by Chris Dixon
Victory Field was abuzz with smiles and sun on Saturday.
Over the last couple weeks, kids across the nation have been showing off their baseball skills at Pitch Hit & Run competitions like the one at Victory Field last weekend. Approximately 600,000 kids ages 7 to 12 attend roughly 250 sectional competitions and more than 4,000 local competitions across the country.
After a labor strike that shortened the season and cancelled the World Series in 1994, Major League Baseball was looking for ways to reconnect with young fans. Pitch Hit & Run was one of these efforts – birthed in 1997 – the participation nationwide has grown roughly 40% over the last 14 years, and has expanded to all 50 states.
But despite these opportunities for kids to get involved, the massive outreach of Major League Baseball still has plenty of room for growth. When parents lined up to take pictures of the young medal winners at Victory Field, there were two medals that never made it to the photo-shoot.
These were the second and third place medals for the girls 13 and 14 year-old division. This was because only one girl participant showed up to the sectional for that age group. In the other age groups, there were less than half the number of girls than boys.
“I think it’s an awareness thing,” said Matt Hilley, National Director of Pitch Hit & Run. “We have a higher percentage of boy participants in the first place, but we also have a higher percentage of boys actually showing up to the sectionals.”
Just last year, Major League Baseball added a softball division to the Pitch Hit & Run competition which allowed girls to compete in their own division using softballs instead of baseballs. Only one girl had ever won the team championship in any age group prior to the change, which was 12 year-old Kyra Laumbach who competed at Coors Field in 2009.
“Before that, the girls competed with boys,” said Mike Lennox, executive director of Play Ball Indiana. “It was tough because they had to throw baseballs and hit baseballs, and run against boys. The younger girls did fine, but the older girls were at a bigger disadvantage.”
The initiative to add a softball division to Pitch Hit & Run was to expand opportunities for girls as softball gains popularity. In recent years, the growth of youth baseball has remained stagnant while softball continues to grow at an astounding rate. Lennox added that the city of Indianapolis is currently adding more leagues and seeing increased involvement at a much faster rate with softball than baseball.
Hilley said increasing the numbers of girls that participate in Pitch Hit & Run ultimately comes down to awareness and exposure of the program at the local level. The local competitions serve as feeders into the sectional competitions like the one at Victory Field, and involvement at all levels of the competition hinges on getting kids to participate locally.
The softball division is, however, in only its second year as part of the Pitch Hit & Run competition while baseball has been around since 1997, so the number of girl participants is expected to increase as the program gains more exposure.
But while strides in gender equality have been made, racial diversity at Pitch hit & Run competitions still remains a central challenge for Major League Baseball.
Surveying the competitors of Pitch Hit & Run competitions across the nation yields a population primarily composed of white children from suburban little leagues, despite the fact that Pitch Hit & Run distributes information to RBI Baseball programs and the Boys and Girls Club to try and increase involvement by inner city youth leagues.
“[Diversity] is certainly something we have our eye on and are aware about,” Hilley said. “We go to great lengths to try and assure that the program is offered in inner cities, and especially every city that hosts a Major League Baseball team.”
At Victory Field on Saturday, the kids that were competing were no exception to the national norm. Many of the boys and girls were from established little leagues in areas such as Fishers and Danville. Lennox says that his goal is to try and increase participation and gather volunteers to bring Pitch Hit & Run to the inner city little leagues of Indianapolis.
“The competition has really been great for Central Indiana moreso than just Indianapolis,” Lennox said. “There aren’t as many kids from the inner city doing it as we want. That’s one area where we really want to grow.”
Hilley said that it’s absolutely a challenge to reach kids of different backgrounds, and to increase awareness at the local level, but also said cost of transportation to events may also factor in to participation levels by inner city youth players. Major League Baseball covers the cost of transportation to the national event at the All-Star game, but participants must do so at the sectional and regional level.
One story involved a kid in Los Angeles, who qualified for a regional event at Dodgers Stadium through his school system. However, neither of his parents spoke English, he didn’t own a glove or baseball pants, and had to borrow a bat during the competition.
“He got the opportunity of a lifetime to compete at Dodger Stadium,” Hilley said, “and walked away with a uniform, a plaque, and free tickets to the game and got introduced on the field prior to the game. There’s a lot of gratifying stories like that.”