With the Little League World series charming much of sportsland (even without an Arlington team in Williamsport, Pa.,) I couldn’t help but ponder my own local pint-size ball-playing experience.
That simpler world of Arlington youth base paths on which I hustled in the 1960s has been remarkably transformed.
Some obvious changes: metal bats, girls playing on boys teams (some as stars), games on Sunday.
The Barcroft Park I knew on Four Mile Run had green wooden dugouts and fences, and we nine-to-12-year-olds thrilled at the mimeographed stat sheets some mom compiled at the end of each season.
Today’s solid-brick Barcroft is fairground of modern stadium lights, baseball and soccer fields, including a regulation big league diamond used by George Washington University. And standings are available instantly on a dazzling Arlington Little League website.
The old neighborhood-based teams named for their sponsors –Optimist Club, Stewart Buick, Better Homes Realty— have given way to centrally picked teams with names that mimic the Major Leaguers or deploy more flavorful monikers like the Timber Rattlers and the Lugnuts. The nearly 50 commercial sponsors are as important as ever—but they appear on a website list.
Parks and Recreation provides permits and maintains the fields at Barcroft, Greenbrier and schools, but provides no direct funding.
Back in the mid-1980s, according to John Blevins, the county’s sports and enterprise section supervisor, some activist parents split Arlington’s the single Little Major League in two—Little League and Babe Ruth, which allows the season for some to extend to the fall for travel teams. “It became so popular, we ran out of space for activities,” hence the need to play on Sundays, he told me.
Today’s offerings include seven levels of play for ages 4-12, from junior T-ball to rookies to minors to majors, each with its own commissioner. (There are also special levels for disabled children and 11-13-year-olds who want to gradually transition to larger infield distances.)
Over the past six years, the number of kids participating has swelled from about 525 to 1,250, I was told by league president and uber-volunteer Adam Balutis, a former Arlington Little League player who still coaches at Washington-Lee High School. “It represents the growth of Arlington and the Nationals coming to town.”
The operation is complex enough to require a 25-member board (not all of whom are parents) to handle insurance, training for coaches, regional tournaments and the occasionally pushy parent.
In the ‘80s, those parents felt the county program “wasn’t enough of a hands-on operation,” Balutis said, “and the old system of neighborhood-based sponsors “was too easily manipulated” to recruit elite players. The current system uses a draft “to make sure each team is balanced, so each has some studs and has a chance of fielding a winning team,” he said. The February tryouts and subsequent draft “ensures balance and parity and equity and lets the chips where they may.”
As it did in my era, the Sun-Gazette reports some game results. But the website, with all its nifty color photos, spares kids with low batting averages from having them posted for grandmother to see, Balutis said, The anonymous online “Barcroft Insider” provides some “fun coverage” that‘s a little more pointed.
The website does display a Hall of Fame going back to the early 1990s. It honors not elite players but the adult volunteers.