Pendleton Babe Ruth baseball league representatives and Pendleton High baseball coaches came to an agreement this week in an attempt to revive the once-booming early teen baseball league that has fallen on hard times.
Babe Ruth baseball, a stepping stone between Little League and the high school game, is for boys ages 13 to 15. The number of players at this level has been shrinking for years and, correspondingly, the level of play has diminished, said Bill Zyph, district commissioner for Babe Ruth in northeast Oregon.
“Babe Ruth is hurting as the 15-year olds moved on to Legion baseball, and even more so as 14-year olds are going, too,” Zyph said at a meeting of the interested parties Monday in Pendleton.
Whitten added that though the high school will redirect once Legion-worthy players to Babe Ruth, the coaches will not take sole blame for the league’s current state.
The second key for Pendleton is bringing kids back to the sport, Whitten said. Previously, as 14- and 15-year olds were being plucked from the Babe Ruth ranks for Legion teams, other players were feeling unwanted and dropping the game altogether.
“We screwed it down to only 15 kids who thought they had a chance to play in high school,” Russ Hensell said at the baseball meeting. “At 12 years old.”
Hensell said the issues in Pendleton started about seven years ago when more competitive travel teams started cropping up and taking the best players out of Babe Ruth. The exclusive teams were taking the all-stars and leaving everybody else feeling empty, he said. Hensell helped start a travel team when his son was at the Babe Ruth age, and he said he’s not sure he would have done things the same given the repercussions.
“It was the trend, but it’s been very damaging,” Hensell said.
The movement extends beyond Pendleton as Babe Ruth disappeared from Hermiston last year and other Eastern Oregon communities like The Dalles have seen equally deflating numbers.
When so many young players quit early, high school teams miss out on late bloomers, talented kids that don’t show it until later than age 13 or 14, said Bob Lemmon of Hermiston, a former district commissioner of Babe Ruth. Kids don’t get the chance to develop and high schools end up with small rosters, like Pendleton’s 11-player freshman class last season.
Pendleton must take any steps it can to avoid having its youth baseball program following in Hermiston’s footsteps, Lemmon said.
“Pendleton is one of the lasts of the Mohicans,” said Lemmon, who handed the reins of the district commissioner’s office over to Bill Zyph about five years ago. “They’ve been hanging in there. But it’s real sad to see what’s happened everywhere else.”
Pendleton Babe Ruth will try and boost its registration by offering a mid-range field size for 13-year olds. The jump from Little League fields — 46 feet from mound to home with 60-foot base paths — to the regulation-sized 65-foot mound-to-home distance and 90-foot base paths is often overwhelming for first-year players. Pendleton can easily amend its available fields to a 55-foot mound-to-home distance with 75-foot base paths, Zyph said. The change could encourage more players to come out for Babe Ruth.
The field shift will only occur for half the season as a transition period before larger tournaments later in the summer, Zyph added.