The soundtrack of the spring and summer will be heard locally for a 70th year in a row as Falls Church Kiwanis Little League celebrates its anniversary by once again contributing the thwap of the catcher’s mitt, the dirt-laden slide into second base and the crack of the bat to the area’s ambiance.
Back in the day, the Falls Church Little League was the first Little League team to be chartered in Virginia when Little League’s second wave of expansion in 1948 saw 94 leagues added throughout the country. In the 1950s, the then-local Kiwanis club decided to become primary patrons of the league, causing the league to be renamed the Falls Church Kiwanis Little League — referred to as FCKLL or Kiwanis for short — from then on out.
Coincidentally, the league also came into form around the same time the City of Falls Church was awarded its status as an independent municipality. But that doesn’t mean the league caters strictly to City residents. FCKLL’s boundary stretches from as far south as Arlington Boulevard to as far north as Pimmit Hills, with a western border going to Gallows Road and an eastern one just past Seven Corners. According to former FCKLL parent Charles Hansen, just under 40 percent of the players come from the City. Regardless of where players come from, the Kiwanis has been able thrive for seven decades because its centripetal force of creating long-lasting relationships through a shared interest in sport.
“My son is 15 and now plays JV baseball at [George] Mason [High School] and made friends back as a kindergartner playing tee ball that he now plays high school baseball with. We’ve also made friends with other parents from our time with FCKLL,” Hansen said. “It really is one of those organizations that helps bind the community together.”
Another way that the league keeps parents and players dedicated to it is its competitive balance. FCKLL manages to find a niche between intense, results-fueled leagues that place a high value on wins and losses (such as Vienna’s Little League) and an overly nonchalant league that’s not tied to the concept of winning and losing and doles out trophies to every kid on the team (such as Arlington’s Little League). Kiwanis players learn to understand that winning is fun and losing isn’t, but a win won’t cause parents to spend oodles of cash on specialized training and a loss won’t cause them to berate their own children.
Hansen explains that the league has made this intentional. At the league’s highest level, known as the Majors, FCKLL mandated a previously optional clause known as the continuous batting order. Essentially, the clause allows Majors teams to substitute in their best hitters after every player had their required one at-bat. In the essence of fairness, the Kiwanis stuck with the clause to ensure that players didn’t feel excluded from the action once their at-bat had passed.
It’s little things like that have allowed FCKLL to keep perspective on what it is even when the stakes for winning and losing became greater. The Kiwanis rose to their highest-heights in 2005 and 2006 when their 11-12 Majors team, FC Red, won the Virginia’s District 4 in back-to-back seasons and earned a chance to compete for the state’s Little League title. The summer of 2005 was FCKLL’s better of the two seasons, and when they were knocked out of the state tournament by Dulles Little League with a walk-off single at the bottom of the sixth, it rocked the players’ young worlds. That was until the late Frank Solomon, the team’s coach, was able to reset their minds with some tactful postgame words.
“The best speech I heard was from Frank Solomon, who loved baseball and loved working with kids. After we lost the game at states, some of the kids were weepy and parents were a bit shocked themselves,” former FCKLL Publicity Chair, parent and current Falls Church City Councilman, Phil Duncan said. “Frank said, ‘Alright come on guys. It’s a beautiful day. It was a great game we played but we didn’t win. So we’re gonna get up, go grab some ice cream and it’s gonna be alright. Nothing to be ashamed of here.’ Within an hour everyone was cuttin’ it up, having a big time. And we remembered that’s why we’re doing this — we’re creating a community.”
That attitude is what defines success for the Kiwanis. Sure they’ve produced some quality talents — Peter Schourek pitched in the major league from 1991 to 2001 for the Mets, Reds, Pirates and Red Sox and was the runner-up for the National League Cy Young award in 1995. Joe Saunders was another pitcher who made it to the big leagues. Other FCKLL alumni such as Michael Evans, Chris Meador and Logan Nesson went on to play collegiately. But those talents would’ve never been cultivated had it not been for an entirely volunteer-run organization that puts its members’ well being ahead of anything else.
For former assistant coach, head coach and board member, Neal Comstock, the Kiwanis have been able to prosper for so long because they’re good at the main thing every league needs to get right: encouraging people to sign up year after year. Part of that is due to a well manicured parity on the field, and it’d be remiss to not mention how influential the arrival of the Washington Nationals in 2005 was to the enrollment of all area Little League teams. Still, that sense of belonging FCKLL has been so proficient at fostering can’t be disputed, and it doesn’t just apply to parents and players who make up the league.
“On Sunday afternoon, every Majors team plays a game against a team with special needs, called the Sluggers,” Comstock said. “I know it’s not unique to [FCKLL], but it’s something that has always been done here in Falls Church and it’s a terrific experience for both the boys on the Majors team as well as the kids on the Sluggers team.”
The Kiwanis have concocted a secret sauce of competitive balance, inspiration that leads to dedicated involvement and established meaning that extends beyond the diamond for the past 70 years. If they stay true to themselves, the next 70 years will only get better for Little League in Falls Church.