BANGOR — Early evening weekday games, weekend doubleheaders, practices, having fun, inventing nicknames, and pizza parties are all part of the classic aura of Little League, which was formed in 1939 in Williamsport, Pa., by Carl Stotz.
Baseball and softball Little Leaguers utilize their gloves, arms, and bats in the field and are armed with Airheads and Bubblicious in the dugout.
But with all the things that kids are participating in these days during the summer months — summer sports and sleepaway camps, travel teams, AAU basketball — it isn’t always easy for parents and players to meet the time commitment the sport of baseball demands. Parents, especially those who have multiple kids participating in sports, are running around town daily, sometimes scrambling to get out of work to get their kids to practices and games that can happen three to six times a week.
And when Little League all-star district tournaments start up, like they did on Saturday for the District 3 9 and 10-year-old division at both Bangor East’s Taylor Field and Bangor West, some teams have to travel a half hour or more to reach their playing destination.
Given that time commitment and the spotlight of playing in an all-star tourney, it can be easy for some to question whether all-star competition is too much for 9- and 10-year-olds to handle. Until the early 1990s, all-star competition started at the ages 11-12 level.
At Saturday’s tournament games at Taylor Field, seven-year Bangor East Little League President Dale Duff said he expressed some doubt on the issue early in his presidency, but now has accepted the tourneys for ages 9-10 as a viable product of the developing youth sports world.
“There was a time when I would say it is too much to extend the season and play all-stars for this age group, but now every sport is doing it,” Duff said. “Youth sports have just changed so much since I played them. They’re always evolving.”
The feeling is mutual at Bangor West, where vice president of baseball Mike Brooker also notices that the landscape of ever-changing youth sports and says that it’s a good thing for kids in the ages 9-10 group to have more opportunities to practice and compete against players from other towns.
“I don’t think it’s too young. The kids are competitive and like to play other towns,” said Brooker, who mentioned he referred to all-star teams as “tournament teams.“
“You’re seeing it with mites in hockey at 5- and 6-years-old, and YMCA basketball travel teams are as young as 7- and 8-years-old,” he added.
Although Little League doesn’t offer regional and national tournaments for ages 9-10 like they do for ages 11-12, Brooker said that the ages 9-10 state tournament, which was just implemented several years ago, could very well naturally progress into having its own regional and national tournament.
Players ages 9-10 play against their ages 11-12 counterparts throughout the regular season, and when the all-star season hits they’re playing kids only their age, pointed out David Szewczyk, coach of the Bangor East ages 11-12 all-stars.
“They play against bigger and stronger kids all year and the game slows down for them a little during all-stars,” said Szewczyk, who also coaches a regular season team.
“In that sense it is almost easier for them,” he added.
The coaches and volunteers are doing what they believe is in the best interest of the players while following Little League’s philosophy.
On Little League’s website, its mission statement says: “To promote, develop, supervise, and voluntarily assist in all lawful ways, the interest of those who will participate in Little League Baseball and Softball.”
Most Little Leagues in Maine play a 15-game regular season with at least two games per age group in the all-star tourneys, possibly more if a team keeps winning. The quality and success of the leagues, such as Bangor East and Bangor West, are possible due to dedication and a passion to teach of their volunteers, according to league officials.
“We have a lot of people involved and our league wouldn’t be where it is now if it weren’t for our volunteers,” Szewczyk said. “It truly is a family place; a community.”
Duff agreed.
“You do it to give the kids a good field to play on; good uniforms to wear; good equipment to use. You fund raise and give your time,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about and it’s very rewarding.”
One couple who were watching their son play in Saturday morning’s opener at Taylor Field between Old Town and Bangor East mentioned they had to travel to Houlton for a 3 p.m. game on a Wednesday last year — a time that is tough for anyone to make given the nature of most 9-to-5 work schedules — but said it was all worth it because the experience kids receive outweighs the scrambling of travel and the time commitment.
Standing in the press box at Taylor Field during a rain delay Saturday, while others were in the comfort of their home watching a game on TV, Duff served as a perfect metaphor as the ideal volunteer lending valuable time and guidance while striving to meet a laudable goal.
“We’re trying to make it fun for the kids,” he said. “We’re trying to give them the best experience possible.”