Baseball

Commentary: Baseball And Softball Vs. Lacrosse? It Is Easy To See Why More Kids Are Choosing The Stick

More kids, like these in the Darien youth league, are playing lacrosse than ever before.

More kids, like these in the Darien youth league, are playing lacrosse than ever before. (Photo: Darien Athletic Foundation)

Coaches in several sports lamented the skyrocketing popularity of another for several reasons: it is stealing away from their talent pool by a game many don’t fully understand and some think is downright boring.

Sound familiar?

Actually, that was the scene about three decades ago, one that lasted 10 years, as the youth soccer boom took off. Kids across the country were dribbling and heading balls. Size and gender didn’t matter, the sport was egalitarian. It was also popular on a social front, a way to make new friends.

Because the sport was then confined to the fall, it had little impact with males. Football ruled. But high school field hockey and volleyball coaches were upset how their school’s best athletes were no longer on their fields or inside their gyms.

Fast forward to the present and we are going through the exact same scene with lacrosse. The topic came up in three separate conversations I had last week.

Little League baseball is contracting in a number of area towns, as youth lacrosse programs are swelling. The best prospective pitchers and shortstops are now running around with sticks.

Just look at what is happening in Stamford, which has as rich a tradition in baseball and softball as any city or town in the area. Little League teams have been consolidating the last several years. The three FCIAC high schools either don’t have enough players or are being creative with varsity depth just to maintain junior varsity softball programs.

That is nothing less than stunning, not to mention sad.

This area is somewhat skewed from the nationwide trends because this is a hotbed for lacrosse. It seems a player is committing to a high-level Division I college team on an almost daily basis. Many of the FCIAC’s best coaches also run their own offseason programs, which attract the top players, field many teams and serve as an excellent path for both development and college showcasing.

Lacrosse’s rise is coming during a period of baseball’s downswing on a national level. It was ironic that while this subject came up last week, on Tuesday night’s episode of Real Sports, HBO’s outstanding newsmagazine, Chris Rock offered both a hilarious and insightful piece on why baseball is no longer hip for blacks.

(You can watch it here and caution, there is profanity.)

Rock also looks at the sport from a wider prism. Baseball has a problem on the national level, and it has little in my opinion to do with race and more with pace. And what has followed is a trickle-down effect.

Darien's excellent youth league has been a top feeder for the town's high school teams. (Photo: Darien Athletic Foundation)

Darien’s excellent youth league has been a top feeder for the town’s high school teams. (Photo: Darien Athletic Foundation)

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I like baseball a lot — at the high school level. Give me more games like last Monday’s between Staples and Fairfield Warde, as the respective pitchers, Ian Burns and John Natoli, threw scoreless innings before the Mustangs broke through in the bottom of the 7th. FCIAC baseball has a lot of good action and play, and on average takes about two hours. It is actually going through a boom period, with a greater number of title contenders than at any time in recent memory.

Major league baseball? Count me among the fans it has lost. According to the data Rock cites, the average fan is white and 53. I’m one year off from being a perfect match.

Yet I can’t come close to making it through an entire inning or two, let alone a whole game. I’m a Mets fan, and if I watch a game it is as background material. I’m usually reading or doing something else to hold my attention.

What happened? Three-plus hour games. I’ll grant that I’ve become more ADD as I’ve aged instead of the reverse, but the methodical strategy that is an appeal of the sport has not overcome the wasted time between pitches.

Long commercial breaks and too many pitching changes are areas major league baseball cannot alter as it tries to quicken the pace.

I admittedly am still learning lacrosse. Last year was my first spring running this site, and I covered more lacrosse in two months than I had in the previous 20 years combined with my previous employer, The Stamford Advocate.

I like lacrosse, though because I am at my infancy I don’t yet appreciate how much better it is here than most other places because I don’t have a baseline. I’m entertained and like how it combines the elements of so many other sports, several I used to play.

Which sport do I prefer? Seriously, I enjoy baseball, softball and lacrosse equally. As with all my coverage here, I always try to pick the best game of the day.

But speaking candidly with a few baseball coaches, I admitted I can understand why more kids are now playing lacrosse.

And I think the damage to baseball and softball in this area has been minimized by the rise of so many excellent baseball and softball specific facilities that provide individual lessons and keep aspiring players active non-stop for an hour.

Today’s children are more active than ever before and their minds race from a constant stream of technology. So if the choice is to go out to rightfield during Little League practice and remain virtually inactive for 10 minutes, or constantly moving in lacrosse, well, the choice for a 10-year-old is easy.

The point here is not to criticize baseball in a vacuum, but rather to explain why it is understandable the scales are tilting away from baseball and softball and toward lacrosse. They are all great games. There is enough talent for all to flourish.

But if youth baseball wants to regain the children it is losing, it had better hope that the people running the game at the major league level find some new and creative ways to market the sport.