Baseball, softball still most popular recreation commission leagues
It's America's pastime, a game of trial and error. But for 5-year-olds, it's just plain fun.
Nearly every night the bleachers are full of cheering parents; the smells of hot dogs, nachos and peanuts fragrance the air. Baseball and softball little leaguers in Tonganoxie shine under those ballpark lights as if they were ready to hit the game-winning home run out of Kaufman Stadium.
Some kids dream of making the Majors, others just want to have fun on a hot summer night. Nevertheless every summer, Tonganoxie parents and residents pack the Leavenworth County Fairgrounds to see who will carry on America's time-honored tradition.
Despite a growing population in Tonganoxie, the number of participants in the Tonganoxie Recreation Commission's youth baseball and softball program has remained around the same.
This year, the TRC has 493 boys and girls participating in its leagues that range from coed T-ball through under-14 boys and under-15 girls.
Gayle Parker, TRC director, said he thinks that number will increase through time.
"We'll get more as more people move to town," Parker said.
But Tonganoxie shouldn't worry about its little league participation. The city leads neighboring communities that local teams compete against, including Lansing, Linwood, Basehor, Bonner Springs and Edwardsville. Whether its alone or tied with another city, Tonganoxie provides the most teams in each of the nine leagues.
In Tonganoxie the T-ball league, 5- to 6-year-olds, has the most participants. T-ball has 11 teams compared to under-14 boys' three teams and under-15 girls' two.
"You start losing kids as they get older," Parker said.
The less-serious players often get weeded out as the older leagues become more competitive, he said.
For this reason, Kelly Fowler enjoys the T-ball league the most.
"I think T-ball is the most fun because everyone plays, everyone hits, everyone runs," said Fowler, whose 5-year-old daughter, Reagan, plays T-ball. "They don't care about the score or anything but having fun at that age."
Robert Bieniecki thinks differently. The 10-year coach has more enjoyment coaching the older players.
"The older boys, almost all the time, are there because they want to be there, rather than hey, mom and dad want them to be out of the house," said Bieniecki who has coached his 14-year-old son, Thomas, since T-ball. "They try harder because it's something they want to do."
Ball players ages 13 to 14 might be more developed in a specific position, but Bieniecki said they still had the opportunity to try new positions.
Although their seasons don't conflict, youth soccer -- particularly the spring season -- has given baseball the most competition as the city's No. 1 youth sports hub.
About 450 kids participate in spring soccer. Fall soccer competes with youth football, but still attracts nearly 400 kids.
Soccer's numbers continue to grow, but baseball's longer history in the United States has kept the old-fashioned game's presence on top in Tonganoxie, Parker said.
"Soccer's become quite a thing here," he said. "But baseball/softball is still king."
Winning isn't everything
Too often parents nationwide get caught up in their kids' success on the field and let loose their wild emotions on the sidelines.
Fowler said she has been guilty of a similar situation with her 8-year-old daughter, Erin, who plays in the Under-8 girls' softball league.
While at bat one game, Erin became confused when she heard her mom saying one thing and her coach -- who was pitching -- telling her to do another.
Fowler said she felt bad about confusing her daughter. She just wanted Erin to be successful.
"As parents, we sometimes need to let the coach coach, which is really hard to do," she said. "When they are successful, you just feel so great about it."
What made the situation even more difficult was that Erin's team lost by a landslide, allowing the opposing team to score seven runs in one inning.
But at an age when the game is all about having fun, Fowler said she hoped Erin would continue playing softball despite setbacks during that one game.
"She's just now starting to really get in it," Fowler said. "I'd hate for her not to have a chance because she lost."
Some of the young girls don't allow their teammates to get down in the dumps over a bad play or a bad game.
"If there's someone down, everyone goes over to them and screams," said Taylor Clark, 11, who plays in the U-12 softball league.
Clark's teammate, Dannie Oelschlaeger, 12, is known as the team's cheerleader because she always remains upbeat, no matter the situation. How does she do it?
"Lots of sugar and gum," Dannie said.
Parker, who has been in Tongan-oxie for a year and half, said he's heard horror stories about parents yelling profanities or pushing their children too hard, but he has only encountered a few, isolated situations. He said he just wanted the parents to not let emotions or their past experiences in the sport interfere with their children's success and ability to have fun in the program.
"Be supportive, be positive," he said. "We just want kids to play as hard as they can. Everyone's out there to have fun."
During certification, coaches are taught to remind parents the games are for the children, not the parents, Parker said.
Erica Clark said other communities have been known to be harder on their children, but Tonganoxie, for the most part, has good parents who act civilized during the ball games.
"We're fortunate we've got good parents, very supportive," said Clark, whose husband, Chuck, coaches their daughter, Taylor, and the U-12 softball team.
Bieniecki agrees Tongan-oxie parents are calm spectators. He said he's never heard parents deliver any phrases or comments that would make him cringe. Rather he often hears them give praise to the opposing players when they do something well. Parents also tend to interfere less with the coaches in the older leagues, he said.
"It's really different as you get older," the U-14 boys coach said. "You rarely have parents talk to you unless they're giving you a compliment."
Winning is good and important for the children, but Clark said parents needed to remember it's not everything.
"I feel bad for some girls who you can see their parents yelling and her head goes down. You know she's going to have a bad car ride home," she said. "It's more important that the girls leave and come away with a sense of accomplishment."
Hard work, fair play pay off
The Recreation Commission's efforts put into the summer ball leagues have not gone unnoticed with parents and coaches.
Bieniecki, who coached in De Soto before he began coaching in Tonganoxie two years ago, has noticed a more positive difference between the two programs.
"The league is much more organized," he said about Tonganoxie. "It's just a good group of kids up here. I don't know how to say it, but there's just a difference."
Clark appreciates how the commission balances the teams' success by mixing more- and less-talented youth players. The coaches get together, go down the list of teams, and randomly select a player's name from a hat. Only the coaches' sons or daughters are hand-picked to play on their dad's or mom's team.
"There've been other teams we've played that you can tell there is a stacked team and a left-over team," Clark said. "That's no fun to be on a losing team year after year."
A regulated drafting process also pleases Bieniecki with the older, more competitive boys.
"I have truly enjoyed the rec commission's work up here, the way they do business," he said. "The way they do their draft, it fairly distributes the talent."
Marsha and Barry Hummelgaard, parents of 11-year-old, Megan, are simply in awe of the hard work the commission puts into its leagues.
"T-ball through U-15, I wouldn't want to do that," Marsha said.
Her husband agrees.
"It seems pretty smooth," Barry said. "The umpires are pretty good. We travel to a lot of places, get to see a lot of fields. I think they do a pretty good job."
Randy Marshall was disappointed by the numerous rain-outs at the season's beginning, but the hard work to re-schedule those games impressed the first-year coach.
"Gayle has done a heck of a job with the make-up games," said Marshall, who coaches his 6-year-old son Jacob's T-ball team.
The commission's hard work might best show with the simple presence of youth softball and baseball, as well as other sports.
"I'm glad they have this," Clark said. "It gets the girls who can't get in the competitive leagues an opportunity to play and be active. It's good for them."
That's exactly why 12-year-old Amaris Smith decided to play softball.
"I was bored, and I thought it would be fun," Amaris said
And she was right. Especially when she gets to dump water on her coach, Chuck Clark, after a win.