The magic of youth baseball fields has ushered in dreams for generations of boys and girls.
Nostalgic as a Norman Rockwell painting, the idea of wide-eyed kids trying to re-create the larger-than-life plays of their major-league idols screams America.
But the quest to turn those young wanna-bes into big-time players has created a divide on the Hillsborough County youth baseball landscape. Whereas nearly every park once played under the banner of Little League Inc., now multiple parks have turned to a different sanctioning body: Cal Ripken Baseball.
Proponents of Cal Ripken, a youth baseball organization founded by the baseball Hall of Famer, argue the league gives its players a better opportunity to transition from the tiny dimensions of youth baseball to the expanse of full-size baseball diamonds.
Bloomingdale, East Bay, FishHawk, North Brandon, Lutz and New Tampa have recently switched formats to Cal Ripken, citing the larger dimensions of Cal Ripken fields as a primary reason.
"We're trying to get these kids as ready for real baseball as best as possible," Lutz Baseball League president Dave Crawford said.
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Little League has been the gold standard of youth baseball for the better part of a century. Now in its 75th year, Little League remained mostly unchallenged during much of that stretch.
"When I played, Little League was really the only game in town," Lutz Baseball League board member Rick Parker said.
The advantage allowed Little League to stamp its brand on all corners of the globe. It's estimated that 2.5 million kids play Little League in 90 countries worldwide. ESPN/ABC televises all major division World Series games, Little League's showcase event, as well as many of the regional championship games.
"Little League continues to be the largest and most respected youth sports organization in the world," director of media relations Brian McClintock said. "As we turn 75, it's safe to say Little League will always be relevant because teaching kids lessons and bringing communities together will always be relevant."
And with Little League's massive scope, it's hard to imagine the brand being irrelevant.
But Cal Ripken continues to gain momentum, especially in Hillsborough County.
"(Switching to Cal Ripken) wasn't an easy decision," Crawford said. "But we found Cal Ripken's model for teaching the game met the desires of the families at our park."
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The biggest difference between Cal Ripken and Little League lies in just a few steps. In the major division, Cal Ripken's pitching distance is 50 feet and the bases are 70 feet apart (compared with 46 and 60 feet, respectively, in Little League). Referred to as 50/70 play, this allows base runners to lead off, stealing is permitted and pitchers work out of the stretch with runners on base.
Cal Ripken implemented this at the 11-12 age group to help players transition to standard baseball fields that feature a 60-foot pitching distance and 90-foot base paths.
"Essentially, Cal Ripken operates under the same rules as travel ball, which a lot of advanced players are already playing," said Nathan Walden, parent of an 11-year-old at North Brandon. "It's preparing them more for the jump to the big fields."
Cal Ripken also allows more flexibility in terms of residential district zones, according to Parker.
"When we were still Little League we tried, unsuccessfully in most cases, to get a waiver for a kid whose parents may have just gotten divorced and they moved just out of our district," he said. "They were essentially disallowing expansion and our numbers were suffering.
"Dealing with them was like dealing with the Vatican."
Parker said Lutz, which switched over in January and now has a much larger district pool to draw from, has seen their numbers increase by about 20 percent for the spring season.
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At least 17 Hillsborough parks continue to play Little League Baseball.
Palma Ceia president Greg Jones said he favors the tighter districts and feels Little League "serves our families the best."
"Little League does have boundaries that the local leagues must comply with, but I feel that those boundaries also provide positives for local leagues," he said. "Boundaries ensure that kids oftentimes get to play baseball and softball with their friends, neighbors and schoolmates and it probably makes most local leagues more balanced with each other."
McClintock said that keeping tighter boundaries helps foster a community approach.
"We feel it's important to bring neighborhoods together to support the children in their communities, and give an outlet, not only to players, but to parents as well, to come together and make lifelong friends and lasting memories," he said. "The lessons learned on the Little League field go beyond the fundamentals of the game.
"The wins and losses are not the most important thing. It's teaching all involved in the program the values of teamwork and sportsmanship."
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Cal Ripken Baseball also promotes the intangible aspects of the game. Its site is dotted with mantras about sportsmanship and learning to play "the right way, the Ripken Way."
Little League has made an effort of late to address some of the points Cal Ripken has used in luring players. Little League adopted a 50/70 Intermediate division, separate from their traditional major division, for an 11-13 age group and hosted its inaugural World Series last season.
Little League has also eased their tight districting policy, permitting kids to play at a Little League whose boundaries incorporate a school where that child attends, even if that child resides out of the league's boundaries.
"All of this is a step in the right direction by (Little League)," Crawford said. "But it may be a little too late for some people."
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Bobby Greer coaches his two sons at South Brandon, which remains affiliated with Little League. He has heard rumblings around the park that South Brandon might be the next to make the jump to Cal Ripken.
"I heard (South Brandon) was very close when Bloomingdale made the switch," said Greer, who sons are 5 and 8. "But for my age kids it really doesn't matter all that much."
But that's about to change. Greer's 8-year-old will play in the 9-10 division next season with the major division right around the corner. And Greer, like many other parents throughout the county, will soon be faced with a tough decision.
"Do I think Little League holds kids back because of all their restrictions? Yes," he said. "A lot of my friends have left this park and when my oldest moves up next year, we're going to have to think long and hard about it."
Brandon Wright can be reached at [email protected]