March 30, 2005 - The big leaguers aren't the only players using the spring weather in Arizona to ready themselves for the upcoming baseball season. Throughout the Northwest, thousands of little leaguers are dusting off the batting gloves and breaking out the pine tar.
It's time to play ball.
With opening day set for April 2 for most leagues, the boys of a little before summer are set to prove once again why baseball is still the king of all youth athletics.
In Tucson, every league north of Speedway Boulevard falls under the jurisdiction of District 5. Included in that district are 13 leagues, each with an average of 30 teams of their own. In the Northwest and Foothills regions, alone, there are nine leagues and more than 200 teams in areas such as Continental Ranch, Marana, Thornydale and Canyon View.
With thousands of kids taking the mounds and digging into the batter's boxes, little league baseball can be found on any given night at just about any local park in the Northwest.
These leagues all feature a wide variety of age groups ranging from Tee-Ball, 5- and 6-year-olds, to Majors, 12 and up.
The Canyon Del Oro Little League, with a long lineage of baseball excellence, is set to embark on another year. Annually, leagues such as CDO churn out teams and players that compete among the best at the state and national levels. Last year, the CDO 9- and 10-year-old All-Star team advanced to the state championship game before losing to a team from Phoenix. This season's highly touted Canyon Del Oro High School squad features myriad players who first got their start on the diamonds of the CDO Little League.
Where CDO may have the history, Coronado Little League has the numbers. Four years ago, the two were one massive league with between 750 and 800 kids of all ages. Today CDO is home to about 450 ball players while Coronado checks in close to 600.
Competition from club sports such as soccer, swimming and volleyball have diminished Little League enrollment somewhat in recent years, and numbers have since reached a plateau, but they still remain high.
"It's probably leveled out," said Rick Hines, president of Coronado, about the league's enrollment. "Because families in Oro Valley are on the rise, baseball is flourishing."
This year Coronado is the biggest it has ever been. It is the largest league in Southern Arizona.
Gaining ground on Coronado, however, is Thornydale Little League with 550 kids. As new leagues have emerged in the area, Thornydale has seen its league chopped down from more than 1,200 kids four years ago. With an influx of families to the area, the numbers are beginning to rise again. Thornydale president Stephen Whittier expects enrollment to increase to 700 or 800 by next year and to 1,000 by 2007.
The problem with burgeoning numbers is finding enough places to play. Coronado will use 20 fields this year at locations including Wilson, Copper Creek and Painted Sky elementary schools.
Coronado's Majors will begin their season earlier than most leagues, throwing out their first pitch on March 28.
For other leagues, such as Thornydale Little League, finding fields is no problem. Thornydale, which, like everyone else, plays games six days a week, has full use of Arthur Pack Park, 9101 N. Thornydale Road.
In trying to successfully complete a three-month season, all leagues find that they are only as strong as their ability to draw volunteers. In every league, parents play a vital role in services ranging from coaching to working concession stands.
Each team usually averages between two and five coaches per squad. Coaches are almost always parents of the players. The difficulty finding coaches to volunteer their time is most prevalent on the younger levels of tee-ball and coach pitch. As kids get older and parents get more involved and interest levels rise, so, too, does involvement of parents as coaches.
With hundreds of games a week, finding enough umpires has proven even more difficult. Coronado's umps earn between $15 and $20 per game. These boys in blue are often high school kids looking for some extra spending cash. Even then, said Hines, the league is always looking for umpires. The same can be said for CDO.
Thornydale has a "good working relationship" with Mountain View High School, Whittier said. Some of its ball players umpire games.
To be able to call any Little League game, umpires must complete a class on rules, first aid and ethics.
So where do these leagues get their revenue from to pay umpires and rent fields? Most generate funds from sign-up fees, but concessions are where the majority of the leagues' money flows in. Leagues also create extra revenue by selling sponsorship space on uniforms and outfield walls, said Shane France, president of CDO.
When money, umps and coaches are all in place, baseball in the Northwest thrives. Starting April 2, the bats will come alive and another season will begin for hundreds of kids.
At Thornydale practice they have a new motto: "It's a new game," Whittier said. "The main thing is it's about the kids."