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Coaches, players celebrate Little League’s 75th season amid challenges to keep the game interesting (VIDEO)

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Sean Larrabee spent an entire summer trying to teach his 11-year-old stepson, Brandon Seamon, how to catch a baseball while coaching his Watertown American Little League team.

In a late-season tournament game with his team up by one run, Seamon was in right field when an opponent hit a line drive in his direction in the last inning.

Larrabee and his assistant coaches cringed.

But Seamon instinctively glided under the ball, caught it and threw it into the infield to help his team secure the victory.

“It was really about the only catch he ever had in his whole Little League career, and it saved us,” said Larrabee, now the president of Watertown American Little League. “I’ll never forget that; I was jumping up and down. I was so happy.”

That game was 10 years ago.

Larrabee also remembers a legally blind player finishing his Little League career in Watertown by getting a hit in his final at-bat.

“When he got that hit, I think everybody in the league was happy. Even the guy that threw the pitch,” Larrabee said.

Moments like those are why Little League Baseball will celebrate its 75th anniversary this summer in Williamsport, Pa., the site of the nationally televised Little League World Series every August.

Despite challenges related to weather, funding, and declining interest in favor of other sports in certain communities, the moments described by Larrabee are the reason Little League has remained a staple in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties for almost 60 years.

“The greatest part of baseball for me is having all my friends here,” said Nick McNalty, an Immaculate Heart Central sixth-grader who plays Little League ball in Watertown. “I get to meet a lot of new people ... and we all have great fun and learn sportsmanship.”

Lance Bombard, whose 12-year-old son, Jacob, and 9-year-old daughter, Emily, play for his Police team in Watertown, said he and his children “get a lot out of it.”

“The most rewarding part of it is to see the kids grow every week,” said Mr. Bombard, who, like others, volunteers his time to coach in Little League. “They get so excited when they catch a ball or hit the ball for the first time. That’s pretty cool to see.”



WATERTOWN CAME FIRST

Watertown Little League, which opened its 58th season on April 26, was the first league to form in the three local counties. At its inception in 1956, the league was split into three sections — Watertown American, Watertown National and Watertown Federal — but it has been condensed into the Watertown American Little League.

There currently are seven leagues in the tri-county area, and they all compete in Little League District 37. In addition to Watertown, two of those leagues — North Central and Massena — have been in existence at least 50 years, with North Central in its 53rd season and Massena its 50th.

In 1967, the Watertown, North Central and Massena leagues — along with outlying leagues in Plattsburgh and Pulaski — formed District 37.

According to longtime district administrator Dan Salmon, it is the largest geographical district of the 38 in the state and the 132 in the East Region.

Leagues since have been added in Carthage, Harrisville, South Jefferson and Sandy Creek, and within the past 20 years, Salmon has led an effort to add the “minor league system” in a majority of the district’s leagues. That division is for players ages 8 to 10.

Some area leagues also have added divisions for T-ball and coach-pitch, starting with players as young as 4. The cut-off for Little League eligibility is age 12 as of April 30 of the competition year. Eleven- and 12-year-olds typically are the ones who compete in the World Series in Williamsport.

“It’s my goal that any kid that wants to play baseball is going to play,” Salmon said. “The only thing that’s going to stop them is a lack of volunteers.”



LITTLE LEAGUE WORLD SERIES

No team from District 37 has ever reached the worldwide event in Williamsport. And with the exception of a few teams that advanced past regionals and into the state tournament — North Central in 1983 and Massena in the early ’90s — teams from the area typically don’t fare well outside of the district, mainly because of the climate in the north country, Salmon said.

“We’re in an area where baseball season is short,” he said. “Other leagues around the country are halfway through their season (in mid-April), and we haven’t even started.”

Watertown and Carthage are the only local leagues that started games before May this year.

In reference to shorter seasons in the north country, South Jefferson Little League president Jason Bast said talent exists here, “but we have a tough time developing (it) because of the weather.”

Still, Jacob Bombard, an Immaculate Heart Central sixth-grader who plays for the Police team in Watertown, said the Little League World Series is a popular topic among area players.

“We talk about the plays that they make and how big they look compared to the players in our league,” Bombard said.



CHALLENGES

The biggest obstacle facing some area leagues, besides the weather, is waning interest in baseball among children.

Watertown, for example, has seen a significant decline in the number of players — and therefore teams — over the past few years. Larrabee said the league fielded eight teams in 2006, six last year, and is down to five this season.

League administrators cite several reasons for decreasing participation, including a general decline in population in the north country. From 2000 to 2010, according to the U.S. Census, the population in the 5 to 17 age group dropped 15.6 percent in Lewis County, 14.5 percent in St. Lawrence, and 6.4 percent in Jefferson.

The formation of other youth sports programs is another reason for the Little League downswing in some locations.

“It used to be baseball season was baseball season,” said Massena Little League president Peter Firnstein. “Now they got lacrosse, soccer and hockey. All these sports are played year-round.”

Salmon added: “Back in my day, there was no lacrosse and no soccer programs. You played baseball and you played baseball; then you played baseball.”

Statistics reflect the increasing popularity of sports other than baseball.

In January, the Wall Street Journal published a study showing a 6.8 percent decline in the number of Little League players nationwide from 2008 to 2012. Over that same five-year period, there was a 158 percent increase in the number of participants in youth lacrosse.



TRIUMPHS

The fact that Little League still exists in Watertown is a victory in its own right.

Before the 2007 season, the league was struggling to find a replacement for president Jeff Cronk — who served just one year in the position — and the player pool was dwindling.

Salmon reached out to Jeff Marra, grandson of the first District 37 administrator, Rocco Marra, and he accepted the position.

Salmon told the Times in 2008 that the league was “in disarray” before Marra stepped in.

Marra implemented several new fundraising tactics and made changes to increase interest among players, such as installing a new scoreboard and having their names announced as they came to the plate, just like their major-league heroes.

Marra died from a heart attack at age 49 in 2012. There is a bench dedicated to his memory at Ted Rand Memorial Field, where all league games are played.

Salmon, meanwhile, recently was one of 30 volunteers nationwide to receive an award from the national Little League Congress to honor his 30 years of service in leading the district.

“The best thing I’ve done in my 30 years is pick up the phone and call Jeff Marra,” Salmon said.

Although Watertown is down to a five-team league, the sport is growing in Carthage and Harrisville.

New fields have been created in those leagues over the past decade, and both communities have seen a steady increase in players in the past few seasons, according to each league’s president.

The Massena and North Central leagues also have rebounded, with Massena going from 180 players in 2010 to 275 this season, and North Central having about 150 more players than a year ago.

“I honestly don’t know why,” league president Troy Clark said of the reason for the increase in North Central. “A lot of work has been put into building up the league over the past few years, and I think we’re starting to see the results.”

South Jefferson expanded its program this year to add T-ball and coach-pitch divisions for younger players. The league is now open to players ages 4 to 12; last year it was for 9- to 12-year-olds.



LOOKING AHEAD

As long as there are enough players to field at least two teams, Salmon said, there will always be Little League baseball in the tri-county area.

He said the key to creating interest among kids in the future is to adapt to the times. That includes speeding up the game and finding innovative ways to promote it.

Salmon said he believes one way to do that is by allowing each league to have a weekend travel roster so that those teams can play teams outside of the district.

Larrabee, the Watertown American Little League president, said he believes interest will spike again.

“It’s going to take a little time to balance out,” he said. “I think there will be a turnaround with that. ... There’s a grand effort to continue to promote it and increase what they have built over the (past) 75 years.”

That would mean another 60 years of memories for players in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties.

“Just being out on the field, having everybody cheer you on in the dugout and having the fans cheer you on, it’s great,” said Keith Carroll, a sixth-grader who plays for Freeman Bus in the Watertown American Little League.

Added Carroll’s teammate, Jonah Frechette: “My favorite thing is just getting to play baseball with your friends and family, and getting together and stuff.”

Video from opening day can be seen at http://wdt.me/Watertown-Little-League.







FAMOUS LITTLE LEAGUE ALUMNI
Entertainers
Kevin Costner (actor), Danny DeVito (actor), Dennis Franz (actor), Mark Harmon (actor), Huey Lewis (musician), Kurt Russell (actor), Adam Sandler (actor), Tom Selleck (actor), Bruce Springsteen (musician).
Athletes
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (NBA), Troy Aikman (NFL), Tom Brady (NFL), Drew Brees (NFL), Kurt Busch (NASCAR), Mike Ditka (NFL), Chris Drury (NHL), Tony Dungy (NFL), John Elway (NFL), Brett Favre (NFL), Doug Flutie (NFL), Tony Hawk (skateboarding), Hale Irwin (PGA), Jim Kelly (NFL), Dan Marino (NFL), Joe Montana (NFL), Kyle Petty (NASCAR), Cal Ripken Jr. (MLB), Mariano Rivera (MLB), Aaron Rodgers (NFL), Nolan Ryan (MLB), Mike Schmidt (MLB), Tom Seaver (MLB), Steve Spurrier (NCAA football coach), Pierre Turgeon (NHL), Adam Vinatieri (NFL), Krissy Wendell (Olympic women’s hockey).
Authors
Dave Barry, John Grisham, George Will.
Political figures
Joe Biden, vice president; George W. Bush, 43rd president; Bill Bradley, former senator from New Jersey and former NBA star; William Cohen, former secretary of defense; Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York City; Dirk Kempthorne, former Idaho governor and U.S. senator; Dan Quayle, former vice president.


AREA LITTLE LEAGUES
Below are the sanctioned Little Leagues in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties. All of the baseball leagues compete in District 37 alongside leagues in Pulaski and Plattsburgh.

League| Teams, participants| Ages| Opening day| Primary field
Carthage (27th year)| 10,130| 7-12 coed| April 26| Getman Park, West Carthage
Harrisville (31st year)| 6-8, 85-90| 7-12 coed| May 3| Chapman Park, Harrisville
Massena (50th year)| 23,240| 4-12 coed| May 3| North Main Field, Massena
North Central (53rd year)| 30,400| 4-12 coed| May 3| Nine*
Sandy Creek (28th year)| 10,100| 5-12 coed| May 3| Edwards Road Fields, Sandy Creek
South Jefferson (42nd year| 25, 275| 4-12 coed| May 3| Tyner Field, Adams Center
Watertown American (58th year)| 5,600| 9-12 coed| April 26| Rand Field, Watertown
* Located in the towns that make up the South Lewis, Beaver River and Lowville school districts.


LITTLE LEAGUE/MLB WORLD SERIES
12 athletes who played in both the Little League World Series and the Major League Baseball World Series:
• Jim Barbieri (Schenectady, 1954; L.A. Dodgers, 1966)
• Derek Bell (Tampa, Fla., 1980-81; Toronto Blue Jays, 1992)
• Rick Dempsey (Canoga Park-Woodland Hills, Calif., 1963; Baltimore Orioles, 1979, 1983 and L.A. Dodgers, 1988)
• Charlie Hayes (Hattiesburg, Miss., 1977; N.Y. Yankees, 1996)
• Carney Lansford (Santa Clara, Calif., 1969; Oakland Athletics, 1988-90)
• Lance Lynn (Brownsburg, Ind., 1999; St. Louis Cardinals, 2011)
• Jason Marquis (Staten Island, 1991; St. Louis Cardinals, 2004)
• Boog Powell (Lakeland, Fla., 1954; Baltimore Orioles, 1966, 1969-71)
• Gary Sheffield (Tampa, Fla., 1980; Florida Marlins, 1997)
n*Jason Varitek (Altamonte Springs, Fla., 1984; Boston Red Sox, 2004, 2007)
• *Ed Vosberg (Tucson, Ariz., 1973; Florida Marlins, 1997)
• Rick Wise (Portland, Ore., 1958; Boston Red Sox, 1975)
*Also played in College World Series. Vosberg played for Arizona in 1980 and Varitek with Georgia Tech in 1995.


Local umpires hit national stage in youth baseball
While no baseball team from Jefferson, Lewis or St. Lawrence counties has ever reached Little League Baseball’s national stage, a pair of longtime local umpires have.
Turin resident Randy Myers — who has umpired area Little League games since 1985 — called a game in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., in 2011.
And Port Leyden’s Al Scouten, another longtime umpire in the north country, was chosen for the Junior League World Series — a division for players mostly in their early teens — in 2008.
— Josh St.Croix
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