BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Little League softball and baseball may very well be a thing of the past in rural parts of America where numbers are limited. But Fort Madison volunteers are still working to put programs in place for anyone that still wants to play.
Jeff Woodside, of the Baxter Sports Complex said numbers for the community baseball program have been dropping for the past few years, despite efforts to reduce the hurdles to kids playing.
“Years ago, the city gave the programs to the YMCA and we took over the programming a couple years ago,” Woodside said.
“The numbers have been steadily dropping throughout those years.”
Woodside said he thought removing barriers such as fees would have brought the dwindling program back up to sustainable numbers.
“There’s really nothing else we could do from a generating interest standpoint. My hope was to make it free and there would be 200 kids that wanted to play. Then we could bring Little League itself back to Fort Madison, but it’s gone the opposite direction, unfortunately,” he said.
Most kids are playing in USSSA, United States Specialty Sports Association, organizations…. or what’s been generically called “travel ball”.
Little League baseball and softball used to be the leagues of choice, but as the prestige and excitement of travel leagues has attracted players of all ages, the numbers left for Little League and community ball associations has waned.
But Kyle Doherty, founder of the Doherty Baseball Academy, said he has yet to turn away any player that wants to play, despite reactions from some in the community who say groups like his are to blame for the end of community baseball.
Doherty started the academy as a baseball clinic with Chris Pennock and said he averaged about 50 kids of all ages, so he knew there was still interest. He said most of the kids are between the ages of 10-12, and he wants to start a softball division in the academy in the near future.
“I want this to be a program where we don’t turn away anyone that wants to play baseball,” Doherty said.
“With the help of the Baxter Sports Complex we’re going to be holding weekly free clinics this summer and fall for those families who are still on the fence to come out and see if they like it,” Doherty said
“Those are absolutely free and we want to make them family friendly with some activities for younger kids, food and things like that.”
Doherty said the knock on travel ball is the expense and he doesn’t deny their is some, but said he doesn’t want his organization to be about money.
The academy has six USSSA teams two 10 and under, one 11-year-old team, one 12-year-old team and two 13-year-old teams.
He said the initial cost is $100 but he said the academy is working hard to raise funds to help offset some of the costs. Doherty said the $100 also covers the cost of the uniform, which is not the case with many other area travel clubs.
Woodside said those teams will play about 16 games at the Baxter complex in their weekly USSSA league, in addition to the weekend travel games. Doherty said he also trying to find more tourneys that are single day “shootouts” or close enough for people to drive home.
“When Chris and I started the academy our thoughts were how do we make travel ball cheaper and more efficient. Doherty said he realizes people associate travel ball with a dollar sign.
“I want people to think of our academy as affordable for one, but still competitive. And one that they are going to get everything they need as a player to develop, starting with structure,” he said.
“I wont turn a kid down. This is how we’ve ended up with extra teams on the 10U and 13 division. We’re not going to turn a kid away. We’ll make a solution for them.”
Woodside said from the complex’s perspective that works, because it brings people in like Doherty who know baseball skills and can develop it.
“If we have the clinics that don’t cost anything and we get a kid who’s on the fence and likes the clinic and has a good time, they can get in this significantly cheaper than other organizations. You’re getting a better product for not as much money, but yeah, there’s a cost tied to it.”
Doherty said he prefers the one-day shootouts, as a two-day tourney can run $150 to $200 per family if there are food and hotel costs involved.
“I either want to get away from the two-days, or I want to bust my hump to make sure parents don’t have to deal with that stress. As you get older, you travel to the bigger cities like Cedar Rapids, Bettendorf, or Peoria, but we want to make sure we’re doing all we can to take that financial pressure off parents,” Doherty said.
He said the backlash he’s hearing is from people comparing 2020 to 1995 and and said that mold is broken.
“We’re doing what we can to hold onto that route, but it’s not feasible and we have to redirect,” Doherty said.
“We hear some of the parents of kids from other communities that come to clinics and tell us they are going through the same numbers situation. But what I like about travel ball is it is what we make of it.”
He said the kids looking for intense play will find it, and that kids looking for less of a time commitment and a more social game can find it that as well.
“Not a lot of groups are like that because they like to play nine or ten tournaments, but I don’t necessarily believe in that.”
Doherty said anyone looking for additional information or having questions about getting signed up or involved with the league can reach out to him directly at 319-470-8556.