TEMPLE TERRACE — Fewer kids these days are playing Temple Terrace Little League and PONY League baseball.
Many of the stellar players have been drawn away to "travel ball'' teams, groups that play teams throughout the region, not just the neighborhood. And unlike in Little League and PONY — those traditional bastions of all-inclusive youth baseball — travel ball coaches don't have to take every kid who wants to play.
It's not a trend that the city recreation department and some City Council members welcome. But the popularity of travel ball is a fact they have to reckon with as they try to get the most use out of their 10 baseball fields, five currently set aside for Little League and five for PONY League during their spring and fall seasons.
The fields are being underused, said Bill Martin, speaking at a recent council meeting. He represents Sports 2 Serve, a nonprofit company that wants to take over the five PONY League fields at the city complex on U.S. 301 for travel ball tournaments and practice.
"To put it in perspective, Temple Terrace has more fields committed to two very undermanned — as far as participation — baseball leagues than the Yankees have for their whole (Tampa) complex, including spring training, their developmental leagues and the Tampa Yankees,'' Martin said.
Sports 2 Serve, founded by Temple Terrace resident Steve Richards, has offered to pay the city $18,000 a year to have exclusive use of the fields that are now reserved during spring and fall for PONY League teams. Richards said the company plans to donate money raised through travel ball tournaments to Temple Terrace charities, such as the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry at Corpus Christi Catholic Church.
Little League and PONY pay according to how many kids they have in their programs. Last year, PONY paid the city about $12,000, said Michelle Edelmann, vice president of Temple Terrace's PONY League program.
She said it's unfair that an organization with more money to offer might dislodge her players from their traditional venue.
"They want to kick all my children out of the park and turn it into a travel ball tournament and baseball academy park,'' she said.
Council member Alison Fernandez, who said her sons have played in both Little League and PONY League programs in Temple Terrace, said she wants to make sure that all kids in the community who want to play baseball can play.
While allowing that she is no fan of travel ball, she suggested that Little League and PONY could play on the same fields by making adjustments to account for the change in distances between bases and from the pitcher's mound to home plate.
Council members instructed leisure services director James Chambers to meet with the various leagues, propose contracts that are fair and equitable to all, and report back.
Karl Langefeld, director of the parks and recreation division, said in an interview that adjustments could be made so that fields could be adapted for Little League or PONY play, though it would not be ideal. The problem comes in having pitching rubbers built in different positions on the mound; a ball hitting a forward rubber could bounce errantly and injure the pitcher, he said.
Both he and Chambers say travel ball has had a sharp negative impact on the recreation department in the past decade.
"We don't like travel ball, either, as a recreation department,'' Chambers said. "I'm seeing what it has done to our league play.''
Little League was down to 104 players last season from a high of more than 300 in years past, he said. PONY, which once drew more than 250 players, was down to 87.
Each child who signs on with Little League or PONY pays a fee to the recreation department, so the lost players mean lost revenue for the city.
Contact Philip Morgan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.