Members of the Monmouth baseball talk it up in the dugout during last Wednesday’s game against Mountain Vaalley High School. Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover

Ray Bernier remembers back 11 years ago, when he was a senior at Messalonskee, and when boys at the school were almost tripping over each other to sign up for the baseball team.

I remember seeing sign-up sheets of at least 45 or 50 guys every year, signing up for baseball,” he said.

Bernier is now in his fourth season as the Eagles’ varsity coach. And even before this year, he was seeing a distressing trend.

I had seen it coming as an assistant coach that we were probably going to (reach) our all-time low this year, based on what I saw for numbers in our youth program,” he said. “(That) ended up being the case. We had 27 kids come out this year, which is our all-time lowest at Messalonskee.”

Bernier and the Eagles aren’t alone. Dipping numbers have become a theme across the central Maine baseball scene. Cony coach Don Plourde reported numbers falling from the 30s when he started nine years ago to 18 this year. Former Winslow coach Aaron Wolfe said the numbers dropped from nearly 40 a decade ago to around 20 for his final season last year. Oak Hill’s Chad Stowell, who estimated the school had between 30 and 40 players turn out when he graduated in 2000, had only 10 players on his entire roster last year.

“We’ve seen numbers steadily go down over the last five or six years, I’d say,” Plourde said. “It’s very noticeable.”

Low numbers have their thumbprints on other programs as well. Hall-Dale, the defending champion in Class C, doesn’t have a junior varsity team this season. Maranacook doesn’t have one either. Carrabec and Madison combined to form Bridgeway two years ago when they were concerned about fielding their own programs after a slew of graduations.

“It does seem like the numbers have been down,” Maranacook coach Eric Brown said. “The numbers seem to be getting smaller and smaller.”

The problem has seeped outside of the high school game as well. American Legion has struggled to field teams, and even through Babe Ruth and into the youth leagues, turnout has dimmed.

“Since five years ago we’ve actually dropped a team in the major league program, we’re down to four teams in that,” Gardiner Youth Baseball president C.J. Elliott said. “So we’re down, I’d say, probably 15 percent for the five years, and we’re probably down about 20 percent, 25 percent 10, 15 years ago.”

PLENTY OF CAUSES

While there’s a clear consensus from coaches on the state of the sport, there’s less agreement over the cause of the turnout. Some point to the rise of year-round sports and sports specialization, which allows kids who would normally sign up for baseball to focus on basketball or soccer or any other sport instead through AAU, showcases, travel teams and other opportunities.

Thinking back to when I was in high school, it was soccer in the fall, it was basketball in the winter and it was baseball in the spring,” Monmouth coach Eric Palleschi said. “Now, kids have a plethora of options that they can go to. … The more options they have, you’re obviously going to disperse the kids even wider.”

Others point to the arrival of lacrosse, a sport that since arriving within the last two decades has provided a faster-paced and more physical alternative. Baseball teams lose a chunk of their athletes to the sport — and, sometimes, their best ones.

In recent years, the numbers seem to be going up for them as ours go down. It’s becoming a pretty popular sport at this time,” Brown said. “That’s only hurt numbers. … Kids are just finding other things to do.”

Messalonskee’s Bernier said the athletes who make baseball their top sport won’t be swayed. If anything, the teams losing players to lacrosse are losing ones who know they won’t be playing a large role, or be having much success, in baseball.

“Kids that really love the game of baseball and grow up around the game of baseball are going to keep playing baseball,” he said. “What it impacts is that back end of your team. That eighth, ninth or 10th guy … is now going to a sport where there are more starters and there’s more activity and they find more ways to help.”

The availability of more sports also gives kids who don’t want to put up with the strikeouts and failures that come with learning the game another outlet.

It’s a tough sport to be good at,” Plourde said. “They’re looking for some gratification or instant results, and when they don’t get it, they move on to a different sport. Baseball’s a tough sport, and you don’t see kids working at it like before. It’s a game of failure, and nowadays, kids don’t want to fail.”

And yet, some coaches say it’s not a baseball issue. Enrollment is down, so the pool of potential players is down, and when they choose jobs or other social activities, baseball takes the hit other sports do.

I think sports in general are suffering from lack of participation,” Lawrence coach Rusty Mercier said. “I know when I was a kid, that was the biggest deal in town. You made a team, you were on a team. You were participating in athletics. Now, it just doesn’t seem to have the same draw or same status as it used to.”

GETTING INVOLVED

Coaches know the key to boosting numbers starts well before signups in March. For the numbers to be there at the high school level, they have to be grown at the youth tier.

And the varsity coach can play an integral role in doing that.

Doing things like clinics, going in and talking with coaches that are helping out in the youth leagues and trying to get involved with their programs I think helps,” Brown said. “Showing that you’re interested in them at a younger age makes them excited about coming up and moving up throughout the years and getting to that high school age.”

Isaac LeBlanc, a director with Waterville Cal Ripken, said that the high school’s involvement pays off.

Members of the Hall-Dale baseball team cheer from the dugout during Class C state championship game last year in Standish. Kennebec Journal file photo by Joe Phelan

“A 6-, 7-, 8-, 9-, 10-year-old really looks up to a kid who plays high school ball,” he said. “To make that connection, I think, is very important to promote the longevity of baseball in that community. I think it’s crucial.”

Most coaches have taken an active role in working with the kids who will later play for them. Plourde and Brown team up to run a clinic for kids in the Augusta area. Hall-Dale coach Bob Sinclair does clinics with youth coaches to help them teach their young players. And Palleschi is president of the youth league in Monmouth.

I start working with these guys and coaches and parents from the time they’re four years old. And so I know all the kids that are in the program,” Palleschi said. “It’s a little difficult, but at the same time, you’re thinking of a program. You can’t just think of the high school. You’ve got to look at all the way down through all the youth levels.”

Messalonskee’s Bernier, meanwhile, coaches Messalonskee junior Legion and serves on the board of directors for the Messalonskee Cal Ripken.

Once you get a kid in, he holds the baseball for the first time, he throws it, he’s with teammates, you’ve got him hooked now, just like you had him hooked in the 90s, 80s and 70s,” Bernier said. “It’s just a matter of how you reach them.”

REVERSING THE TREND

Not everyone is struggling. Skowhegan’s numbers are climbing, to the point that coach Mike LeBlanc said the middle school team had to cut players. MCI’s numbers have gone from under 15 in 2011 to more than 20 the past three years. Lawrence’s turnout is still in the 30s.

And though numbers hit a nadir at Messalonskee this season, Bernier said the rebound has already begun — thanks largely to the work at the youth level.

“We found a way to build it back up,” he said. “We’re now up to four majors teams, our numbers at the high school level after this year are trending up, we have Babe Ruth and Junior Legion in our area, so we have a lot baseball growing back toward the direction that we want it.”

Maranacook’s and Hall-Dale’s numbers are low, but not dropping. In Hall-Dale’s case, over time, they’ve started to inch back up.

“I don’t have any concern down the road at this point about numbers falling off or ballplayers losing an interest in playing baseball,” Sinclair said. “I think if you have all the makings of a solid program, it will continue to be solid.”

Waterville Cal Ripken’s numbers have been climbing as well, which LeBlanc said is a credit to a new Purnell Field facility that has helped attract regional tournaments.

Those types of events get people excited about baseball, for sure,” he said. “And I think the younger kids that are watching those tournaments, it helps get those kids interested in wanting to play baseball.”

The interest in the sport at the high school level needs to be cultivated and maintained in the levels leading up to it. By realizing that, Bernier said, coaches can ensure the sport thrives.

“I just think baseball’s going to be a different sport,” he said. It’s going to be a different set-up than it was 10 years ago, and it’s going to be a different setup than it was 30 years ago. The game adapts, and … I think people are starting to realize that they have to adapt to what’s happening.”


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