Rest in peace, baseball, 1845 (ish)-2012. That seems to be the case in central Essex County, as more schools are finding it impossible to field the nine players needed for a varsity baseball team, let alone modified, where some schools do not have enough to field the lifeline to a varsity program.
Locally, Keene has been joined by Willsboro as schools that will not compete in the Mountain and Valley Athletic Conference baseball season. Several others are barely fielding a team.
Before I go on, let me take a minute on the Keene situation. Why is there no Beagle-ball this year? For the past two seasons, Keene has combined with Westport to compete as the Beagles (Beavers and Eagles) with great success, both on the field and between the two schools. However, it is not happening this year and, to be honest, I wish they were still together, even if Westport does have enough to field their own team (coming from someone who would have seen their playing time cut with a merger).
Now, back to the baseball eulogy.
There are many reasons behind the demise of the sport here, starting with one which I am surprised didn't kill it already — the short season.
While this year is as freakish as they come, teams usually hit the playing field within days of their first game. Last year, the Elizabethtown-Lewis softball team took to the field one day before their league opener.
It was always frustrating as a player or a coach to see 3 inches of snow on the ground, even if it would melt by the end of the day, because it meant that the fields would be muddy that much longer. That alone can drive some people away from the game.
A second, I will admit, is the addition of new sports such as track and tennis. However, I am not in favor of getting rid of these sports for the same reasons I am in favor of Beagle-ball — it helps more kids get the chance to be a part of a team and compete.
Yes, track and field is a team sport, as is tennis and golf. You are still part of a team, even if the task is more of an individual challenge. People who say otherwise are wrong.
Also, we live in an instant gratification and the sport of baseball is anything but. We want an immediate return on our time investment — a shot on the basketball court, kicking the soccer ball around, or a long pass in football. In baseball, especially youth baseball, you can go an entire game without a ball hit to you or getting a chance to swing the bat, which turns the modern kid off to the sport.
You can also make the case that this is the video game age and kids don't get out. I don’t think so, because I make sure that my kids are involved in outdoor activity daily above and beyond any summer program, so it would not be that hard to get them out on a baseball field.
However, I feel that the biggest reason is the state of youth baseball. When I came up through the system, Westport actually had weeknight little league, usually with three or four teams per age group rotating playing each other. Then, you would play summer ball through the county against other schools. It was the first taste of competitive sport for most kids, even though the score did not matter.
Now, there are hardly any local youth leagues, and the county program runs for just a few weeks in the spring. Compare that to the length of the youth soccer and basketball seasons, compared with the fact that games are held for students in K-6 in soccer and 3-6 in basketball take place, while only a few games (decreasing every year) take place only for the oldest kids in baseball, and you can see the problem more clearly.
I am usually a man that says change when it is needed, in this case things need to go back to the way that they were. Baseball should be a part of summer programs. If not, there should be a county-sanctioned "little league"-type program giving kids from throughout the region that chance to play.
Even if you have to mix kids from different communities, at least they are playing on teams and getting that taste of competition. Maybe you do a north-south split and play half the games in Lewis and the others in North Hudson.
Now, there are places where baseball is still thriving like Ticonderoga, Au Sable Forks, Keeseville and Plattsburgh. However, there is a big hole in the middle of Essex County where that is not the case.
Hopefully, something can be done, or the once national pastime will truly be a thing of the past around here soon.
Keith Lobdell is the editor of the Valley News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.