After more than 40 years in Ottawa, Babe Ruth League baseball appears to be heading for a permanent seat in the dugout.
Following the latest chapter in an on-going boundary dispute regarding players’ eligibility, the league board’s vice president said the 43-year-old Ottawa tradition will disband before the 2013 summer season. And while he’s disappointed at the plans, Ben Evans said aspiring George Bretts or Billy Butlers need not fear a lack of competition in Ottawa, Evans added.
“I think it’s very sad ... [The] decision affects a whole, entire baseball community,” Evans, who either has coached or served as a board member in the Ottawa league for seven years, said. “[The plan affects] not just the kids that are signed up now, but the younger kids that didn’t even know what was going on, and their coaches.”
A 14-member coalition of the board and some coaches voted 8-4 Friday to dissolve the league, Evans said, noting the boundary issue as the body’s keystone reason for disbanding the group. According to National Babe Ruth League guidelines, Ottawa league players must live within the taxpaying boundary of the Ottawa school district. While the Ottawa league previously had allowed children outside the district to play, Evans said it left the league liable for potential insurance claims and lawsuits.
Such was the case about five years ago, Evans said, when an out-of-district player was injured. Ever since, he said, the boundary issue has grown more divisive.
“For quite a few years, we’ve had issues with people trying to play that knowingly lived outside those boundaries,” Evans said, adding that the league provides games for 9- to 15-year-old youth. “Years ago, [out-of-district athletes] were allowed to play, and nothing ever came about it. ... ”
“About five or six years ago, there was a child that played Babe Ruth baseball here. He did not live within the boundaries and then got injured, so our insurance didn’t cover it,” Evans said. “Then there was the big deal of people threatening lawsuits and stuff like that. Ever since then, this boundary issue has been a bigger and bigger challenge each year.”
Seven children from outside the district had hoped to play Ottawa Babe Ruth baseball this summer, Evans said.
“I don’t want to tell a kid that they can’t play baseball here. I really don’t want to do that,” Evans said. “But the big picture is that the decision affected more than just seven kids. ... Babe Ruth has been in Ottawa for about 45 years, one of the longest Babe Ruth leagues in the state of Kansas, to my knowledge.”
The Ottawa league also has faced recent hurdles in enrollment. Ottawa children fielded about six teams in the league five years ago, whereas only three teams represented the city last year.
“Years ago it was way different,” Evans said, adding that about 150 players enrolled in the league this year. “Compared to where it used to be, the numbers are definitely down.”
Most teams in Ottawa already had begun practicing for the May 21 Babe Ruth season opener, Evans said, and some teams even had purchased hats and gear. Fortunately though, for those athletes still interested in playing summer baseball, the Ottawa Recreation Commission is planning to offer a league, Evans said.
The season for the ORC league is set to begin a week before Memorial Day, Tommy Sink, the ORC’s director, said. While much of the league’s details are yet to be settled, Sink said there’s still going to be youth baseball in Ottawa.
“We’re going to flow back into a recreation format, and all kids are welcome,” Sink said Monday. “We don’t have any boundaries that we have to go by so all kids are welcome to come play. We’ll put them on teams, and we’ll play ball.”
Sink said the ORC might offer an all-star game or a post-season tournament. While different, Sink said area families still can look forward to sunflower seeds, sunscreen and sunny days at the ball park
“We don’t know how we’re going to format it, because it all just happened Friday,” Sink said. “We’re still trying to work through the information. But baseball is still in Ottawa.”
The biggest change between the two league formats will be post-season play, Sink said. Traditionally, the Babe Ruth League’s post-season play consisted of several all-star, age-specific teams that would play into regional and then state tournaments.
Loren Stewart, Ottawa Babe Ruth League board president, said he was disappointed with the situation — in large part because the all-star trail would no longer be available. A former Babe Ruth League all-star, Stewart said he still has his all-star team’s hat at his Ottawa home.
“The all-star trail is a big deal to a lot of kids ... There’s an awful lot of history that’s basically not going to be continued — a lot of good memories,” Stewart, Ottawa, said of the league’s post-season play, adding that he’s confident in the ORC’s ability to offer quality programs. “Personally, I would have liked to see us continue through this year, and then revisit next year. ... I’m sure the ORC is going to do what they can and do a good job of picking this up where we left off and have a good season. ... I do hope we can keep moving forward, and that all these programs can still take steps forward in development and in providing a top-notch program for kids in the area.”