March 29, 2006 - I went to opening ceremonies for the Canyon Del Oro Little League on March 25 at James Kreigh Park with one mission: to find the pulse of today's Little League baseball and find out if it still is the same game I remember playing more than 15 years ago.
I wondered if this the same sport that I fell in love with at an early age idolizing the likes of George Brett, Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield, Cal Ripken Jr. and the late Kirby Puckett.
On the surface, what I found was a game suffering from sagging numbers. CDO Little League, for example, is down about 40 players for the second straight year, with 310 players.
But only kicking up some clay in the batter's box, however, the settling dust revealed a game where the quality of play is probably better than ever. The focus has just been altered.
To dissect this sport, my intentions and questions for the 35 kids ages 5-12, I polled were simple: Who is your favorite player and team, and do you collect baseball cards?
Their answers, for the most part, fell in line with the current trends of Major League Baseball. In other words, their answers went global. The big names among kids today were the St. Louis Cardinals' Albert Pujols, the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez and the Arizona Diamondbacks' Luis Gonzalez.
The majority of the players named by the kids were of Latino descent, including Alfonso Soriano and Miguel Tejada. Three of those five players played for the Dominican Republic during this winter's inaugural World Baseball Classic, which was devoid of the United States in the semifinals.
The Diamondbacks checked in as the No. 1 team among the CDO Little Leaguers. Now that Arizona has had a Major League team for eight years, kids are given more of an opportunity to watch first-class baseball up close. The detractor there, of course, is the 100-mile drive through the desert. But the games are on television, for those whose Big Wheels couldn't handle the trip.
It used to be, for many of the kids who grew up in the pre-Diamondbacks era, finding a MLB team to get behind was difficult. Many of them became Atlanta fans simply because the Braves, who play all their games on national television, were the only option.
To my dismay, a handful of kids had no favorite player and/or team.
This I attributed to the possibility of several factors.
Kids are simply disinterested in Major League Baseball. The obvious answer is that they are content to spend their idle time in front of a video game or watching a different more flashy sport. The NBA and NFL easily outdraw MLB when it comes to ratings.
At the risk of sounding like someone's grandfather at the age of 29, kids and baseball cards have changed since I was a pup. The best way to know your players was to recluse yourself for an hour or two with your baseball cards. But even the cards have changed, destroyed by "collectors" who'd rather not open the pack out of fear of lessening its value.
The hobby, or lack thereof, was evident in the kids' answers. Only a handful admitted they collect them. Perhaps, they turn to the Internet and the world of fantasy baseball to feed their hardball appetite.
So the sport has changed. All of them must in order to survive. The quality of play is still strong and the lack of kids in the CDO Little League can be attributed to many factors, one perhaps being an excess of leagues throughout the Northwest and Foothills.
Each year, the area continues to put out solid baseball programs starting with Little League teams that challenge for the right to go to Williamsport, Pa. for the Little League World Series up to the local high schools - fueled by former Little Leaguers - which annually battle for the state's supremacy on the diamond.
What I found is, the game remains the same. It's just dressed in a different wrapper.