, San Ramon and other cities, said his enrollment was up more than 8 percent, to about 7,500 from 6,924. “Having a local champion is huge,” Wetmore said. “What little T-baller doesn’t want to be on the Giants this year? All of those players were Little League players at one time.”

The Little League’s national Web site last week featured a story about Ross, a Giants postseason star in 2010, and his formative years playing Little League in Allen, Tex. Whether there is another Ross who will emerge from the flood of Little Leaguers in the Bay Area remains to be seen.

Some, clearly, are ahead of others. Oliver Zink, age 9, of Mill Valley, had never been a big baseball fan, said his father, Andy. But when the Giants made the playoffs last October, Oliver and his grandfather began watching the games, and the schoolyard buzzed with Giants fever.

“Buster Posey and Tim Lincecum became almost mythological figures,” Andy Zink said of his son.

Spring arrived, and his son decided to try out, although his father, a biology professor, admitted Oliver did not know “what a batting stance was, or how to catch a pop fly.”

Andy Zink admitted he was not much help, either — “I had never played baseball in my life,” he said — but a friend’s dad stepped in and taught Oliver the basics, and now he is a Little Leaguer.

Then there is 11-year-old Caroline Olesky, who drew inspiration from the fact that the 2010 Giants were filled with position players not really wanted by their former teams. Out she went for Little League and now she is playing a range of positions for the Mets, a team in the Mill Valley Little League minors.

“Nobody thought I would actually make it, but I did,” she said.

Giants fever has manifested itself in many ways around the Bay Area since October. An estimated one million people turned out for a parade to celebrate the World Series championship, the team’s first since it arrived in San Francisco from New York in 1958. Fans wore black beards in honor of Brian Wilson, who is part closer and part performance artist. The Giants took their championship trophy on tour, routinely drawing lines of 1,000 people or more waiting to be photographed with it. And the Giants also sent the trophy to the San Francisco Little League’s kickoff parade, where each team got to pose with it.

A fan festival that the team hosted at AT&T Park in February drew more than the 40,000 the Giants expected, with fans waiting two hours in lines for autographs. Fans also flocked to spring training in Arizona in record numbers. And now come the Little League registration numbers.

“The characters on the team are cool characters to youth,” said the Giants’ president, Larry Baer, citing Wilson and Lincecum, who looks more like a surfer than a pitcher, and others. “We’re really fortunate to have a team with personality. It’s what baseball needs to bring the younger kids back.”

The resurgence has taken Mill Valley’s Little League up to a level it had not been at for 15 years.

“It’s really great to see the popularity of baseball get stronger, because it’s been falling for the last decade or so,” said Ron Campbell, who is on the board of San Francisco Little League.

But just how much the Giants’ championship might be inspiring minority youngsters to play baseball is not clear. White, the Little League district administrator, said that the organization did not specifically track minority numbers, but that local districts with a substantial minority population seemed to be receiving the same boost as other districts.

That the Bay Area has a lot of youngsters with baseball fever as the result of a championship is hardly unique.

“We occasionally see spikes in Little League participation in areas where a major league team has won the World Series,” said Steve Barr, the director of media relations for Little League International in Williamsport, Pa.

In Massachusetts, the Boston Red Sox’ World Series championship in 2004, their first in 86 years, led to about an 8 percent increase in Little League enrollment the next spring, according to John Berardi, the information officer for Massachusetts Little League. In other years, he said, the increase is about 1 percent. However, Massachusetts did not see a second surge in registration after the Red Sox won another title in 2007.

But that was one side of country, and this is the other. If the Giants win it all again, who knows? Bay Area baseball could spill over onto football fields.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.