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A LITTLE LEAGUE FIGHTS TO STAY ALIVE

The new Meadowlawn leader's idea for spring: free baseball.

Meadowlawn Little League was dying.

Participation waned. Weeds took over the infield dirt. Players were jumping to rival leagues.

By the time the 2007 spring season ended, there were fewer than 50 kids wearing Meadowlawn jerseys, and that included baseball and softball. If no action was taken, Meadowlawn would be another Little League casualty, like local leagues Pinellas Park American and Thunderdome before it.

Tom Carson, a Meadowlawn past president and board member from 1975 to 2004, had had enough. He wasn't going to let his league fade away.

In August, Carson stepped back into the picture. He called a meeting with the remaining board members to elect a new board of directors. Twenty-five people attended. R.J. Huff was ousted as president, as were other members of the board.

Chuck Accetta became league president, Carson a trustee.

"(Huff) ran the league into the ground,'' Carson said. "It's the oldest chartered Little League in the area (1949). I didn't want to see the league go to pot.''

Huff, who was president at Meadowlawn from 2005-07, said he tried to keep the league afloat, but it was an uphill battle. He said he needed more volunteers, especially because the field was not owned by the city of St. Petersburg and the league needed to maintain it.

"For a lot of the parents, Little League was just a babysitting service,'' said Huff, who is not currently with any other youth league. "About 80 percent of our parents would just drop the kids off and pick them up two hours later. It's hard to run a league when the parents aren't involved.''

Carson thinks he can get the players back. During the 2007 fall season, Meadowlawn offered baseball for $25 and had 26 participants.

His idea for the spring season: free baseball.

Carson put up signs and made a flier touting free signups at Meadowlawn. He put the fliers in local elementary schools and took out an ad in the St. Petersburg Times.

In order to make the league free, Carson had to come up with some money. He estimates the cost per player is $125, which includes insurance and uniforms. With 50 kids currently signed, that's $6,250 that needs to be covered.

He solicited donations from two local McDonald's, which came through with $1,000 each. The rest of the money comes from Carson. He said 5 percent of sales from his water purification business, as well as fundraisers from his other team, the St. Petersburg Hurricanes travel softball team, will help fund Meadowlawn this season. He will also solicit other local businesses for sponsorships. Registration continues today and Saturday at the complex behind Lynch Elementary. There is no online registration.

With only 50 kids, Carson said it is likely his league will play games against neighboring Pinellas Park or Northeast during the 2008 spring season.

"We had to decide what to do,'' Carson said. "The first thing we decided is that it should be done for free. We want to get the kids back in the league. Our goal is to get the younger kids, the T-ballers, then build from there.''

That's exactly what Fossil Park's Dizzy Dean league did to build its numbers. Fossil Park sits across Dr. M.L. King Jr. Street in the same area as Meadowlawn. As Meadowlawn faded, Fossil Park thrived. Huff thinks the emergence of Fossil Park and other nearby leagues spelled doom for Meadowlawn.

"You have all these leagues around us,'' Huff said. "You have Dizzy Dean at Fossil Park, where they don't have the boundaries and safeguards that Little League has. You have Pony league down the road at Pinellas Park. I don't think it's just Meadowlawn that is suffering with this. It's all Little League.''

Dizzy Dean plays by slightly different rules on the field, and they aren't restricted by zones, as Little League is. Players can come from anywhere to play in the Dizzy Dean league.

Fossil Park has about 650 kids signed up for baseball and softball, according to president Jerry Guidice. Fossil Park and Meadowlawn have co-existed for 50 years, when Fossil Park started in 1958, but during the past few years, Fossil Park has crushed Meadowlawn in participation numbers.

"It looks right now like we only have three less kids registered from last year,'' Guidice said. "From now until the season starts I'm sure we'll have some late registrants. So our numbers look pretty good.''

Registration fees at Fossil Park are $85, or $80 per player for families with two or more players. Guidice said free baseball might lure some kids away from Fossil Park, but he thinks Dizzy Dean is a better brand of baseball.

"I'm somewhat concerned, but we've co-existed for 50 years,'' Guidice said. "I'm sure there will be some people who will want to play Little League, especially at the T-ball and minor levels. At 6 or 7 years old, parents want to do (Little League) for fun. But once people realize the competition levels aren't the same, they all seem to come over to us anyway.''

That's where Carson and others on the Meadowlawn board of directors have a tough sell. In order to stay afloat, they must keep kids playing in the league through age 12.

"We just want to build from here,'' Carson said. "If we can get a good number of T-ballers, then hopefully we can keep them in the league. If we have to be free for another couple of years, then we'll do it.''

Huff said he has no ill will toward Meadowlawn, but he knows the league is facing a challenge.

"I hope they can bring it back,'' Huff said. "I don't want to see any Little League go away. But it's an uphill battle. A very uphill battle.''

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