By Ilana Yergin
Nine and a half miles is all that separates Camden Yards and the baseball field that the Watersedge Marlins call home.
Maybe if they were a little bit farther away, the Orioles’ string of losing seasons wouldn’t be such an important factor in whether Dundalk youth want to play ball.
Today’s youth league players aren’t old enough to remember the last time the Orioles had a winning year. That’s one reason some Dundalk residents say they are struggling to get kids to play ball.
It isn’t that the kids who play baseball don’t love the sport. It’s that the league can’t even get new kids on the field in the first place.
“Our numbers are down,” said John Brummet, the baseball chairman for the Eastfield Recreation Council as well as an executive board member of the Dundalk-Eastfield Recreation Council.
“I’m talking about a rec program that normally would have 300 to 400 kids playing baseball is down to maybe 180, because more kids are apt to go play soccer year-round or lacrosse, rather than play baseball. And I think that stems from the fact that we have a losing team.”
Larry Shinaberry has been a baseball fanatic his entire life and easily passed on his love of playing the sport to his sons, Greg, 19, and Jared, 13. But watching the sport is a different story.
Shinaberry grew up playing in youth leagues in Watersedge and loved the Orioles. He remembers going to games and watching the greats play at Memorial Stadium. His father took him to free clinics held by Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson.
His devotion to the Orioles has endured through the bad times. He watches them play almost every day (albeit from home, not at the stadium), even when they’re the worst team in the league.
In spite of Shinaberry’s devotion, Jared just went to his first Orioles’ game.
Shinaberry, who has coached both boys, teaches his players that baseball isn’t about winning or losing. It’s about trying your best and having fun.
So why don’t Greg and Jared watch the Orioles?
“I don’t really follow,” says Greg. “I’d rather play than watch.”
“They see the players being aloof,” Shinaberry said.
“I was hoping my son [Jared] would be able to get an autograph,” at his first game. “He brought a baseball and he stood there for over an hour. Players walked by him left and right.”
Today’s kids aren’t growing up making the same kinds of memories that Shinaberry has of the major leagues. Gone are the days of baseball legends teaching free clinics and players routinely greeting fans.
“It’s become specialized to those that can afford it,” he says in reference to the clinics taught by the Ripken family and other major-leaguers.
He’s especially concerned about how the major league players’ attitudes will influence kids. Shinaberry recalls that in a recent game Brian Roberts hit the ball weakly, and Shinaberry thinks he didn’t put in much effort trying to get to first base.
“If one of my kids had done that, I would have pulled them off to the side and said, ‘Next time you hit the baseball I want to see you running to first place, not just jogging,” he said.
“How can I tell my kids, ‘Okay, I want you to hustle,’ when they see players making millions of dollars not hustling.”
Brummet has also seen how important professional sports can be to local youth leagues.
“I remember when the Colts left,” he said. At the time, in the southeast neighborhoods of Baltimore County, every recreation organization had a football program.
“When the Colts left town that gradually dropped to an area having eight or nine football programs to having two, and those two were struggling.”
He’s seen the football programs grow since professional football returned to Baltimore.
In addition to being the baseball chairperson for the league, Brummet owns Jock City Sports and prints many of the uniforms for the local youth teams. He says he sees people coming in the store looking for soccer uniforms and gear much more than for baseball. He attributes at least part of the decline in youth baseball players to the fact that the Orioles are not doing well.
But not everyone agrees.
Mark Hyman, a former youth baseball coach and president of the Roland Park baseball league as well as author of “Until It Hurts,” a book about youth sports in America, doesn’t think that professional sports play a significant role in the recreation league world.
“Little kids playing baseball are playing for reasons having little or nothing to do with the winning percentage of professional league in town,” he said. “My teams were always concerned about whether we got glazed or jelly donuts.”
Hyman remembers being very involved in baseball as a child. His father was his coach, just as Hyman coached his two boys, Ben, 22, and Eli, 19. When the boys were babies, Hyman dressed them in Orioles onesies. He signed them up for tee-ball as soon as they were old enough.
The boys were surrounded by baseball so much that “Tony Fernandez” and “Cal Ripken” were among the first words Ben ever said.
The Orioles’ losing streak hasn’t made it difficult for Hyman to keep his sons interested in the game. In fact, he thinks that the worse the team is, the more he and Ben talk about them.
But they’re die-hard fans.
In the world of Baltimore youth baseball, tee-ball teams draw the largest number of players. As kids get older, the numbers go down and teams are left with the Shinaberrys and Hymans: True Orioles families that will support the team win or lose.
“I love the Orioles,” said Greg Shinaberry, even though he barely follows them. “They’re the home team.”